case study

Speaking Facts and Truth During a Time of Misinformation


The Challenge   

COVID-19 is the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes. The virus itself is the main threat, but our response has exacerbated that threat. During the first several months of the pandemic, health leaders were routinely sidelined, and guidance from our nation’s foremost medical and public health agencies was regularly politicized, belittled or downright ignored; the dissolution of trust in public health continues to have negative repercussions today. And while nobody could have predicted in March 2020 that more than 900,000 people in the United States and millions more around the world would lose their lives to this virus—or that we would still be struggling to contain it two years later—we did know at the outset that certain people would have the hardest time coping due to their economic, social or health statuses, including people and communities of color affected by structural racism and discrimination in our policies and institutions; people with low wages who are less likely to have the means to take care of themselves and their families, including jobs that pay a living wage, health insurance, or paid family and medical leave; Indigenous populations, those in rural communities, and people with disabilities, who have less access to healthcare services; and the elderly and people with certain preexisting medical conditions, who are at highest risk of severe disease from this particular virus.      

 Our Approach   

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)—the nation’s largest health philanthropy—has had esteemed leadership throughout its 50-year history. But its current leadership was uniquely well-suited for this moment. Dr. Richard Besser, RWJF’s president and CEO, spent 13 years at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including four years as head of emergency response and preparedness and serving as acting director during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic; prior to coming to RWJF, he was the chief health and medical editor for ABC News. Dr. Julie Morita, RWJF’s executive vice president, is the former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.  

Drawing on their respective medical and public health experience—and working closely with RWJF’s media relations department—Burness built an extensive network of broadcast media contacts from scratch to position Dr. Besser and Dr. Morita as go-to sources for information and analysis during the pandemic. This has often focused on COVID-19 “news of the day” on issues from vaccination to testing to broader public health guidance. But we have also worked tirelessly to use their respective platforms to highlight RWJF’s institutional priorities, with a specific focus on health equity and the short- and long-term policies necessary to ensure that everyone in our nation—no matter who they are, where they live or how much money they earn—has the opportunity to lead the healthiest life possible.   


Since March 2020, Dr. Besser and Dr. Morita have done more than 1,000 interviews with national and regional broadcast, cable, print and online outlets. They have also combined for nearly 60 op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, journal commentaries and public statements published in top news outlets across the country, including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, ABC News, NBC News, Fox News, The Hill and Scientific American.  

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