Shari Rudavsky: Indianapolis Star Health & Medicine Reporter

 

Angela Tuell  00:05

Welcome to Media in Minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those who report on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes. Today we are excited to welcome Shari Rudavsky. Shari is a health and medicine reporter for the Indianapolis Star, a Gannett newspaper. She has been with the Star for 16 years and previous to that was a reporter at the Miami Herald. Shari is a graduate of Harvard University and a native of the Bronx. Hi, Shari. So happy to be talking with you today.

 

Shari Rudavsky  00:49

Delighted to be talking to you, Angela.

 

Angela Tuell  00:52

So I’ve asked several of our guests about the COVID effect, but didn’t want that to become you know, really a focal point of the podcast. But today is different. We must talk COVID. What a year to be a health and medicine reporter.

 

Shari Rudavsky  01:06

Yes, it’s been a busy year.

 

Angela Tuell  01:08

How have you managed the demand for information?

 

Shari Rudavsky  01:12

Well, certainly working some long days, and also being gifted to have, you know, to have the privilege of working in a newsroom where there is a lot of, a lot of people who’ve chipped in on the COVID story, which isn’t, which certainly does not stop at the medical side but reach its tentacles into all areas of people’s lives, whether that, you know, includes their financial, their housing, their educational experience, nursing home experiences.

 

Angela Tuell  01:43

At what point did you realize this pandemic was as serious and disruptive as it became?

 

Shari Rudavsky  01:49

Um, you know, I don’t know, if I, I certainly didn’t, didn’t think through all of the financial and economic impact implications of it. But back in January, in February, the CDC was having regular briefings for health journalists about what was going on in China. And back in February, I wrote a story interviewing an American teacher in a Chinese city, not Wu Han, I think there were very few cases of if any cases of COVID in the city where he was, but he was talking about the lockdown. And I just, you know, part of me thought, Oh, well, I am that that couldn’t happen here. At that time, he was a seventh grader son, he will attest to this when his school said, Okay, we’re going out now it’s the week before, I think it was the week before spring break. Maybe it was two weeks before we’ll be back after spring break. I looked at my seventh grader and I said, You know what, bring all your stuff home. You’re not coming back this year.

 

Angela Tuell  02:43

Oh, my goodness.

 

Shari Rudavsky  02:46

So I think I sort of knew that schools were going to be out for the duration. I certainly didn’t know

 

Angela Tuell  02:52

That was before everything was locked down. I mean, that’s before.

 

Shari Rudavsky  02:54

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. Yeah. But I figured that I, you know, I figured that the schools would be one of the areas where there would be the most disruption. I didn’t, I didn’t, as I said, I didn’t think through what it would mean for restaurants or, or, you know, all those other retail businesses.

 

Angela Tuell  03:13

Right. You know, information about COVID. And the vaccine has evolved as the science evolves around these. Has that made your job difficult?

 

Shari Rudavsky  03:22

No, that’s made my job, my job. I mean, that’s what health journalists do all the time. So it’s just a little bit, well, it’s different here in that this is completely new, and no one really knows anything about it. But that’s, you know, that’s when you cover Health and Science. I mean, science and medicine are always changing, and what they know or what they think they know. And I think that’s sometimes hard for people outside of those fields to understand, you know, you want to think that knowledge is kind of ossified or hardened. But I think it’s, it’s always in a sense of flux. And maybe that’s a useful message for all of us to be reminded about.

 

Angela Tuell  04:02

Yes, absolutely. What have been some of your most memorable stories during this time?

 

Shari Rudavsky  04:08

I mean, a lot of stories have been, have been really memorable. I mean, certainly talking to people who’ve been affected by it, who’ve had COVID, who had long COVID, whom you know, where you kind of keep on having symptoms after your acute infection passes. I spoke to one gentleman who had a lung transplant after he became infected with COVID, but also speaking to you know, speaking to all the tired doctors and nurses listening to our state health officials. Eventually, week after week before that little bit more often talking about the kind of tough decisions that they had to make all of these stories stand out in my mind.

 

Angela Tuell  05:00

I find it extraordinary that there’s always been vaccine hesitancy. You know, the mass debate raged right here in Indianapolis in 1918. So 100 years ago, and 100 years later, we’re in that same position. And today, we have more technology and information handy. Why do you think that a large percentage of people still struggle to accept and trust scientists and doctors?

 

Shari Rudavsky  05:22

Well, I think part of it is, is that science and medicine can change and what, you know, you think, you know, in one generation can change in the next. So if there’s something that makes you feel uncomfortable, you can look to that, that aspect of science and medicine and use that as an excuse, like, well, I don’t trust this now. Because in you know, and if 15 years or 10 years, they may tell us something completely different. I mean, I, I will be honest, and say I’m fully vaccinated. Everyone in my household who can be fully vaccinated is fully vaccinated. Um, but I can sort of understand the vaccine hesitancy a lot more readily than I could understand the max mask hesitancy.

