How to cover a fast-moving pandemic

As Jon Allsop notes in a recent CJR newsletter, advice and analysis that seemed pressing a week ago is quaint and complacent today. The impossible has become commonplace before our eyes.

We have no idea where this crisis is headed. But what we do know is that the coronavirus, in addition to being terrifyingly contagious, acts as an unusually merciless magnifying glass, showing the flaws in our politics, our healthcare system, our social safety net. And in our media.

Here is what we have learned so far.

The journalism that matters is local. We’ve known for a while that the loss of good local news outlets not only imperils a working democracy, but leaves a void in thoughtful journalism. We have too many (cheap) talking heads and not enough (expensive) concrete and useful information. This crisis reinforces that. 

We don’t need more analysts bemoaning Trump. What we need is specific, actionable information: What’s the capacity of hospitals in our town? Are there viral hot spots in particular neighborhoods? Which stores have groceries? The Seattle Times has delivered all of this as it has covered the community in Washington State that has been hit hardest. But so much more is needed. This crisis may, eventually, help us realize that finding a financial support system for local journalism is critical to the way we live.

The Trump obsession is dangerous. The media’s hate-fawning over Donald Trump, particularly on cable television, has been a problem since he ran for president: the live shots of his circling plane, the amplification of his absurd tweets, the showcasing of his rallies as anything other than campaign set pieces. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

That tendency in recent weeks has endangered lives. Even as scientists were telling us that Trump’s early dismissal of the virus was wrong and potentially life-threatening, journalists continued to air it and debate it and both-sides it, as if there were an alternate scientific approach to fighting the virus. There was not. He was cravenly wrong, and will likely have to answer for his politicization of one of the darkest moments in our history. Fox News will have to do the same. Our solution is not to fall into the same trap again. We have now seen that not even matters of life and death are immune from his narcissism and misinformation. Shame on us if we revert to the norm after this passes.

Data isn’t the whole story. Journalists love numbers. Which is strange given the level of innumeracy in the profession. We see it in politics, where polling data is given much more prominence and credibility than it deserves, and we’ve seen it in the coverage of the virus, where news organizations, largely unsuccessfully, have tried to get their heads around flattening curves and wildly divergent projections. 

This virus is horrific on every level. But what most scares us—and what terrifies reporters—is the fact that most predictions are at best a guess. To compensate, news reports feverishly wield the projections, which are empty information appearing real. Let’s hold off on them for now, and focus on what science says it knows for certain and what actions people can take now to prepare for whatever will come next.

Covering politics as sport needs to end. Remember the campaign for the presidency? Remember when we obsessed over which jabs this person got in on one of the dozens of ratings-grabby TV debates or which nasty campaign ad lit up Twitter? Remember when we used to cover the American presidency and the race to fill the office as a reality show? 

Those days are done, and good riddance. This national crisis, in all of its horror and heartache, has taught us, even in these early days, that national political decision-making is deadly serious. Healthcare policy matters. Economic policy is about keeping people out of bread lines. Credibility and accountability in public office can influence individual decisions that determine whether people live or die. 

Our political press has to cover our government not with scorecards and spin rooms, but with a depth and a seriousness that reflects what is at stake. I thought after the enormous failures in coverage of the 2016 presidential race that political journalism would be in for a wholesale revamp. It didn’t happen, but this story has only reinforced how urgent that need remains.

Journalism has value. You only need to read the coverage out of Seattle or Milan or Beijing to appreciate the commitment of the people reporting these stories. They believe that what they are doing is worthy of their personal sacrifice. And indeed it is why all of us are here: because in the midst of a pandemic, having quality information is second only to the work of doctors and scientists. 

That burden is ours. Much has been said and written in recent years about whether journalism can be trusted and whether it matters; some of it has been spewed out of the Oval Office. The question has been settled in recent weeks.

Now our focus has to be on doing it well, on serving our audiences as our neighbors, giving them the information that they need to cope and make difficult decisions, and ditching the peripheral, the banal and the mindless.

We are in one of the darkest moments in our national history. Journalism is among the few lights we have left.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.