The crises are (still) happening (again)

A glance over the news of the last week feels like being stuck in a time loop. A Minnesota police officer killed a Black man. Protests broke out. A man took a gun into a public place and killed eight people. Newly released video footage showed that a Chicago police officer had shot and killed an unarmed child. Health officials in Colorado warned of a new potential surge in COVID-19 infections. Polls show that many Republicans are hesitant about getting vaccinated. People are dying from COVID-19. Though each of these stories felt dismally and predictably repetitive, the stories themselves are new, bearing fresh violence, fresh tragedy, and fresh grief. In many ways, individual cases of state brutality, public protest, gun violence, coronavirus infections, and political misuse of a public health emergency are part of the same old story; at the same time, they’re each singularly meaningful. The repetition reflects broken systems and ongoing crises; the stories are unique. And the press is responsible for placing individual stories in context even while allowing each story its own particular relevance. 

News outlets continue to grapple with the challenge of connecting the dots between incidents that are unique but not isolated. The New York Times reported on Saturday that police officers have been responsible for the deaths of more than three people per day since the first day of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd. In another story, the Times reported how a Chicago police officer killing seventh-grader Adam Toledo has brought back memories of Chicago police killing seventeen-year old Laquan McDonald in 2014 (in both cases, city officials attempted to obscure video evidence). The Washington Post reported that “the coronavirus pandemic in the United States has turned into a patchwork of regional hotspots, with some states hammered by a surge of infections and hospitalizations even as others have seen the crisis begin to ease.” A Times investigation found that counties that had voted for Donald Trump in November’s election had lower vaccination rates, on average. On Friday, CNN published a map noting the forty-five mass shootings that had taken place within the past month. More shootings have been reported in the two days since CNN’s map was released. On early Sunday morning, a gunman in a Wisconsin tavern killed three people and injured two more; later that day, another gunman killed three people in Austin, Texas

“Another day, another mass shooting,” Jon Allsop wrote in this newsletter on March 22, after a gunman in Colorado killed ten people in a grocery store. “The repetition of these horrors is, in a sense, just as much the point as their individuality.” And here we are again. Another day, another mass shooting, another act of police brutality, another community facing illness, another poll showing the fallout of misinformation and exploitative politics, another sister, aunt, grandfather, bus driver, colleague, or friend lost to COVID-19. 

ICYMI: It’s time to rethink how journalism covers guns and mass shootings

New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb was in Minneapolis reporting on Derek Chauvin’s trial last week when Minnesota police shot and killed Daunte Wright, another Black man. “The connections between their stories had already been secured in the public’s mind,” Cobb wrote for The New Yorker, calling Floyd’s and Wright’s deaths “installments in a serial American tragedy that no one wishes to see but is set to be replayed for the foreseeable future.” On Friday, Cobb was on CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, describing a moment in which he listened as George Floyd’s brother Philonise considered what he might say to Daunte Wright’s mother. “This man who lost his brother was sorting out how to console this woman who lost her son, and really trying to give her the lay of the land about how this would all play out in the public eye and so on,” Cobb told Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher. “That is never an expertise that anyone should have.” The two stories have been cemented together in a national conversation by the thru-line of police brutality, but each family is experiencing a grief and loss all their own. 

“The routine has become so predictable that some gun-control activists see the familiarity of tragedy as their biggest obstacle to achieving the change they’ve been seeking for the past decade,” Washington Post reporters wrote on Saturday of the repetitive prevalence of gun violence. That’s the trouble for the press, too: the familiarity of tragedy: the tragedy of police killings, gun violence, deaths from COVID-19. But tragedy is never so familiar as when it strikes you. Telling human stories takes special attention and time. And—as much as the context—it’s the specific humanity within each instance of crisis that must be foregrounded again and again and again and again, lest we lose sight of each loss in the overwhelming tumult of the crisis. 