 

Angela Tuell  06:10

Yeah.

 

Shari Rudavsky  06:10

I think, you know, I mean, I think people are sometimes wary about what they put in their bodies and our immune systems are miraculous mysterious things, which is what, you know, the obviously the vaccines work on and you know, it, I can understand, I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I can be empathetic towards someone who feels such discomfort that he or she is hesitant to get a vaccine. And then you know, and then there are people like I said, I mean, there are people, certain communities that have been, I don’t know, if I, well, there’s certain communities that have been mistreated by, by medicine in the past, certain communities that don’t feel that their voices are heard. Whether that be the black community, certain people in the black community, or I know there, there are a lot of white evangelicals, who are also hesitant about vaccines, again, there’s a kind of maybe a lack of trust. It becomes a harder entity for me to understand when you’re asking someone to put a piece of cloth over their mouth versus asking someone to put something inside their body. That’s new.

 

Angela Tuell  07:30

Right.  So how are you choosing which stories to run this COVID still rule? And or do you think there’s reader fatigue with that?

 

Shari Rudavsky  07:37

Oh, I think there’s definitely reader fatigue, I think. I mean, I think people really are ready to move on if we can, I think there is a small segment, at least readers that are still not feeling that this is behind us. In the end, they keep reading and then you know, we are trying to find. You know, for instance, on Monday, we published the story about variants. And unfortunately, variants make a clue that probably COVID isn’t behind us, we’ve been writing a lot about vaccination rates. Indiana has a pretty low vaccination rate, as everyone I’m sure knows, compared to the rest of the nation. If we don’t increase that vaccination rate, there’s a chance that we could see outbreaks, particularly among unvaccinated groups of people or, in counties where the number of vaccinated people is lower than perhaps in some counties where we see higher vaccination rates. So there’s definitely reader fatigue. I think we’re all just COVID fatigue, we just want to go back to some semblance of normal. And you know, it’s probably not, it’s hard to imagine how things look exactly the way they looked in 2019.

 

Angela Tuell  08:47

Yes, because you can’t just forget about it and completely erase that from your memory, even if you’d like to, you know.

 

Shari Rudavsky  08:53

Right or the impact that it’s had on our psyche.

 

Angela Tuell  08:56

Right. Right, exactly. What kind of feedback have you gotten from your articles and stories over the last year, almost a year and a half now?

 

Shari Rudavsky  09:06

I mean, I think I’ve said this before. I think for me, the most surprising thing about COVID was how rapidly it became a political-sized entity. And as a health reporter, I do have this probably naive notion that health and medicine Yeah, we all want better health, we all want. We all want to live healthy lives. We all want to live long lives, we want to do what it takes to stay healthy. And clearly, for many people, learning about COVID or listening to what people had to say about COVID wasn’t an issue of personal health but became a political debate. So what surprised me in terms of the feedback I got certainly early on was how politicized this was. I kind of got endured to it after a while. But I would really get feedback from both sides or all sides of the spectrum of you know, oh my gosh, we should never have opened up society when we did so we should never have closed society when we did. You know, people should still be wearing masks today. People should never have been wearing masks. And It surprised me how much of an overlay there was between people who disagreed with what the experts were saying and politics.

 

Angela Tuell  10:28

Yeah. And at times, you probably felt like a political reporter a little bit.

 

Shari Rudavsky  10:32

A little bit, though. I think, you know, it was harder to delve into. Where those politicized health beliefs originated. You know.

 

Angela Tuell  10:42

Yeah. All right. And you couldn’t give legs to some of the things that weren’t simply true, right? I mean, it was right. Yeah.

 

Shari Rudavsky  10:49

Right. Right.

 

Angela Tuell  10:50

So would you change anything about the stories you ran over the past year?

 

Shari Rudavsky  10:54

That’s an interesting question. The one thing I wish the Star had been able to do maybe a little bit more was some more graphics to show the way the cases and the deaths show that curve. We weren’t necessarily always, you know, we could always have had a graphic that communicated that graphically. But I don’t know what else the Star could have done or could have done differently. Maybe it’s just too close to think about that now. You know I think the Star did a really good job. And I this was not I don’t, this was not my idea was one of my colleagues trying to a couple of times. Really do profiles of the many, of many of the people who had died from COVID. To help bring home like this is a real thing. It’s killing real Hoosiers. Um, you know, I think my colleagues on the nursing home beat certainly showed you that toll in nursing homes. Um, I don’t know what else the Star could have done. Or how it could have approached it differently. I think maybe it’s still too steeped in it.

 

Angela Tuell  12:04

We’re still in it. Yeah. Yeah. How – were there non-COVID stories that you were, you know, turning down, because you were simply covering, had too much, you know, going on with COVID that you wanted to cover?

