The Media Today

The difficulty of seeing the coronavirus

April 10, 2020

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.”

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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.

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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.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.