The challenges of reporting on a global pandemic

March 20, 2020

Over the past several weeks, the coronavirus known as COVID-19 has become a full-blown global pandemic. Schools and restaurants are closed, stock markets are plummeting, and millions of people are trying to navigate a new world of social distancing and self-isolation. As the number of those infected and hospitalized continues to mount, journalists are working overtime to try to help the public understand the crisis. This week on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, we’ve been talking with reporters, editors, and others about how they are covering the outbreak—and about how they are dealing with their own anxiety.

Since the story of COVID-19 broke, CJR’S Jon Allsop has seen lots of impressive coverage, including stories on the impact on vulnerable, low-income workers. But nothing ever seems like enough, he says: “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, agrees that the virus story has been demanding. “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,” she says. 

Is all the coverage causing unnecessary panic? Different people have different reactions to difficult news, Barclay says. “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.” Besides, she adds, fear 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.”

Related: How journalists around the world are covering the coronavirus

Tom Gara, the opinion editor for BuzzFeed News, has been producing a newsletter about the coronavirus. Twitter, for all its faults, has become a valuable resource for news about COVID-19, he says. “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.” There’s a lot to sift through, he adds. “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 co-founder and executive director of First Draft, a nonprofit dedicated to studying misinformation. In typical circumstances, it’s common for her to find professional trolls weaponizing misinformation for economic or political gain, but when it comes to COVID-19, she says, the biggest source of misinformation has been people sharing questionable data or tips because they genuinely want to help. “It’s not misinformation,” she explains. “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.”

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Wardle’s advice to journalists—and everyone—is to “watch your emotions.” The more emotional your response, the less likely it is to be accurate. And despite being an expert on misinformation, Wardle confesses that even she shared a less-than-accurate WhatsApp post about COVID-19. “I’ll be honest, I’ve been on lockdown for 8 days now,” she says. “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, says in an interview with CJR that she is seeing “an unprecedented need for journalism.” With everyone’s attention on a public health crisis, she adds, “The hunger for information is insatiable right now. But whom do you trust? That’s where local and established journalists come in.”
  • Personal time: TJ Raphael, who co-hosts a new podcast called Viral: Coronavirus with Emily Saul, a former New York Post reporter, told CJR she has felt overwhelmed at times. She used to work at a daily, “so it’s nothing I haven’t tackled before,” she says, but this story is different, an onslaught of gloom. She tries to take breaks. “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.”
  • Climate change comparisons: Katie Palmer, a 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: 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 says. Publishers also need to be mindful of the message they are sending with certain photos. “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 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; 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 weeklies such as the San Antonio Current and Detroit Metro Times. The Sacramento News & Review has suspended publication and laid off its entire staff, although management says it hopes the stop would be temporary.
  • For CJR, Betsy Morais writes about the complicated work of environmental journalism in China, the world’s top producer of carbon and a country that Reporters Without Borders calls “the world’s biggest prison for media personnel.” Tori Zheng Cui, who spent years as a reporter and editor, tells Morais about her experience on the beat: “I worked on the scientific part, the factual part. I didn’t comment on policy,” Zheng said. “We were encouraged to report on how much effort China has put into gathering an international alliance in terms of combating climate change. We were encouraged to boost our own national image.”
  • Canada’s public broadcaster announced that, starting Wednesday, it is temporarily shutting down most of its local TV newscasts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said that cable news will become the core of its live service, replacing all of its supper-hour and late-night newscasts. 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 confusing and malicious reports to make it harder for the EU to communicate about its response to the pandemic. (The Kremlin has denied the allegations.) Leo Schwartz wrote for CJR about how the coronavirus poses a challenge to the already-struggling anti-disinformation efforts in Europe.
  • Earlier this month, the Australian Associated Press announced that it would have to close after major shareholders—Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia—deemed the operation, now 85-years old, unsustainable. Now the AAP has asked reporters who were scheduled to be laid off to stay on. At the eleventh hour, several bids have been made to salvage the business. 
  • The regional press industry in the United Kingdom sent a message of solidarity over more than 60 titles, which published identical front pages. “When you’re on your own, we are there with you,” the headline read. Publishing companies Archant, Reach, JPIMedia, Newsquest, and Iliffe Media joined forces to launch the #ThereWithYou campaign, supported by the News Media Association and the Society of Editors.
  • The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting announced that 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 that it will end its print run after nearly seven decades. Leaders of the magazine, which had struggled for years and steadily reduced its print frequency since the death of its founder, Hugh Hefner, in 2017, said it fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic. “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,” Ben Kohn, the chief executive, wrote. The magazine will continue to publish online, he said.
  • After hearing complaints that its misinformation policies are too lax, Twitter said it will remove tweets that run the risk of causing harm related to COVID-19. Abroader definition of “harm” will now be applied, per Twitter, to address material 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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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.