 

Shari Rudavsky  12:18

I would say left and right. But also a lot of those non-COVID stories, at least in the early part of the pandemic did go away, because everyone was talking about COVID all the time. And, you know, doctors were writing that I mean, I think, um, you know, here’s something, we still haven’t done a lot on the economics of paying for COVID care, and that how that impacted the healthcare system financially, I think that’s an area that we still need to be delving, or I or my colleagues need to be delving into a little bit more. You know, it’s like COVID is right in front of you. And it’s what everyone is caring about. So here’s the thing is, if we did some of those non-COVID stories, they probably wouldn’t have gotten read that well, unless they were really compelling. So that’s something that we take into account. Also, when we’re deciding whether or not to do stories is there a, is there a broad appetite for them?

 

Angela Tuell  13:13

So how do you choose stories? What gets your attention?

 

Shari Rudavsky  13:17

In general, in general? So in general, it’s something that speaks to a large swath of readers. So not, you know, something that you can really tell a narrative about, often is, is what, what I am drawn to, I mean, I am interested in general and public health, which, which obviously, COVID was a perfect example of, you know, I’ve never covered a pandemic like that before. You know, I, I wouldn’t say that there any series on specifically not interested in it sort of you sort of think about it, would I want to open my paper and read the story, would it, would I read the story, but a lot of times, a lot of times, there are stories I’m on the fence about, and then I run it past my editor and our team and say, Would you guys want to read it? Especially because, you know, they may have different perspectives than I have. out of, you know, my immediate team. I’m the only person with kids, they’re, they’re young, they they’re younger than I am, you know, they’re in a different stage of their life. So it’s good to get their feedback on what they think and a lot of times, they’ll be like, Yeah, no, I don’t care.

 

Angela Tuell  14:31

So that gives you your answer, right? I have to ask, I know you graduated from Harvard and received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. So how did you end up as a medical reporter in Indianapolis?

 

Shari Rudavsky  14:45

Well, I graduated from Harvard and then I worked for a Science Magazine in New York for two years. The magazine was called Omni it was actually run by the same people who ran Penthouse. So that was an interesting office to have as your first office job. There are some interesting graphics on the walls, which we can talk about not on air. But I was always interested in health and medicine, I wanted to delve a little bit deeper academically into some issues, and I wanted to get more of a, I was interested in the history of medicine, how American medicine, the entity that we know today came to be that entity. And I had taken some classes as an undergrad, where we learned that sort of the easiest way to say this to people is the history of medicine kind of looks at medical thought much the way art history looks at the production of art. In other words, you look at you look at theories and approaches to understanding the body, as reflective of where the society is. Because obviously, the people who are just artists who produce the art are in some way mirrors of the society in which they are doing that work, physicians or medical scientists, or public health officials who are propagating ideas about medicine and science are also part of the society and but by studying the way experts explain things or understand things, you get a window into what was important to the society at the time. And then by studying how it changed, you see how society changes.

 

Angela Tuell  16:34

And you’re actually a Bronx native as well. So what do you love about Indiana? And what do you miss about New York City?

 

Shari Rudavsky  16:42

What do I love about Indiana? Well, I mean, my two kids have grown up here. One of my kids was born here. So I certainly I mean, it’s a great place for them to be growing up. It’s a great place. It’s a very easy place to live. You know, we had lived all over the East Coast. And when we first moved here, I remember one of my colleagues then there was get together at my house. And he’s like, Hi, I wonder how much it would cost in Boston? I was like, yeah, there’d be no way we could be living in this house in Boston, where we just came from. So it’s, you know, I mean, but there are definite trade-offs. I mean, what I miss most about the Bronx is, of course, my family. My mother still lives there. And until COVID, we went back six to eight times a year. But I mean, I miss a lot of things. I miss public transportation I miss I even miss apartment buildings. I you know, I watched the trailer for In the Heights. I grew up not a little bit further north of Kazakhstan. But I was like, oh, man, I miss summer in New York, you know, where it’s really hot and sweaty, and you can’t get cool for about four weeks.

 

Angela Tuell  17:57

If you miss that, you know, you really love it there. Right?

 

Shari Rudavsky  18:01

Well, I mean, I think maybe I think everyone. A lot of people love the place that they’re from. I mean, aside from two years after I moved in and went to college, I didn’t live in New York again, I made no effort to try to make any sacrifices that were requiring me to live. I mean, New York is a really tough place to live too, so…

 

Angela Tuell  18:21

Yes, incredibly. Well. Thank you so much, Shari. It’s been a wonderful conversation.

 

Shari Rudavsky  18:26

Oh, thank you, Angela. I appreciate it.

 

Angela Tuell  18:29

You can find Shari on Twitter. We will link to her account in our show notes, or daily in Indianapolis Star. That’s all for this episode of Media in Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined available anywhere you get your podcasts. You can find more at CommunicationsRedefined.com/podcast. I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.

On this episode of Media in Minutes, we welcome health and medicine journalist Shari Rudavsky. Having worked for the Indianapolis Star for 16 years, Shari discusses what it’s been like covering the COVID pandemic and how she chooses what stories to pursue. 

Read Shari’s most recent articles for The Indy Star.

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