Q&A with Riley Griffin ’18, Bloomberg U.S. Healthcare Reporter
In this interview with the alumni network DukeJournos, Riley Griffin '18 shares insights from her career in journalism, from the challenges of reporting during the pandemic to the rewarding aspects of storytelling. “It’s an honor to be able to bring my readers into the room with me,” she says.
As a U.S. Healthcare Reporter for Bloomberg News, what have been the greatest challenges of the last two years?
My greatest challenge has been navigating the relentless pace of the pandemic news cycle. The core of my reporting has focused on the development of COVID-fighting vaccines and treatments, and Pfizer, J&J, Lilly and other drugmakers are sharing new trial data, seeking regulatory clearances and reaching supply agreements on a daily basis. That’s left me producing 400 stories over the past two years! Though it’s been difficult to balance the bread-and-butter breaking news with long-form enterprise, it’s forced me to become speedier on deadline.
On the flip side, what has been the most rewarding aspect of the work you do?
What a privilege it is to tell the stories of the people involved in fighting this virus: critical care nurses, infectious disease doctors, national and local health officials, school administrators, religious leaders — the list goes on. They’ve shared a kaleidoscope of perspectives and been strikingly vulnerable. Last week, for example, I had the opportunity to embed with the U.S. Army at an overwhelmed and understaffed Newark hospital. Standing alongside the troops in the ICU — looking upon the sickest of COVID patients, hearing their vital signs vocalized through machines — I felt a real sense of duty, too. It’s an honor to be able to bring my readers into the room with me; to be able to tell a sliver of history.
Which COVID-specific piece of yours has made the biggest splash and why?
This year, I was excited to have my first Bloomberg Businessweek cover story, “Covid Can Make Kids Very Sick. Why Aren’t More Being Vaccinated?” The feature actually led me to Durham, where I visited schools that were among the first to roll out COVID vaccines to kids. Parents had been so hungry for information on the pediatric shots, and we captured their attention right before the school year ramped back up. The feature got picked up by Apple News and its podcast, NYT Opinion, trade publications, and TV shows. In this case, I think timing was everything. My colleague Suzi Ring and I had worked on the piece for several months, but it came together just as kids were headed back into the classroom and the debate about mandates was just heating up.
As a reporter covering pharmaceutical companies and the breakneck development of drugs and vaccines to combat COVID-19, do you have any projections or predictions for what we are going to see in the next year? What sort of trends have made themselves apparent?
The pandemic has inadvertently opened the doors to a whole new field of medicine. Remember, Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are based on a new technology known as messenger RNA. Since mRNA proved a powerful tool against this infectious disease, the drug industry is now scrambling to apply it to other things, like the flu, cancer, and rare diseases. I think we’ll see a lot of money deployed to companies that are seeking to harness the messaging power of cells.
Any advice to budding journalists?
Get comfortable with silence during interviews. There’s a human urge to fill that dead space — and when you’re speaking with sources, they will almost always act on that urge. What you’ll learn, if you’re quiet at the right moment, will be totally unexpected.
While at Duke as an undergrad, you worked with novelists and historians, including Jon Meacham. How did you find your way to this work and how has it influenced how you approach your career in journalism?
Before I was a writer or reporter, I was a reader. I love stories. Fiction, non-fiction, prose or poetry: it doesn’t matter. I think most journalists are that way. We’re drawn to characters and their quirks. We look for a narrative. I learned a lot about storytelling from those internships, just as I did from my English classes, which left me in Perkins late at night with Dante’s The Divine Comedy and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
I’m still learning. Writing and reporting are hard, even painful, but reading helps. Not just reading books or articles, but reading rooms. I’ll sit down alone at a coffee shop or a bar and scribble about what’s in front of me. It’s meditative. I hope it’ll improve my craft.