On being part of the story

Reporters in Texas have navigated a year full of high-impact stories. Last March, when the country was seized by the coronavirus, Governor Greg Abbott encouraged residents to stay home but refused to issue a “stay-at-home order”; local outlets worked to help people navigate the confusing guidelines. In the summer, amid protests against racism and police brutality, George Floyd was buried in Houston; the local ABC affiliate told viewers how to prepare if they planned to attend services. In February, when a winter storm hit and the power went out, the Austin American-Statesman and the Texas Tribune sent out text messages to readers, providing information about water shortages and nearby warming stations. And this past week, when Abbott removed public health restrictions, including a statewide mask mandate, the Dallas Morning News produced a list of answers to frequently-asked questions about what to do. The Texas Tribune updated the headline of its COVID homepage—which lists case counts by county, vaccination numbers over time, and hospitalizations by region—to contextualize Abbott’s decision (“Texas reports decline in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but still averages 200 daily deaths as Gov. Greg Abbott lifts restrictions”). All the while, local journalists have continued to live through intersecting crises.

Local news outlets, staffed by journalists who reside in the communities they cover, are uniquely capable of reflecting a sense of place, and catering to its needs. While national outlets helicopter in for stories on high-profile politicians, and their epic failures—Jon Allsop wrote in a recent newsletter on the attention paid to Senator Ted Cruz, who tried to flee to Cancun as his state suffered—it’s the job of local outlets to cover what’s happening on the ground. When a disaster hits, they’re best positioned to address the practical matter of how to survive. Recently, reporters in Texas have won praise for doing just that: “Texas journalists are providing critical information about a disaster they’re living through,” a Washington Post headline declared. Agreed—but make that “disasters.” 

Over the past year, journalists have participated in vaccine trials, made tough personal decisions in light of public health directives, and lost colleagues and family members to the coronavirus. News outlets have been forced to reckon with the fact that their role is not just to be observers—or saviors—but stakeholders. In a June webinar hosted by CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the editorial director of the Texas Tribune, called the circumstances of the pandemic “one of those rare examples when journalists who are very often removed from the reality of what is going on have been unable to separate themselves from the story, and it’s given a degree of empathy and understanding which I find important and very helpful.” She added, “It’s something that I don’t want us to lose.”

For local outlets, identifying with their audience is a value proposition: coverage in Texas media hasn’t simply described Abbott’s latest order; it’s advised on how people should handle it. That approach places an emphasis on public service. “The journalists we need today are not heroic observers of crisis—they are conveners, facilitators, organizers, educators, on-demand investigators, and community builders,” Darryl Holliday, a cofounder of City Bureau, a civic journalism nonprofit in Chicago, wrote for CJR’s winter issue. The Oaklandside, a new nonprofit local newsroom in Oakland, California, moved up its launch when the pandemic exploded, seeking to provide people in its coverage area with urgent, potentially life-saving information. “It’s not enough to just tell the news,” Tasneem Raja, the founding editor, told CJR. “What value is that to the person who was sitting there saying, Now, okay, is my pharmacy closed? What do I do now? So we’ve got to take this one step further.” 

Thinking about journalism that covers a community of which it’s a part has broader implications for how we consider objectivity and bias—there’s no one on earth who can be “impartial” about the pandemic; it affects everyone. Acknowledging that—and embracing the idea that being close to a story makes a reporter more, not less, qualified to tell it—can only be a good thing. And it’s a notion that’s not limited to a global medical crisis. As much as the press may purport to stand above the fray, it’s important to remember that reporters are human beings living in the world they’re covering. (“No journalistic process is objective,” as Wesley Lowery wrote last year for the New York Times. “And no individual journalist is objective, because no human being is.”) As vaccine rollouts gain momentum, and we look with hope toward a future when the COVID crisis has passed, let’s not forget that good journalism reflects deep understanding of the stakes involved. Relating to readers in a direct and honest way can help forge connections—and make coverage better. 

Below, more on reporters’ stakes in the pandemic:

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, a judge ruled in favor of Andrea Gallo, a reporter at the New Orleans Advocate and Times-Picayune who was sued by Jeff Landry, Louisiana’s attorney general, after making a public records request about a sexual harassment investigation into one of Landry’s aides. Landry’s lawyer argued that many of the documents were protected by a constitutional right to privacy, and that making complaint files subject to public disclosure might prevent people from filing them. Gallo’s lawyer responded that the true deterrent would be a lack of accountability. The judge ruled that the documents be released with the names of witnesses and victims redacted, and he ordered Landry’s office to pay Gallo’s defense fees.
  • Michael Pack, the former CEO of the US Agency for Global Media—which oversees Voice of America, a state-funded international broadcaster—used millions of taxpayer dollars to fund investigations into his own employees, NPR reported yesterday. Pack, a Trump appointee, hired a legal firm with strong Republican ties to look into employees’ social media posts, “news articles relating to Michael Pack,” and an “audit on Hillary Clinton’s email breach.” (In June of last year, VOA’s two top editors resigned after Pack was appointed and, in August, a group of employees sent management a letter of protest denouncing him; for more on VOA, read Jon Allsop.)
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that aides to Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, persuaded public officials to alter a report on COVID-19, obscuring the high death toll in the state’s nursing homes. Kate Cohen, an Albany-based writer and a contributing columnist at the Post, writes that Cuomo’s dark side was always evident in press briefings. After a fleeting media love affair, she adds, “We are no longer crushing.”
  • Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, is facing increased financial pressure that could force him to the Times and his Tribune Publishing share, Poynter reports. Soon-Shiong has denied that he is considering a sale.
  • Researchers at NYU found that, although politically-extreme content of all stripes has generated high levels of engagement on Facebook, far-right news sources spread the most widely, particularly far-right sources purveying false information.
  • And BuzzFeed has the story on David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, taking a second salary from the Aspen Institute, for which he started a community-building project called Weave. Brooks has written about Weave—and the Aspen Institute, and Facebook, which is an Aspen funder—in his columns, without disclosing his involvement. The Times has placed Brooks under review.
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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites