The Media Today

How the coronavirus could limit shoe-leather reporting

March 10, 2020

Eleven days ago, Politico’s David Siders imagined the ways in which the spread of the coronavirus might curtail routine campaigning activities at the height of the 2020 election cycle. “Think sickly field organizers, restrictions on staff travel… and rallies no one wants to attend,” he wrote. In electoral terms, the article already feels like a relic of a bygone age—it quotes Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg, who have since dropped out of the race, and notes that a mass cancellation of rallies might help Bloomberg, given his prodigious ad presence on TV and online. (So much for that.) But in virus terms, it’s starting to feel prescient.

The coronavirus hasn’t yet caused a major recalibration of the campaign, but minor disruptions are racking up. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders—who, along with Trump, are squarely in the age bracket that should be most concerned about the virus—have both indicated that they’ll carry on holding rallies for now, but will stop should federal and local health officials advise them to do so. On Sunday, David Weigel, who’s following the campaign for the Washington Post, noted that on the Democratic side, we’re already seeing “a little less hands-on candidate access after events.” Yesterday, Biden, the consummate retail politician, confirmed to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that he’s not shaking voters’ hands like he used to. (“It’s awfully hard,” Biden said.) Some events that Biden and Sanders were invited to attend—a dinner in Washington state, and an AFL-CIO forum in Florida—were canceled, as was a Women for Trump bus tour in the Midwest. (The Trump campaign said the coronavirus wasn’t responsible for this, but the husband of one of the attendees is believed to have been exposed.) Trump’s campaign says it will schedule more rallies imminently, but it didn’t hold one last night in any of the states that vote today—breaking the president’s cycle-long habit of counterprogramming the Democratic primaries. Trump did greet supporters in Florida on a rope line yesterday. (David Nakamura, of the Post, said he saw a photo of it while a former Secret Service agent was telling him, in a phone interview, that politicians should “forget about rope lines” as they represent the “ultimate threat” of infection.)

ICYMI: Crying journalists is now a clickbait genre

Journalists, of course, stand to be affected by all this. If candidates start to limit their movements, the reporters who have been following them around will have to do likewise, limiting their opportunities to hear them speak and ask questions; if rallies are canceled, we’ll have fewer chances to hear directly from supporters. Clearly, potential access problems aren’t limited to the campaign trail; from today, for example, reporters covering major sports leagues including the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball will be excluded from teams’ locker rooms and clubhouses. Nor is access the only concern; like politicians, some journalists fly all around the country—and the world—meeting people, then returning to busy offices in big cities. We often think of ourselves as neutral observers standing outside the stories we cover. Viruses don’t respect such wishes.

Already, this has moved beyond hypotheticals. In recent days, it emerged that attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland may have been exposed to the virus. Several lawmakers who were in attendance—Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Reps. Paul Gosar, Doug Collins, Matt Gaetz, and Mark Meadows, Trump’s incoming chief of staff—have quarantined themselves. (Yesterday, Gosar tweeted that he’d “been thinking about life and mortality today,” and concluded that he’d “rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus.” Trump also attended CPAC, but has yet to be tested for the virus.) Yesterday, Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon reported that journalists who covered CPAC for the Post, Politico, the Daily Beast, and Mother Jones have been asked to self-isolate, too.

Last week, the Beast’s Maxwell Tani wrote that Condé Nast asked staffers who had visited badly affected countries—including for fashion week in Milan—to work from home, and that major outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN all took steps to limit employee travel going forward. Yesterday, Tani reported that staff in VICE’s Brooklyn office have been told to work from home, and that Vox Media’s building in lower Manhattan will be closed until at least Thursday due to exposure fears. According to CNN’s Oliver Darcy, the Times, too, is finetuning its remote-working procedures. The International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, has been canceled, as has South by Southwest, in Austin, Texas—an event that always attracts a strong media presence.

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For an understanding of how bad things might still get for journalists, Italy offers an example. Over the weekend, its government locked down the north of the country in a bid to stanch the spread of the coronavirus; yesterday, it extended such measures to the country as a whole. Alessio Perrone, a freelance journalist in Milan, told me this morning that it’s still not clear what the lockdown means for reporters’ ability to move around, but that people circulating for work reasons have had to carry paperwork to show to authorities. And in general, reporting has undoubtedly become more difficult. “If you want to cover how the epidemic is affecting the elderly, you can’t just go to a bar where they play cards anymore and ask around,” Perrone says. “We have to work harder to extrapolate details and color from phone and Skype calls. And some go-to places are not options anymore because they’re empty now.”

The US hasn’t reached such a stage yet. The prospect, however, is ample cause for concern—especially given that restrictions on journalism, however well-justified on health-and-safety grounds, don’t take place against a neutral backdrop. Powerful people in numerous walks of life—including law-enforcement officers—have proven often, and recently, that they don’t need good excuses to impede reporters’ work. If restrictions linked to the coronavirus get even slightly worse than they are right now, it’ll be harder for journalists to ask questions of everyone, from members of the public to sports stars to presidential candidates. As journalism instructors are fond of telling their students, it’s harder for sources to avoid you in person than over the phone.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • Dow down: Yesterday, markets took their biggest dive in a decade amid rising coronavirus fears and disruption in world oil markets. (So far, today has seen a limited rebound.) On Twitter, Trump—who has been preoccupied with market performance throughout the coronavirus crisis—blamed “the Fake News” for yesterday’s decline.
  • Rocking the vote: It’s not just the campaign that’s being affected by the coronavirus—actual voting could be, too. Already, election officials have encouraged voters to take precautions, such as not licking envelopes to seal postal ballots. There’s a disinformation threat here, too: Ahead of Super Tuesday last week, false claims about supposed procedural changes circulated on social media, the Post reports.
  • What’s in a name?: The World Health Organization and federal health officials in the US have so far resisted defining the coronavirus as a “pandemic,” but CNN is now using the word. “Many epidemiologists and public health experts argue the world is already experiencing a pandemic,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the network’s chief medical correspondent, writes. “What to call this outbreak is, in part, a question of semantics. But it also speaks to specific actions being taken.”
  • On the ground floor: The coronavirus is posing a challenge to local newsrooms, many of which are under-resourced, but some outlets—on the West Coast, in particular—are nonetheless doing important work. Al Cross, who heads the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, writes that staff at a small paper in his state, the Cynthiana Democrat, worked through the weekend to send everyone in its county a special edition on the coronavirus, just two days after Kentucky’s first case was confirmed.
  • Collaboration, not competition: The media expert Dan Gillmor argues that news organizations that are normally competitors should coordinate their coverage of the coronavirus. “There might have been a time, back in the days when the journalism business was making monopoly and oligopoly profits, when this vast duplication of effort would have seemed sensible,” Gillmor writes. “Today, in a time of dwindling resources for journalism overall, it is insane—and a vast disservice to the public.”
  • Bean there, done that: And Chinese state news outlets have drafted a Mr. Bean impersonator from the UK—who is currently stranded in Wuhan—to propagandize about the government’s coronavirus response. Sky News Australia has more.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The infinite scroll

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.