Coronavirus: Behind the Chinese Bio Lab story

Behind the Headlines

Yahoo News national security and investigations reporter Jenna McLaughlin published a story last week, under the headline ‘Intelligence officials weigh possibility coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab’, reporting that “Although the U.S. intelligence community early on dismissed the notion that the coronavirus is a synthesized bioweapon, it is still weighing the possibility that the pandemic might have been touched off by an accident at a research facility rather than by an infection from a live-animal market, according to nine current and former intelligence and national security officials familiar with ongoing investigations.”

The Cipher Brief asked McLaughlin to go behind the headlines with us to give us a sense of how the story came together. 

The Cipher Brief:  Can you describe how you came to the decision to publish your recent piece ‘Intelligence officials weigh possibility coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab’?

McLaughlin: Covering national security for more than five years, I’ve come to realize that the term “national security,” the umbrella, extends far and wide. It involves everything from the cultural diversity of the CIA to how advanced satellites track missile launches in North Korea through dense clouds and rocky terrain. But the umbrella as I previously understood it, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, flew out the window around March when WHO dubbed coronavirus a pandemic. Suddenly, there was a new lens through which to see and write about the world, and I knew I needed to seek out stories about how the intelligence community was handling it.

My early stories focused on explaining how the intelligence community was getting involved, digging into the nitty gritty, as is my favorite thing to do–writing about the National Center for Medical Intelligence, why intel officers were needed because Chinese officials were not being transparent about the outbreak as it spread. I kept in touch with sources and one remarked that they were surprised I wasn’t looking into the “lab accident” theory, which at that point, still sounded like a conspiracy theory to me. But I heard it from someone I trusted, and I decided to seek out more information. What’s odd is that everywhere I looked, and I ended up with over 9 sources, people of different backgrounds and expertise and social circles suggested that the lab accident theory was not necessarily probable–but it was possible. And it was being investigated. That was a solid piece of news to hold onto and I felt like my readers deserved to know what kind of possibilities our government is analyzing and investigating on their behalf.

The Cipher Brief: What was the journey like from the time you started looking into this, until you had finished? You have talked about being skeptical initially? Why and how was your perspective changed?

McLaughlin:  It all started with a conversation with a source I trust on something completely unrelated. Making note of the tip, I figured that it was at least worth looking into, but would require an extremely thorough reporting job. I cast a wide net of experts and sources with connections to the relevant expertise, ideally overlapping areas of expertise–intelligence, national security, China, epidemiology, public health, etc. I wanted to get a sense of what the White House was thinking, but I didn’t want the story to be colored by politics, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a baseless theory being pushed by politicians. Most importantly, I wanted to make sure I consulted scientists, and asked them deeply specific questions about what was actually possible versus impossible—ie. the possibility that China was building a bioweapon, which the science has ruled out, versus a natural sample accidentally leaving the lab–which still exists as a possibility. My perspective changed because of the abundance of varied, intelligent responses I got back.

Once I had reached nine sources, interviewed two scientists, spoke to a couple of additional outside experts, and read almost every story available on the issue, I felt like I might be ready to actually write something and make sure there weren’t any glaring holes in my research. I sat down to write the story on Monday, and I don’t think I moved all day, even to eat lunch. I knew it needed to be carefully crafted, and I wanted to avoid all the potential landmines I knew were lying in wait. I wanted to do as much as I could to answer the trolls I knew would surface as soon as I published. And the headline is always the toughest thing to choose–interesting enough and giving readers an understanding of what is actually new, but also not misleading and sensationalist. By the time we’d gone to everyone for comment Tuesday morning, it became a waiting game. So far, though I’ve had to fend off some trolls, I’ve been pleased with the story’s reception.

The Cipher Brief:  We’re living with a global pandemic right now, against a backdrop of shifting geopolitical circumstances, rapidly evolving technology that enables a myriad of complex asymmetric threats, and we’re living in an extremely hyper-partisan political environment.  You’ve talked about the work that goes into producing good journalism, and many have commented that it’s never been more important to have objective, fact-based reporting.  What are the unique challenges that journalists and reporters, especially those that cover national security face in our current time? 

McLaughlin:  I think the biggest challenge is that every single subject, no matter how previously mundane, has become intensely politically fraught. People are scared to talk to reporters and to say anything that might be out of line with what the President says. Technology is advancing and now we can’t even meet people in person anymore. These are scary times. But I think those of us who cover national security with such an intense focus have hopefully built up a reputation within the circles of people we cover and whose trust we seek, and sometimes those are useful bridges to new contacts. But even getting basic questions answered is truly like pulling teeth–particularly from official sources.

I often talk about how I like to approach a story from the side door–with a balanced level of interest and skepticism. I work my way inwards from the initial tip or initial question to something that feels tangible–a nugget of news, a piece of information that’s been smoothed and rounded through multiple layers of information. Then, I work extremely hard to turn that thing into a finished product. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The Cipher Brief:  What is most important to you about being a national security reporter?

McLaughlin:  I think the most important thing to me is telling important stories well, to put it simply. That involves a couple things. First, the story needs to provide something new or unique or interesting or strange or valuable. That might be a congressional inquiry into a whistleblowing complaint. It might be the compromise of a massive CIA covert communications system. Or it might be a story on NGA, an agency a lot of average readers (though not the Cipher Brief’s audience) barely knows exists, and how they’ve partnered with the private sector to publish North Korean satellite imagery in the interest of humanitarian research. It might be an open secret within a community, or something only a few people know. I usually recognize it when I see it. But once I do have that something to hold onto, the edges of the story, I desperately want to do a good job telling it–be artful and prosaic, drill the facts into the ground, not leave out any important context. Talk to the right experts. Write a good lede. And then, I want to get it into the eyeballs and inboxes of people who will read it and think about it. Ideally, even people who might tell me about the ‘next’ story.

 The Cipher Brief:  If you could go back in time ten years, what advice would you give yourself?

McLaughlin:  I think I’d tell myself to keep at it. Stay curious, stay nerdy. Read. Keep showing up. Check in on people. Be a good human. Be patient with yourself. The rest will follow.

Jenna McLaughlin is a national security and investigations reporter with Yahoo News.  Follow her on Twitter.

Read more expert-driven perspectives, opinions and analysis in The Cipher Brief


Behind the Headlines

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