Chances are you’ve seen Ashish Jha during the pandemic, though you had never heard of him before. He seemed to come out of nowhere — bespectacled, professorial, his tie sometimes askew — and then he was everywhere, a fixture in living rooms across America.
It might have been the two minutes and 12 seconds with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday morning, those three questions from David Muir on Tuesday night, or the minute of dad-to-dad discourse he had with Louie, the goateed father of Sesame Street’s Elmo. Whatever the venue, Jha has been there, on your TV, live from Providence, R.I., with his now-familiar snake plant and that geometric, aquamarine painting as his backdrop.
At age 50, Jha has become America’s everyman expert on Covid-19.
He is not, for the record, a virologist, immunologist, or vaccinologist. (He has never claimed to be.) But he is a public health expert and a practicing internist, which means he has years of experience explaining complicated and often incomplete information to people who neither know nor care about the correct pronunciation of “adenovirus.” That’s who he imagines on the other end of his webcam.
“My mental model is it’s someone who’s the average American,” Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told STAT. “They’re smart. They care deeply about this. The pandemic has totally messed up their life. But they’re not experts. They don’t want to hear a debate about the R-naught. They want to hear what the new variants mean to them, when their kids might be eligible for a vaccine. That’s what people actually care about.”
TV bookers tend to agree. More than a year ago, when they were scrambling for fill-in Faucis, they learned not every subject-matter expert was a telegenic phenom waiting to be discovered, and not every gifted communicator was willing or able to field the crushing number of requests. But Jha — alongside experts like Baylor College of Medicine virologist Peter Hotez and New York University infectious disease physician Céline Gounder — seemed to fit the mold.
At the height of his stardom, over the summer, he was doing 10 to 12 TV appearances a day, though he’s pared back to about four or so now.
“The difference between two doctors with the same training may be negligible, but can someone go on TV and break it down for people in a way that’s understandable?” said Annie Scranton, a former booker for cable news who now runs Pace Public Relations. “You have to give the facts, but you also have to come across as a person, not just like a scientific robot.”
“These doctors and scientists are total rock stars now,” Scranton said, “and rightfully so.”
Jha’s appearances began as a corrective to the Trump administration, when the White House response ranged from silence to pondering the merits of disinfectant injections. Since then, he has done thousands of TV hits, and his name has been mentioned some 60,000 times on network and cable news, according to the media monitoring firm TVEyes. He doesn’t get paid for any of it.
Nor is he compensated for time spent on social media. More than 200,000 people follow Jha on Twitter, where he replicates his unhurried speech with threads that make liberal use of line breaks, like if William Carlos Williams took to epidemiology.
Still, all of it will end, Jha said. At some point.
“The day I feel like I’m not being helpful, I will stop,” Jha said. “I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Oh, good, I have a bunch of [TV interviews].’ But I think this is part of my job right now. This is what the country needs: people to help translate the complex science, and as a public health person, this is my obligation.”
A lot of folks wondering since I’m fully vaccinated, why would I wear a mask at a grocery store?
Every action we take is a weighing of costs and benefits
So lets talk about fully-vaccinated me in a grocery store
Am I a risk to others? No
Am I at risk? Not much
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) May 16, 2021
Jha was born in northeastern India, near the Nepalese border, the second child of two educators. When he was 9, the family moved to Toronto, eventually settling in northern New Jersey in time for Jha to go to high school, where he edited the campus newspaper. Then it was off to Columbia University, to study economics, and eventually to Harvard Medical School, where he would return after residency and stay for the next two decades.
Before the pandemic brought hundreds of calls and thousands of Twitter followers, Jha focused his attention on a different crisis: the American health care system. In his post at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, he published data-heavy research on the many failings of the modern hospital, and on his blog, called An Ounce of Evidence, he explained that morass of tabs and tables in an accessible tone that now feels familiar.
Through that lens, Jha’s more recent TV ascendance isn’t especially complicated. He said yes, was good at it, and then the process repeated.
