What has journalism learned from the pandemic?

December 3, 2020

CJR asked journalists for takeaways from all that nature hath wrought in the year of our Lord 2020:


Ed Yong
Staff science writer, The Atlantic
So much of a science journalist’s default mode is writing about individual studies and small, bite-size updates. This is basically what I’ve been doing for my entire career. The pandemic changed things—it was very clear from the start that this was a crisis of immense proportions, in its pace, in its stakes, that it demanded something different from our day-to-day work. I wrote twelve consecutive massive features, all between three thousand and eight thousand words. It’s been eye-opening just how much the most ambitious work has resonated with readers. If you had told me beforehand that was the type of work that people were craving, I’m not sure I would have quite believed it.

The world is not short of big problems. Editorially, when we’re given the time and space to swing big without chasing short-term goals, it has really paid off. And I hope that’s the lesson that we can take into the future. Ultimately, quality matters.


David French
Senior editor, The Dispatch
My job is to try to explain the world in certain ways to my readers. But at the same time, it has to be hedged with all the uncertainties of dealing with a novel coronavirus. How do you communicate both urgency and uncertainty in such a way that it’s credible? The act of hedging, even appropriately, can undercut the power of the message. The early confusion over the masking directives, for example, was contradictory information for a very suspicious, negatively polarized community, and it undercut public health later on. Media is a direct driver of that negative partisanship, because we’ve broken it into separate silos. It’s our responsibility to be aware of negative partisanship. We sometimes treat things—like the mail-in ballot war, or the masking war—as originating in something other than what they truly originate in, which is negative partisanship.


Nikil Saval
Pennsylvania state senator–elect and journalist
We’re seeing pressure on sections of the journalism industry that have been white male preserves, and we’re renegotiating what diversity means through representation and through the subjects we cover. One thing that remains a barrier is that the media tends to be chauvinistic—this country does not put a premium on open engagement with the world outside its borders. I think it’s the biggest issue facing the United States, ultimately. Many people don’t really know about other countries and don’t fully care, and this remains a feature of how we engage with the rest of the world journalistically. Hiring multilingual reporters isn’t often spoken of, but lots of people here don’t speak English easily, or it’s not their first language, or they have stronger connections to other countries. We need journalists who can read newspapers in other languages, who pay attention to what’s going on internationally. We need writing about the rest of the world that takes the intellectual and cultural lives of people elsewhere seriously.


Anne Helen Petersen
Former culture writer at BuzzFeed and author of Culture Study, a Substack
covid is a great clarifier, like a black light that shows you the foundational problems. In Montana, I’ve seen very clearly that it doesn’t matter how many New York Times stories you read about the virus spreading into rural areas—you need a local news source reporting on someone that you know, or your kids know. That’s the sort of connection that is necessary to take something that is so abstract and make it feel very serious. And when you don’t have a paper that people trust or that they feel that they can access, then they go to Facebook. So, just as the pandemic has clarified the incredible need for this sort of hyperlocal news, it’s also clarified exactly what happens when there is a vacuum of local news. We need to fund the quotidian day-to-day stuff, not just investigative news. How can you transfer some of the good stuff that happens on Facebook? How can you put that back into a paper form?


Katharine Wilkinson
Writer and climate change activist. Coeditor of All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis and cohost of the podcast A Matter of Degrees
We’re not connecting the dots between the pandemic and the climate crisis enough. This is a time for radical imagination. So much of what we have done is paint the picture of unfolding catastrophe, but we’ve done very little to paint the picture of what could be. We need the rage-inducing side of the story, and then we need a vision of possibility. Solutions to the climate crisis are less about stopping things than they are about rebuilding things: creating good and meaningful jobs, sustaining local communities, improving health and livelihoods. Can we lift up these stories?


Alicia Kennedy
Freelance food journalist
Food media has a very good lesson to learn from the pandemic—we have to be more aware of the forces that control the industries that we cover. There needs to be an understanding that most of our food system and most of our restaurant industry is kept afloat by unsustainably low wages, by undocumented workers, by food that is not ecologically sound. Restaurant critics need to talk to servers, to line cooks, to farmworkers. You can’t just say This restaurant is good or This chef is cool or Here, cook this. You have to dig deeper into the political and economic forces that control how food gets to a plate.


Troy Closson
Metro fellow at the New York Times
The disparities that the pandemic and the protests have highlighted and exacerbated—with regards to health, policing, climate—didn’t start in March, and they’re not going to end with a vaccine. We need to pay more attention to this continuity in everyday reporting. We also need to pay more attention to our sources. During the pandemic, some of the first people to predict disparities in health outcomes with covid were Black experts and those of color. We need to make sure we’re telling stories through perspectives of people who are living through them.


Bill Owens
Executive producer, 60 Minutes
I can’t wait to be able to send teams around the world again to cover the news. In the late sixties and early seventies, CBS News and others were covering the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, Nixon, and space exploration all at the same time, on the same program, in the same newspaper. Now many outlets are only looking at one thing at a time. It can only be this one big thing that’s right in front of us. I think it’s good to have micro-bureaus all over the world, where you have journalists who can jump on a story when there’s something happening.

Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.