Behind the Byline With Ed Yong
In our series “Behind the Byline,” we’re chatting with Atlantic staffers to learn more about who they are and how they approach their work. Ed Yong is a staff writer who covers science. He writes about everything from hagfish slime to giraffe tackling, but since March, he has focused all his reportorial energy on the pandemic.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Nesima Aberra: How are you handling being immersed in coronavirus news all the time?
Ed Yong: I’m going to be honest—not well. I don’t want to overstate matters. I have a ton of privilege. I’m healthy and employed; I can work from home; I don’t have children. I’m not exhausted in the way that black friends are, having to simultaneously deal with a pandemic that disproportionately affects their communities and centuries of racism that have culminated in the current wave of protests. There’s one specific way in which I’m tired, though: having to constantly submerge in coronavirus news without taking a breath, and to absorb it all, process it, and extract sense from it for my readers.
There are too many stories to cover, too many deaths, too much suffering, too little time. I’ve just published my fifth 5,000-ish-word feature in 10 weeks, and that pace still feels utterly inadequate to the demands of the moment. The stakes are so high. Every day matters.
I’d also note that in the pandemic, as in virtually everything else, men are heard, promoted, and lauded more than women. So I’m trying to carve out time to elevate the work of incredible people who are dealing with exactly the same professional pressures that I am but don’t benefit from the same structural dynamics that I clearly benefit from.
Aberra: Information changes constantly. How do you decide when and what to cover about the pandemic?
Yong: I’m not actually sure that information is changing constantly. As I wrote in my piece about coronavirus confusion, science is “less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty.” Scientists disagree. They have it out, and they oscillate toward a shared understanding. We in the press make those oscillations look bigger than they actually are by covering every incremental development as it happens—and I’m not sure that, during this crisis, that’s the best route toward greater public understanding.
Aberra: What inspired you to pursue science journalism in the first place?
Ed Yong: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a science degree must be in want of a Ph.D. But I was the world’s most catastrophic grad student, and while every grad student might think that, I objectively was. I realized, though, that I was much better at writing about science than actually doing it, so I switched to that instead—first at a cancer charity, then on my own blog, then as a freelancer, and then eventually at The Atlantic.
Aberra: What’s the most unusual or fun story you’ve worked on?
Yong: My next book!
I’m fond of telling stories about aspects of nature that we miss. My first book was about the microbes that share our bodies, and the profound influence they have on our lives. The next one is about the sensory experiences of other animals—what dogs smell, what songbirds hear, what eagles see. I’ve spent over a year trying to imagine what the world is like through the eyes, ears, noses, and ampullae of Lorenzini (organs that sharks and other animals use to sense electric fields) of other creatures, and it has been a deeply rewarding and endlessly fascinating project. I’ve been shocked by an electric fish, punched by a mantis shrimp, struck at by a rattlesnake (it missed), kissed by a seal, and oripulated by a manatee (that’s the technical term for what they do when they explore you with their whiskers).
Aberra: What’s something you’ve watched or read lately that you’ve enjoyed?
In terms of books, Fathoms, by Rebecca Giggs, is about whales and our relationship with them. It’s one of the most achingly beautiful pieces of nature writing I’ve encountered. Giggs is an absolute master, and I cannot speak highly enough of her work. Sarah Ramey’s The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness is a profound, hilarious, heartbreaking memoir. Gina Rae La Cerva’s Feasting Wild and Ainissa Ramirez’s The Alchemy of Us are witty, illuminating, and inclusive reads about food and technology, respectively. I usually read more fiction, but I’m having trouble concentrating right now.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is on Netflix, thank the heavens, and the reboot of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has been a balm for the soul. Given how much programming is retrograde nonsense, I find it oddly encouraging that a kids’ show should have a range of body types, nonbinary characters, and actual queer representation that’s central to the plot.
Aberra: Can you share the story of how you got a Chatham Island black robin named after you?
Yong: In 2014, I wrote a piece about conservationists who tried to save the highly endangered Chatham Island black robin from extinction, but in the process, inadvertently left the survivors with a behavioral quirk that might doom the species. Years later, I contacted the lead researcher on that study for comment on a completely unrelated paper. She answered my questions and then told me that after my 2014 piece, she had named one of the robins Yong. The life span of these birds is not long, so I assume that Yong the robin is no longer with us, but I like to think that he had a pleasant life with his mate, Martini.