Last week, Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison wrote, for the Washington Post, on the difficulties reporters face getting access to, and information from, hospitals. “The coronavirus pandemic has been likened to a war,” they observed. “But journalists are largely absent from the harrowing, heartbreaking front line of this crisis.” Plenty of healthcare workers and first responders have given interviews, but we don’t often get to see them at work—photos and videos from inside hospitals are rare, and those we’ve seen have frequently been shot on healthcare workers’ smartphones. COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is often described as an invisible enemy, which makes it hard to conceptualize. “The lack of richly visual depictions of the disease’s impact,” Izadi and Ellison wrote, “may be a key reason some members of the public doubt its seriousness.”
Press access to hospitals is limited by two principal concerns: health, including that of journalists, and patient privacy. The first consideration, in particular, has given many news organizations pause. Network bosses told Izadi and Ellison that they’re also concerned about their reporters impeding the provision of care and using protective equipment that could have gone to a healthcare worker. Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, said that there’s “unequivocal news value” in what’s happening in hospitals right now, but that the editorial bar for such stories is “extremely high.” Michael Dowling, who leads a large New York state hospital network, told the Post, of journalistic access to his facilities, “We’ve offered people to come in, and they’ve refused.”
Not that hospitals are all working to accommodate journalists—far from it. Photographers have reported being shooed away by security guards, even if they’re just snapping pictures of hospitals’ exteriors. Many hospitals have told their employees not to talk; some rule violators have been punished. In March, Ming Lin, an ER doctor in Bellingham, Washington, was fired after speaking out in interviews and on social media about the need for better protections in his hospital; Lin told the Seattle Times that management ordered him to remove his critical posts, and he refused. Around the same time, Samantha Houston, a doctor in Oxford, Mississippi, was fired for “disruptive” conduct. She was one of at least two healthcare workers in the state to lose their jobs after publicly expressing safety concerns about their workplace.
Hospitals in Chicago and Detroit fired nurses who broadcast similar criticisms. Lauri Mazurkiewicz, in Chicago, has asthma and cares for a parent with a respiratory condition; she is suing her former employer for wrongful dismissal. According to Bloomberg, a communications executive at New York University’s Langone Health system warned staff that they would be “subject to disciplinary action, including termination” should they give unauthorized media interviews. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Adam Witt, an ER nurse and union official at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center, was suspended after he took time off work to represent a colleague being disciplined for his Facebook posts. Witt has also criticized the hospital on social media. Since his suspension, the Jersey Shore University Medical Center has put up “Wanted”-style posters with Witt’s name and face on them. They read, “If he is seen on property please contact your supervisor immediately.”
To justify a lack of transparency, some healthcare providers and politicians have invoked the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA—a law whose attendant privacy provisions have, as Poynter’s Al Tompkins wrote yesterday, been used for years as a “foil to journalists seeking even basic information from hospitals, nursing homes, health departments, medical examiners and police.” Amid the coronavirus pandemic, officials have cited HIPAA as grounds to withhold general information; some jurisdictions in Iowa, for instance, withheld data about the availability of COVID-19 tests, and Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, refused to name nursing homes with confirmed cases, even though those establishments were willing to name themselves. These are misuses of HIPAA, which is concerned with individualized information. In any case, Tompkins writes, when it comes to journalists, HIPAA has ethical implications, but it’s not legally binding.
Scenes from inside hospital wards can reveal the human tragedy of the coronavirus in a way numbers and phone characterizations simply cannot. Respecting the wishes of patients and their families is vitally important, of course, but many of them want, desperately, to have their stories told. The reporting that has managed to show the pain of the illness, and the challenges of treating it—such as Sheri Fink’s recent work for the New York Times—has been essential, and we need more. This is a slow-motion disaster and, as it goes on, the risk of news fatigue is high. We can’t rely on abstractions and press releases to describe the urgent stakes of the coronavirus.
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- With friends like these: Trump’s insult-filled daily coronavirus briefings are starting to get poor reviews from unlikely critics. White House aides and Republican lawmakers fear these appearances are hurting Trump’s reelection prospects. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called them “boring” and “notably off key at this moment.” Robert Herring, CEO of the normally-sycophantic One America News Network, upbraided the president for forcing one of its reporters, Chanel Rion, to stand against a wall, even though she “went to Ukraine to get information to prove his innocence.” (Trump called the Journal’s editorial “Fake News”; the White House Correspondents’ Association says Rion shouldn’t be in the briefing room at all.) In other briefing news, the White House is now mandating that reporters and technical staff in attendance take COVID-19 tests. (Officials were already taking journalists’ temperatures on entry.) And the administration told CNN that it would block its public-health experts from appearing until CNN started airing Trump’s briefings in full. Officials subsequently reversed that stance.