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Below, more on intersecting crises:

  • Press freedom in Minnesota: On Friday, a federal judge issued a fourteen-day order prohibiting Minnesota State law enforcement from detaining or using force against journalists covering the protests, the Minnesota Reformer reported. (The order does not apply to the National Guard or local law enforcement). On Saturday, groups of media organizations covering the Minnesota protests signed a letter to state officials detailing mistreatment at the hands of police. In one case, the letter describes law enforcement officers arresting CNN producer Carolyn Sung—an Asian-American woman—by throwing her to the ground as she tried to comply with a dispersal order; her hands were zip-tied, and one trooper yelled to ask her if she spoke English. She was detained for over two hours. The letter also details examples of physical assaults on other journalists, including the use of chemical agents. Later that day, Minnesota governor Tim Walz called the assault and detention of journalists covering protests in the state “unacceptable in every circumstance.” “Just a reminder that police violence toward journalists is bullshit because police violence is bullshit and not because it’s happening to journalists,” Cierra Brown Hinton, Scalawag magazine’s executive director and publisher, tweeted.
  • Children and police officers: Gillian Brockell, a staff writer for The Washington Post’s history blog, Retropolis, wrote about being charged for menacing a deadly weapon just before turning thirteen, comparing her own experiences with law enforcement to the killing of thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo. In one encounter with police, Brockell was attempting to stab a neighbor with a butcher knife; in another, she fired a gun on a dare. In both circumstances, she walked away unharmed. The charges against Brockell were dropped; her record was expunged. “I have understood since that day in court that my privilege — my Whiteness and my family having just enough money for an attorney — allowed me to get a better deal in the justice system, one that would enable me to live a whole full life, good and bad, average and extraordinary,” Brockell wrote. “It isn’t just that I got the privilege of moving through the world without a criminal record. When the cops showed up, they didn’t shoot me.”
  • The trust crisis: For Nature, Jeff Tollefson wrote about efforts to combat the spread of vaccine misinformation. A research consortium called the Virality Project is attempting to use intervention strategies for misinformation developed during the election. Elsewhere, the COVID States Project has been conducting monthly surveys about public opinion surrounding the pandemic across all fifty states. 

A note from the home front: Covering Climate Now, the collaborative co-founded by CJR and The Nation to encourage better and more reporting on the climate crisis, continues its focused week of coverage. Look for stories about living through the climate emergency at Covering Climate Now’s 450 media partners, including CJR, and join the conversation on Twitter at #ClimateEmergencyWeek.

Other notable stories:

  • Soon, the drawn-out bidding wars for ownership of Tribune may find a conclusion: either the vulture-like hedge fund Alden Global Capital will take over full ownership of the company, or hotel magnate Stewart Bainum Jr. and other investors will. Hansjörg Wyss, the Swiss billionaire who had joined with Bainum to make a bid for Tribune publishing, withdrew his participation in the bid last week; The Wall Street Journal reported that Bainum is still committed to pursuing the deal. NPR described how reporters at the Tribune-owned Baltimore Sun fought to find buyers for their paper to avoid being turned over to Alden. And Margaret Sullivan offered some advice to wealthy people looking to purchase local newspapers: stay out of the newsroom, don’t expect to make a lot of money, and be aware that news organizations are a “permanent headache.”
  • Months into a Biden presidency One America News Network remains loyal to Trump, the New York Times reported. The outlet continues to broadcast segments questioning the validity of the 2020 election; sixteen out of the eighteen current and former OANN employees that the Times interviewed said that the network had broadcast stories that were inaccurate or untrue. In the Spring of 2020, Andrew McCormick profiled OANN for CJR. In interviews, staffers called the network “a circus, where ethics are absent, turnover is high, and dissent is met with rage,” McCormick wrote. “At the helm, they say, is Robert Herring, a wealthy businessman and kind of mini-Trump, whose near-singular focus seems to be supporting the president and his policies.”
  • For Politico, Derek Robertson wrote about the recent spate of documentaries, books, and essay series about QAnon, and what such series—specifically, Cullen Hoback’s Adam-McKay-produced documentary “Into the Storm”—can teach about QAnon’s relationship to mainstream reporting. “For all of the mainstream media’s handwringing about ‘responsible’ coverage of conspiracy theories, the far right has built its own alternative media infrastructure largely independent of and indifferent to mainstream outlets,” Robertson writes. “They’ve done so by taking advantage of both America’s free speech laws and — until very recently — the total indifference of Big Tech toward the proliferation of extremist content.”
  • Today marks the deadline set by the Biden White House directing states to open COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to everyone over the age of sixteen. Last night, Axios reported that the White House plans a targeted media blitz to emphasize the safety and importance of vaccination. The administration plans to target specific groups that report vaccine hesitancy; members of the administration will reportedly appear on various local radio interviews, in addition to appearances with radio host Rickey Smiley, Telemundo, and All Ag News. Dr. Anthony Fauci will make appearances on Snapchat.

ICYMI: What does the future hold for nonprofit newsrooms?

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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