Amanda Woerner says Women’s Health website filled a void in coronavirus coverage

Amanda Woerner
Amanda Woerner, executive digital editor at Women's Health, oversees the publication's lineup of digital stories. (Photo by Montclair Studio Photography, courtesy of Amanda Woerner)

By Erin Warwood
Medill Reports

How long will the COVID-19 pandemic last? What’s it like to fall ill with the virus? And why is it called “coronavirus”?

Amanda Woerner, 34, executive digital editor at Women’s Health magazine, explains how these kinds of questions fit into the publication’s digital coverage of COVID-19 and describes the challenges of reporting on wellness during a pandemic.

What is the role of a health and wellness publication in a pandemic?

We couldn’t compete with big news organizations that basically have 24-hour staffs. So immediately we took a look at tools like Google Trends to figure out what people are searching for. And that was a great way for us to home in on certain topics that aren’t really being delved into in a major way by breaking news networks, but that people still really wanted to know the answers to.

Very early on, we focused a lot on trying to find a real woman in our age demographics who had been diagnosed with COVID. And this was super challenging in the beginning because there were not a lot of tests happening back then. But my co-worker happened to see somebody posting about somebody else they knew who got diagnosed in Seattle. And we published an “as told to” essay with her extremely early. These real women’s stories have always been a hallmark of Women’s Health. People were fascinated because there weren’t really any first-person accounts of a young woman and her experience of being diagnosed and what she was going through.

So basically, our role, and I think the role of a health and wellness brand that’s not a breaking news network, should be to find the whitespace. When I say that, I’m talking about filling a gap that is not being addressed by other news outlets or competitors.

What’s the importance of telling readers about an ER nurse, for instance?

People always want to know how other people like them are affected. Especially in the early days, there was not a lot of good information from scientists out there about what it was really like to have COVID or what the symptoms might be. And so a lot of the best sources of information were coming from people who had lived it and experienced it.

Especially due to the isolation caused by the pandemic, people wanted to read stories about women like them and what they were struggling with. It makes people feel more connected and like they’re not alone in a very difficult time.

Recent issues of Women’s Health display the publication’s red logo and a variety of cover stars. (Erin Warwood/MEDILL)

Has there been a special focus on mental health?

Definitely. It’s always been a priority of Women’s Health. But in the past, it’s sometimes been difficult to capture people’s attention, especially with straight service pieces. We published pieces very early on about where to find free or reduced cost therapy. Various iterations at different points in the pandemic, including during the Black Lives Matter protests, have resonated in a way that they haven’t before. So seeing that, we’ve made an effort to include more of those service pieces. We always try to touch on the mental health angle in our essays from women as well.

A health and wellness publication should pass on accurate information. During the pandemic, has Women’s Health changed its fact-checking process or relied on a select group of experts?

It hasn’t changed a ton. For stories that are particularly sensitive, we’ll always keep a really close eye on what type of experts we’re using. We’ll usually try to get more than one expert. And then we always make sure, especially for really sensitive, breaking news stories, that we’re having multiple layers of editing on it – I would say two more layers of editing than we would on a regular story.

Can you recall a particular COVID-19 topic or story that really challenged the Women’s Health editors and writers?

We’ve been talking a lot lately about how to cover the vaccine. There haven’t been as many opportunities for essays. We also want to be careful we’re not publishing an essay from one woman who had a reaction to the vaccine, because that would be fear mongering, and we want to make sure that we’re not giving an increased voice to something that’s, in reality, a very small percentage of the population. That’s something we’re being really thoughtful about and taking care to pay attention to.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Erin Warwood is a reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @erinwarwood.