In a pandemic, what is essential journalism?

Journalism fancies itself well-suited to crisis. When times are bad, reporters purport to return to our roots, to act as disseminators not just of crucial information but also instructions: what to do, what not to do, who to call, what to look for, where to go. We take comfort in the routines that define what we do, and in the ego boosts that accompany that. But this back-to-basics approach only works when the challenge is familiar.

As the covid-19 outbreak has spread rapidly across the country, newsroom leaders have had to make decisions about how to keep an industry that relies on human contact running, even as public health experts and governmental officials mandate social isolation. Editors sent internal emails and made public statements about how they were adapting. Reporters largely left their newsrooms to work from home. Television anchors broadcast to studios devoid of their usual audiences. Sports reporters, in the absence of sports, were reassigned. Increasingly, newspapers have laid off or reduced the salaries of reporters they can no longer afford to pay. Journalism schools banned all in-person reporting.

READ: How the COVID Tracking Project fills the public health data gap

And yet stories featuring man-on-the street interviews—with reckless spring breakers in Miami, with educators distributing food to families at closed school sites, with crowds still going to parks and beaches—continue to materialize. The rationale is that the press, as an essential public good, must go on with business as usual. But what happens when the instincts of journalism’s biggest institutions threaten to endanger the well-being of the public we claim to serve?

Dozens of stories a day repeat the advice of doctors and scientists. Stay home, they remind us. It’s the only way to slow the spread of this invisible villain, to save lives and to preserve whatever parts of normal life—the good parts, anyways—will be left when this is all over. Journalists routinely enter dangerous or risky situations in the interest of informing the public, but most such decisions—to travel to a conflict zone, for instance, or to report from the eye of a dangerous storm—harbor risk for a limited number of people. Here and now, on the other hand, what we consider basic journalistic practice is in some ways diametrically opposed to the communal good.

NBC News headquarters are still open, despite the death last week of an employee from covid-19. A senior producer for MSNBC wrote an anonymous plea for the company to shut down 30 Rock and find alternate ways to broadcast. BuzzFeed News sent a reporter into the country’s first containment zone, in New Rochelle, New York. (The reporter, Albert Samaha, was supplied with personal protective gear, and self-quarantined upon leaving.) CBS News sent journalists to cover tourist throngs in Miami, where they recorded a montage of college students and other vacationers declaring their indifference about the global crisis.

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ICYMI: MSNBC Public Editor: Please close 30 Rock

Despite social-distancing work-arounds like microphones on poles and hockey sticks, news organizations that are still sending reporters out into the street are putting everyone at risk. Their reasoning is either that they have to keep the machine going, or that their stories are essential. But what, exactly, is essential journalism during a pandemic? What do readers actually need to know?

The public must be updated daily—not with contextless numbers of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, but with reports on what municipalities and the federal government are doing to slow spread; what plans there are to support the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs due to covid-19; how communities under shelter-in-place orders are faring; how children, locked out of their schools, are learning and eating; what scientists and doctors are discovering about the virus; how people are preparing for the coming elections. Much of this reporting can be done remotely. Health and science reporters who are already well-sourced in hospitals can report on the situation in ERs and intensive care units without visiting them. Education reporters who have relationships with teachers and students can ask kids to keep daily diaries or ask teachers to be patched into virtual classrooms. In ordinary times, such reporting would be done in person. Spend time with the people you’re writing about, an editor might urge. See them in their own contexts. Talk to as many people as your deadline will allow. But these are not ordinary times.

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Today’s crisis demands that journalists reconsider what news is essential. “More information” as a default setting doesn’t fly. The twenty-four-hour news cycle—the compulsion to produce, to fill time and space, to never stop talking—is as much a characteristic of our industry’s technology-induced neurosis as it is a product of our hyper-capitalist system. This moment of self-isolation, of stillness, is an opportunity for us to take stock of our habits and behaviors.

It is past time we take an honest look at the ways that capitalism infects journalistic mission. Do we trust corporate managers, who are largely in control of our crumbling local-news infrastructure, to prioritize community health even as the desire to compete—against a backdrop of plummeting ad sales and a heightened desire to gain clicks—mounts? There are opportunities right now for collaboration between newsrooms; we have seen readers band together to form mutual-aid funds for laid-off workers, or free cyclist delivery systems to keep people off the streets and out of grocery stores. What would such efforts look like in journalism?

This moment of fear will undoubtedly leave the industry changed. The weaknesses that covid-19 is exacerbating have long existed; if we’re smart, we’ll channel the ingenuity currently on display in our communities long after the virus is kept at bay. My hope is that journalism, as an industry, will stop viewing itself as an external body meant to serve the public and instead begin to see itself as a member of the public. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at the Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.

TOP IMAGE: Journalists wear protection in the streets of Tegucigalpa | Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images