The challenges of reporting on a global pandemic

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Over the past couple of weeks, the coronavirus known as COVID-19 has gone from being just an annoyance to a full-blown global pandemic, with restaurants, bars, and even schools closing, stock markets plummeting, and millions of people trying to navigate a new world of “social distancing” and “self-isolation.” As the number who have been infected and hospitalized continues to mount, journalists are working overtime to try to help the public understand the crisis, and what they can or need to do about it. This week on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, we’ve been talking with reporters, editors, and other experts about how they are covering this viral threat — about the newsletters, podcasts, and other innovative projects they are creating to handle the information overload, and about how they are dealing with the personal stress and anxiety caused by reporting on it.

CJR’s own Jon Allsop, who edits this newsletter most of the time and also writes for the magazine, said that in following the story since it first broke, he has seen a wide range of great coverage, including stories on the impact on vulnerable, low-income workers, the “gig economy,” etc. The problem, he says, is that “the story is so huge that even these great efforts aren’t enough for us to get our heads around it fully.” Eliza Barclay, who covers health, science, energy, and the environment for Vox Media, agrees that the virus story has been very demanding to cover because “the science and response have evolved so quickly, the implications of it are massive and dire, and there is no end in sight to its dominance over everything else. One of my colleagues called it the story of the decade if not, a lifetime.”

When asked whether she worries about causing people to panic by reporting on the extent of the virus, Barclay said that different people have different emotional reactions to difficult news, “so we shouldn’t assume there will be one mass reaction to any bit of news. Also, fear is a natural human emotion and one that we should expect and allow in our audience. An uncertain, difficult situation like this one is inevitably going to trigger a lot of fear. But I think people are better off with good, clear reporting on something than without it.” She added that fear as an emotion is often translated into action. “Look at Greta Thunberg’s messaging: It’s stark and clear about the catastrophes that lie ahead without drastic action and it has sparked significant action to reduce emissions.”

Tom Gara is a former Wall Street Journal editor who is now the opinion editor for BuzzFeed News, and also puts together a newsletter with information about the coronavirus. He says that while Twitter is often criticized for being a dumpster fire, it has become a key resource for following news about COVID-19. “I’m one of the few people left on earth who still just wholeheartedly, without reservation, loves Twitter, and I’ve found it just amazing during all this,” he says. “There’s so much flying around, but I’ve found that virtually anything worth reading ends up surfacing there, and that ranges from stuff published by news outlets to rants on medium, scientific papers, announcements from local authorities, whatever.”

CJR also spoke with Claire Wardle, the the co-founder and executive director of First Draft, a nonprofit dedicated to studying misinformation, and former research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia. She said that while in many cases, First Draft often sees professional trolls weaponizing misinformation for economic or political gain, the biggest category of misinformation she’s been seeing about the coronavirus has been people sharing questionable data or tips because they genuinely want to help. “It’s not misinformation. I would say it’s exaggerated gossip. Most of it is really close to the truth. As far as we can tell right now. It’s mostly people being terrified, and many of them are living at home by themselves. People need community and connection, so they’re turning to each other.”

Wardle said her advice to journalists as well as regular people is to “watch your emotions.” The more emotional your response, the less likely it is to be accurate, she says. And despite being an expert on misinformation, Wardle confessed that she herself had shared a less-than-accurate WhatsApp post. “I’ll be honest, I’ve been on lockdown for 8 days now,” she said. “I live alone. I’m across the Atlantic from my friends and family and I couldn’t get home right now even if something bad happened because of the travel bans. We’re all human and we’re all worried right now. So all of us can fall for rumors. That’s what we need to remember.”

Here’s more on journalism and the coronavirus:

Hunger for information: Kathy Lu, the digital editor for America Amplified: Election 2020, a project of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said in an interview with CJR that she is seeing “an unprecedented need for journalism, because of all the questions out there and how we’re all focused on this health crisis. The hunger for information is insatiable right now. But whom do you trust? That’s where local and established journalists come in.”

A need for personal time: TJ Raphael, who co-hosts a new podcast called Viral: Coronavirus with former New York Post reporter Emily Saul, told CJR she feels overwhelmed sometimes covering the virus, but adds that she was part of a daily, national news team for many years, “so it’s nothing I haven’t tackled before.” She says she tries to take breaks in order to get away from the steady drumbeat of bad news. “I take a walk, make some lunch away from my computer, watch a movie in the evening, maybe do a face mask. I have FaceTime hang outs with friends and family, listen to music, play video games.”