The first request came from Bloomberg, in the early days of March 2020. Jha, then director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, agreed to speak about the U.S.’s failure to test for the virus only recently dubbed SARS-CoV-2. Then MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” called. Could he explain his point to Joe and Mika tomorrow? Then it was Lester Holt, on “NBC Nightly News,” followed by CNN, CBS, and Fox News.
“Within about a week, I was getting well over 100 media calls a day,” Jha said. “It sort of started out of nowhere, and then it never really went away.”
Pandemic celebrities are not minted out of thin air, and the path from academic obscurity to TV ubiquity is often fraught. For one, the condition of “expert” is largely self-diagnosed, and for reporters and producers on deadline, the most important qualification is often a willingness to say yes, time and again.
The risk, to academics who study the intersection of public health and mass media, is a sort of expert drift, where the incentive structures of primetime lure well-meaning guests beyond the boundaries of reason and education.
“Once you’re a fixture on TV, the odds of getting invited back for something beyond your expertise are quite good,” said Heidi Tworek, an associate professor of public policy and history at the University of British Columbia. “How do you draw that line? You can eventually end up in the Dr. Oz world if one is not careful.”
Mehmet Oz, the Columbia University heart surgeon, gets evoked pretty often when the subject is doctors on TV, usually as an example of what not to do. But medical experts’ participation in the media tends to fall along a spectrum. On the one end are the studious corresponding authors who will speak only on the studies they’ve personally run and, if they’re feeling expansive, the surrounding scientific literature. On the other are people like Oz, who last week lent his cardiovascular expertise to a “new treatment to help get rid of cellulite.”
Most people land somewhere in the middle, leaning variable distances outside of their domains from time to time and leaving it up to the viewer to sort it out.
Jha thinks about this, and he has a firm standard for himself: Unless the world-leading expert on a given topic would sign off on his explanation of it, he has no business weighing in.
“So if I’m talking about the immunology of T cells, I’m thinking if [renowned immunologist] Akiko Iwasaki is watching this from Yale, she’s got to be able to hear it and not think ‘Ashish is an idiot,’” he said.
Jha has largely been a voice of measured optimism throughout the pandemic, unlike some other experts. His read on early vaccine data was that the shots would likely work, and he has spent months counseling the country that if we mind our behavior in the winter, chances are we’ll be getting back to our lives this summer.
“Communication is not just what you say,” Jha said. “It’s how people hear it.” For instance, in January, when Muir asked Jha whether vaccines for Covid-19 could prevent transmission of the virus. An easy — and accurate — answer would be “We don’t know.” But to Jha, that’s likely to resonate as a probable “No” in the ears of the audience. His method: walking through the evidence that suggests they can, providing the caveats that pervade all scientific inquiry, and concluding with the best guess that vaccines indeed stem the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
“My take is people are not looking for certainty. People are looking for judgment,” he said. “And it’s fine to give judgment as long as you’re not overstating the data.”
The fact that Jha has established his own bright lines reflects a truism in media: Expertise is often policed by the experts themselves. And not all experts have an equal shot of getting media attention.
Words like “Harvard,” “Yale,” and “Brown” can carry outsized weight in the mind of a journalist looking to confer some credibility to a given story. It also so happens that the universities with the biggest endowments tend to have the best-funded and most active PR departments, filling the inboxes of reporters and producers with bullet-pointed lists of the Ivy League experts standing by to explain news of the day. And within that framework, universities decide which faculty members to feature, who to pull aside for media training, and who can take time away from the lecture hall.
“There are all these kind of hidden systemic structures that explain why we get who we get on TV, and only a tiny percentage of that is related to the expertise of the person,” Tworek said. “The hope is that over time, as people’s digital Rolodexes increase with a larger number of diverse sources, you’ll reach a point where you ring up a different set of people than you would have.”
The alternative is a positive feedback loop of the same talking heads, one that favors guests who are unburdened by the domestic labors of child care and who are especially comfortable weighing in on matters beyond their specific expertise.
In short, one that favors men.
A 2020 University of Michigan Medical School study found that, in the early days of the pandemic, the Covid-19 experts on prime-time news broadcasts skewed heavily male. Over five weeks, just 30% of the 220 doctors and scientists interviewed on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News were women.