- Uncivil Liberty: Liberty University, a college in Virginia led by Jerry Falwell, Jr., a prominent Trump ally, wants two journalists—Alec MacGillis, of ProPublica, and Julia Rendleman, a photographer for the Times—to face criminal trespassing charges after they entered the campus to cover local concerns about its decision to stay open. According to the Associated Press, a Virginia magistrate has signed arrest warrants against MacGillis and Rendleman. It’s not clear whether prosecutors will pursue charges.
- Yet more bad news: Yesterday, two big newspaper chains made cuts in response to the financial impact of the coronavirus: Tribune Publishing is forcing some non-unionized staffers to take a buyout or a permanent salary reduction, while McClatchy is furloughing more than a hundred non-editorial staffers and eliminating four executive positions. (Journalists at McClatchy will be spared for now. Executives at both companies are taking pay cuts.) Smaller media companies are faring even worse: the Bolivar Commercial, a newspaper in Cleveland, Mississippi, for instance, is shutting down after 104 years in business. Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Post, writes that the crisis is hammering profit-driven media and exacerbating the industry’s reliance on wealthy benefactors, such as the Post’s Jeff Bezos. “The nation’s best publications,” Nolan writes, “have to feel thankful for having a billionaire owner, rather than angry that they need one.”
- Better news: This week, management at Hearst Corporation—which owns the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, and the Albany Times Union, among other papers—said it will not be making cuts at this time and pledged to pay staff a one-percent bonus, with further bonuses to come. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reports that Hearst is in better financial shape than many of its rivals, and seems to be betting that deep coverage of the crisis is “an opportunity to showcase public service work and build audiences.” Elsewhere, media companies including the Times, Bloomberg, and Politico are still staffing up, despite the downturn. Digiday’s Lucinda Southern has more details.
- In Vogue: For the Times, Elizabeth Paton and Jessica Testa ask what fashion magazines are good for at a time like this. “Fashion magazines are vehicles for luxury fantasies” that have recently been derailed, they write. “As a result, fashion magazines have been derailed both in production and purpose.” This week, the Italian edition of Vogue unveiled its latest cover, which is a plain white page. White “signifies many things at the same time,” Emanuele Farneti, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, wrote. “Above all: white is not surrender, but a blank sheet waiting to be written, the title page of a new story that is about to begin.”
- In brief: Yesterday, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched PRESSentials, a bilingual social media campaign to #ThankAJourno for coverage of the coronavirus crisis. Saturday Night Live will be back on air tomorrow with a remotely-produced show. The Food and Drug Administration ordered the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to stop hawking bogus coronavirus cures. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has COVID-19, is out of the ICU, though he remains in the hospital.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR’s new magazine on the climate crisis, Lauren Harris spoke with Bruno Takahashi, an associate professor at Michigan State University and research director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. Takahashi has been keeping track of when, how, and where the climate crisis is reported. Also for the magazine, Harris, Akintunde Ahmad, and Savannah Jacobson surveyed twenty newsrooms and analyzed data from George Mason University to measure persistent gaps in climate coverage.
- According to Elizabeth Grieco, of the Pew Research Center, the decline of the media job market between 2008 and 2018 hit mid-career journalists hardest. In those years, the number of full-time newsroom employees between the ages of 35 and 54 dropped by 42 percent. The number of newsroom employees over the age of 54 increased, but not by enough to offset other losses. The number of workers under 35 stayed relatively stable.
- Last week, a court in Pakistan overturned a murder conviction in the case of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed in the country, in 2002. For CJR, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes that Pearl’s killers must not be allowed to escape justice. “What’s at stake is not only justice for Pearl,” Simon argues, “but the hundreds of journalists killed around the world by Islamist militants in the last two decades.”
- Rui Pinto—the whistleblower behind the Football Leaks and Luanda Leaks stories, who faces charges of extortion and computer hacking in Portugal—has been released from jail after spending more than a year in pre-trial detention. He is now under house arrest. (Last year, I covered Pinto’s case—and its implications for whistleblowers—for CJR.)
- And a judge asked Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to give unseen tapes from the Celebrity Apprentice to entrepreneurs who are suing Trump and three of his children for proffering bad business advice on air. Per Bloomberg’s Erik Larson, unbroadcast material from the show has never been made available to outsiders.