Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and columnist at the New York Times, brought revelatory insights about human behavior into the discussion of the Covid-19 pandemic — even when those insights were unpopular. The result was a body of work that was consistently ahead of the curve on what was to come in the pandemic, and unusually perceptive about what we can learn from our mistakes.
Early in the pandemic, a couple of weeks before the CDC officially began to recommend masks, Tufekci wrote a Times piece on how masks work, arguing that health authorities’ messaging that discouraged their use was counterproductive. The contradiction in messaging that masks were both unnecessary for protecting people and yet needed to be saved for health care workers, she wrote, was confusing.
“How do these masks magically protect the wearers only and only if they work in a particular field?” she asked. By misleading people about masks because they didn’t want people to buy up masks that were in short supply, health authorities contributed to public distrust, Tufekci argued. “[D]uring disasters people can show strikingly altruistic behavior, but interventions by authorities can backfire if they fuel mistrust or treat the public as an adversary rather than people who will step up if treated with respect.”
Tufekci has stayed on the cutting edge of Covid-19 reporting since then. In July 2020, she wrote for the Atlantic on the importance of ventilation to prevent airborne transmission of Covid-19, before it was widely discussed. She also tackled the disparity in effectiveness among different mask materials, the delta and omicron variants, and broader public health messaging.
And there are warnings for the future: A few months ago, she wrote about how because there isn’t a ton of research about long Covid and its symptoms — similar to other chronic conditions — people are suffering, and likely will continue to suffer. Her writing has been consistently prescient, providing actionable advice for both health authorities and the general public on how best to handle what’s to come in a distressing, uncertain time.
Tufekci was a 2022 Pulitzer finalist for bringing “clarity to the shifting official guidance” around the pandemic through her work. She’s also now a visiting professor at the Columbia Journalism School, focusing on the intersection of technology and society — and hopefully serving as a model for budding journalists on how to follow true north even as the prevailing winds try to steer you astray.