Parallels to climate change: Katie Palmer, science and health editor for Quartz, says that she sees a lot of parallels between covering the virus and covering climate change, in terms of the way that persistent coverage of devastating impacts can have a numbing effect on readers. “At a certain point, all the bad news starts to bleed together and you tune it out—what’s the point in reading about the problem if it’s never going to change? I think in the past few years, journalists have started to recognize that approach to climate coverage doesn’t serve readers particularly well, and we’ve seen a general shift toward more solutions-based coverage in its place.”

Watch those headlines: First Draft’s Claire Wardle says some media outlets need to think more seriously about their headlines on virus stories. “We’re still seeing lots of scare mongering headlines. And let’s be honest, for a second, some of these big scary headlines are going to get clicks.” She said publishers also need to think about the images they use, and the message they are sending. “We have to stop using images of Asian people wearing masks, we need to stop using images of people in hazmat suits, if possible, we have to also potentially stop using pictures of gurneys outside houses that look like they’re taking out dead bodies.”

Other notable stories:

A number of alternative weeklies and regional papers in the US have cut their staff dramatically and in some cases shut down completely, moves that they say have been driven by a decline in ad revenue following the coronavirus pandemic. Seattle’s The Stranger says 90 percent of its revenue comes from local venues for music and other artistic events, and almost all of that is gone. Washingtonian Magazine has laid off its fellows and instituted a 10 percent pay cut for staffers, multiple employees have been laid off at seven weeklies including the San Antonio Current and Detroit Metro Times, and the Sacramento News & Review has suspended publication and laid off its entire staff, although management said it hoped it would be temporary.

Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned a small group of well-connected constituents three weeks ago to prepare for dire economic and societal effects of the coronavirus, according to a secret recording obtained by NPR. His comments were much more negative than any he had delivered in more public forums, NPR says.

Canada’s public broadcaster announced that it is temporarily shutting down most of its local TV newscasts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said starting Wednesday, it won’t be airing local TV newscasts across the country, with the exception of CBC North. In a statement, the CBC said its CBC News Network cable offering will become the core of its live breaking-news service, replacing all of its supper-hour and late-night newscasts across the country. Local coverage will continue on radio, digital and social media.

Russian media have deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and sow distrust, according to a European Union document seen by Reuters. The EU document said the Russian campaign, pushing fake news online in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, uses contradictory, confusing and malicious reports to make it harder for the EU to communicate its response to the pandemic. The Kremlin denied the allegations on Wednesday. Leo Schwartz wrote for CJR about some of the disinformation efforts being tracked involving the coronavirus.

Australian Associated Press has asked reporters scheduled to leave this month to stay on after several 11th hour bids were made to buy the business. Chief executive Bruce Davidson told staff a number of unexpected offers to buy “the entire AAP operation, including the Newswire, Pagemasters and Medianet” were made and the shareholders were investigating. Earlier this month, AAP announced the newswire would have to close after major shareholders Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia said the 85-year-old institution was unsustainable.

The regional press industry in the UK has sent a united message of solidarity to the nation with more than 60 titles publishing identical front pages headlined: “When you’re on your own, we are there with you.” Publishing companies Archant, Reach, JPIMedia, Newsquest, and Iliffe Media have joined forces to launch the #ThereWithYou campaign, which they say will reassure readers that their local title is there to support them in challenging times. The campaign is supported by the News Media Association and the Society of Editors.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting announced it is seeking proposals to “develop innovative approaches to reporting on the novel coronavirus crisis using collaboration among journalists and newsrooms across state lines or national borders.” The center said that the opportunity is open to all newsrooms and independent journalists in the US and abroad, and that it will select between three and five project proposals for grants of between $5,000 and $30,000.

Playboy magazine announced it will end its print run in the US after nearly seven decades on the newsstand. The magazine, which had struggled with profitability for years and had steadily reduced its print frequency since the death of its founder, Hugh Hefner, in 2017, said it fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. “As the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic to content production and the supply chain became clearer and clearer, we were forced to accelerate a conversation we’ve been having internally,” chief executive Ben Kohn wrote. The magazine will continue to publish online, he said.

Twitter says it will remove tweets that run the risk of causing harm by spreading dangerous misinformation about COVID-19, after criticism that its policies on misinformation were too lax. Now, the social network says it will be applying a new broader definition of harm to address content that “goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information,” including denial of health authority recommendations “with the intent to influence people into acting against recommended guidance.”

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