That’s bad for all of the obvious reasons, but it also sets in motion a complicated problem, said Reshma Jagsi, a Michigan radiation oncologist who co-authored the study. Good public health communication, after all, depends on establishing familiar, reliable, and empathetic voices, making skilled speakers like Jha invaluable in a pandemic, she said.
“We want those trusted voices,” Jagsi said. “But I do think that needs to be complemented by ensuring that we are inclusive in how we define those trusted voices, that we don’t revert to biased mental processes that lead us to identify certain experts and never deviate from them.”
“We want those trusted voices. But I do think that needs to be complemented by ensuring that we are inclusive in how we define those trusted voices.”
Reshma Jagsi, University of Michigan radiation oncologist
Jha said that when he says no to a TV invitation, which is more often than not nowadays, he recommends under-exposed colleagues in his stead.
But he hasn’t thought as much about why he, specifically, is in such demand. “You don’t think it’s my good looks?” was his immediate (and unserious) response. But then he returned to the affable, professorial tone, recognizable from TV, to again communicate some uncertainty with mental models and best guesses.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” he said. “My best guess is that I’m able to synthesize and share info that people find helpful. My personal take is there are a lot of good people who can do that.”
Jha spends less time thinking about his TV persona and more about that imagined audience. He reaches for the enduring public health principle of meeting people where they are, which is why he generally says yes to ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight,” but almost always accepts invitations from Newsmax, a right-wing network where recent chyrons include “The Left’s War on Whites” and “Can We Talk About Kamala’s Cackle?”
“I told my team: always prioritize Newsmax,” he said. His reasoning is simple: That’s an audience that doesn’t always get to hear from people like him. And if he’s doing his job as a voice for public health, he should be able to communicate that same calm and calming sense of comfort in uncertainty, even if he’s following a segment on the benefits of colloidal silver.
“I should be able to appear on MSNBC, CNN, and Newsmax, and someone who sees all three should say I had the exact same message,” he said.
Jha’s audience, real or imagined, spends time thinking of him, too.
TV invites viewers to form parasocial relationships with the people they see on the screen, and because the pandemic pointed so many cameras away from studios and into bedrooms and home offices, there’s a heightened sense of intimacy to all those Skypes, Zooms, and Google Meets.
There’s a heightened desire for it, too. Among the traumas of Covid-19 is the distance it forced on people: family members saying goodbyes to dying relatives over FaceTime, pervasive sirens streaming into living rooms people cannot leave. A familiar face on the TV can go a long way.
“If you think about what people want in a horrifying emergency — and it can’t be overstated how horrifying the pandemic has been — they want consistency and empathy and honesty,” said Sarah Gollust, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “So for people who had the capacity to fill that void, it did play an important role in some people’s lives.”
It’s a dynamic Jha understands firsthand, both because he’s heard from hundreds of people who have seen him on TV, and because his own day-to-day pandemic existence can be quite lonely. For the first six months of the crisis, he was the only occupant of what would normally be a 40-person office in Harvard Square. In September, after moving to Brown, he was again by himself in a glassy building left vacant by Covid-19. During most TV appearances, all Jha sees is a semi-pro lighting rig, some notes scrawled on Brown-branded envelopes, and the blank screen beneath his webcam.
It’s why the letters he gets are so resonant, he said. Some are emails, many are handwritten, and, over the winter, dozens were holiday cards. A few are less than complimentary, but most have the same theme: Thank you for helping me get through this year.
“On one hand I’m kind of engaging the world” by going on TV, he said. “On the other I never see anyone except out the window. And it’s through those letters that you get a sense of what’s happening in the world, and how deeply painful and horrible this year has been.”
He got one a few weeks ago, from a woman in Texas who had come to depend on his regular TV appearances. If her husband was in the other room, she’d call out for him when Jha was onscreen, and he’d do the same for her. Jha was their favorite doctor, the letter explained, “after Dr. Fauci.”
Earlier this year, when her husband died of Covid-19, she didn’t have anyone to call. She saw Jha on TV, so she decided to write him a letter of gratitude.
“If I was able to do that for somebody, that feels really meaningful,” Jha said. “That was worth it. The whole year has been worth it.”