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Pulitzer Center Update April 30, 2024

In Conversation with Amy Maxmen


The Central African Republic is in the midst of one of the world’s worst, acute humanitarian crises...

This report was originally published in McGill's Perspectives on Global Health blog.


A group of students with Amy Maxmen
Science journalist Amy Maxmen, third from left, with the editorial boards of the McGill Journal of Global Health and Perspectives. Image courtesy of Perspectives.

Amy Maxmen, a science journalist with a background in evolutionary biology, visited McGill University to teach a seminar class for Dr. Madhu Pai about misinformation and navigating scientific uncertainty. Through the efforts of McGill’s Global Health Programs, the editorial boards of McGill’s Blog, Perspectives, and Journal of Global Health were welcomed to a breakfast meeting with Amy to discuss science journalism, career paths, health inequity, and publishing. 

In our conversation, it quickly became apparent that Amy loves traveling. 

Her passion for travel is a byproduct of her curiosity, a skill that has led her to many of her award-winning stories published in prominent outlets such as The New York Times, Nature and National Geographic. Being in new places has allowed her to not only communicate with a diverse range of people, but also to gain exposure to the environment of the issues she is investigating. Despite otherwise being an introvert, Amy describes her passion for learning first-hand through people: “I just like to go and talk to as many different people as possible.” 

These skills, combined with an interest in malaria, led her to explore drug resistance to malaria in 2018, a project that received a first-place prize from the Association of Health Care Journalists. She noticed that chloroquine-resistance instigated in Southeast Asia, around the Thailand-Cambodia border and now, resistance towards newer treatments such as artemisinin combination therapies were beginning in the same place again. This sparked Amy’s curiosity and provoked the question: “Why would this happen in the same place twice?” After covering malaria in shorter individual news stories prior to this project, she knew that “now this is a feature.” 

Beyond asking big questions, many of Amy’s other stories have been inspired by smaller interactions and even individuals. This approach has been integral to how she communicates stories, particularly, the value of an effective angle, one that engages readers and serves to promote empathy. Amy highlighted the “anecdotal lead” — a strategy to focus in on a particular person or aspect of the story before expanding. As Amy describes, “in global health, you cover diseases or issues that don’t affect everyone equally” and as a result, one may be faced with the challenge of “how can people not care about this horrible problem?” In a barrage of issues in global health, the onus is on the writer to tell a story that people are compelled to hear and respond to. 

However, journalism is not without its dangers. 

There is an inherent risk to being a journalist in the 21st century; while online platforms have expanded the reach of journalists in communicating information, they have also proliferated harassment and misinformation. Amy touched on this disquiet with us. “I have definitely been harassed and I’m sure there’s an extra layer of harassment because I’m a woman, but if I was a woman of color, it might be even worse. And what I’ve experienced has been bad and shocking to me, but there have also been journalists that have gotten so much worse, journalists in other countries that have been afraid for their lives.” 

With some guidance from a friend and fellow journalist, Bethany Brookshire, Amy developed strategies to help navigate these challenges that she shared with us. Above all, Amy recommended “to pause before you do anything — whether it’s to a phishing attempt, or in the case of harassment, to not go with your first reaction.” Allowing time for reflection gives you space to be strategic and think about why you want to respond. You can ask yourself questions such as: “Is it because somebody said something inaccurate, and you want to correct them? Is it because somebody is damaging your reputation and you want to set the record straight? Also, what is the likelihood of you achieving that goal [by replying]?” Through this process, it is easier to identify when clarification may be helpful versus responding to people who are not open to a discussion. Amy highly encouraged talking with colleagues and asking them “what if I say this?” This will provide a sense of what kind of reaction you can reasonably expect and whether the response you received is targeted harassment. Beyond acute measures, Amy emphasized the importance of reporting harassment in order to stop abuse perpetuating. Unfortunately, online harassment is a reality of having a presence, often ensuing from misinformation or misdirection of anger. 

In spite of these ongoing challenges, Amy has told stories from around the globe and covered topics from infectious diseases to nutrition. Through reflection of her diverse experiences, Amy has observed a sense of relatedness. 

Her recent discussions with nurses and certified nursing assistants who were working in nursing homes and veterans homes during the COVID-19 pandemic reminded her of the interviews she had with nurses during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. As Amy replayed her tapes, she thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s the same thing, only this one is in the US, this one’s in Sierra Leone, but it’s the same!” Regardless of the separations of time and space between these outbreaks of disease, reflecting upon the individual interactions made it apparent that many of the persistent problems in global health are longstanding and connected. 

Ultimately, one of Amy’s main motivations as a writer is to push for systemic change addressing these core issues. As Amy remarked, many of “the biggest problems in health aren’t necessarily in the hospital” and require fundamental changes (for example, access to housing). Whether writing about a need for labor protections to protect health, discussing how legislature changes could boost vaccine production, or describing how stronger social safety nets could improve health outcomes in the US, Amy’s experience has taught her that these issues require “more people writing about those things and more people pushing for those things.” And while that may take a long time, she is driven by a “love to be a part of that conversation” by using her voice as a journalist.


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