How science journalists reported on the ‘story of our lifetime’

A science columnist for The New York Times spoke at NYU about the evolution of viruses and the importance of good communication with the public during health crises.


Arnav Binaykia

Carl Zimmer spoke at the event in Hemmerdinger Hall on Monday. (Arnav Binaykia for WSN)

John Kim, Staff Writer

Speaking to a group of more than 100 NYU students and professors, New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer chronicled his story as one of the world’s foremost science journalists reporting on the pandemic, from the very first article he wrote on the virus in March of 2020 to his extensive writing about vaccines, variants and origins in the three years since.

Zimmer, who spoke on Monday, March 20, lectured on the evolution of viruses — like HIV and influenza — and how biologists use concepts tracing back to Charles Darwin to understand how diseases develop. 

“That’s one of the challenges of science writing — you’re having to not just talk about what’s happening, but to bring along all these overlying concepts: epidemiology, immunology and evolution too,” Zimmer said. “It’s a coronavirus, it’s got the spike protein — which is the hallmark of coronaviruses — but this was a new one, so scientists were trying to figure out, how does it work?”

Zimmer writes the weekly science column “Matter” for The New York Times and is the author of fourteen science-related books. He was also part of the Times team that received a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for its coverage of the pandemic. He also wrote two textbooks that are widely used in university-level biology courses: “The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution” and “Evolution: Making Sense of Life.” He even has a tapeworm and asteroid named after him. 

During the talk, Zimmer briefly mentioned a tweet made by former president Donald Trump in April 2020, in response to an article Zimmer wrote that described how most of the initial COVID-19 cases in New York came from Europe. Trump claimed that the story was poorly sourced and described the piece as a way for the Times to get “back in” with China. Zimmer responded to the former president’s criticism, noting that he had checked his facts and named his sources — some of whom were from NYU.

The talk on Monday was a part of NYU’s Darwin Lecture series. Last year, the annual lecture was given by Margaret Riley, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who spoke about microbiology and the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Variants such as delta and omicron, the virus was changing at a pace too fast for vaccine developers to keep up, according to Zimmer. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines still play a signifcant role in preventing COVID-19-related deaths — and Zimmer stressed the importance of staying up to date on vaccinations.

“[COVID-19] reinfection was very rare at first, but now with omicron, it becomes quite common,” Zimmer said. “This evolution is affecting the vaccines and how they work.”

Zimmer said that one of the challenges of reporting on the pandemic was its ever-changing nature — information became outdated very quickly, as the virus, and what scientists knew about it, kept evolving. Misinformation and skepticism only exacerbated this problem.

“It’s a difficult thing to communicate to the public — ‘Hey, guess what, we’re all learning about this all at once,’” Zimmer said. “It’s not like [the scientists] were hiding the truth before and now it’s been exposed. This is an experiment in evolution that we’re watching play out across the world.”

Contact John Kim at [email protected].