Should we ‘publish less’ on the pandemic?

Yesterday, Neal Rothschild and Sara Fischer, of Axios, shared some troubling data from NewsWhip, a social-media analytics firm. “New coronavirus cases in the US have never been higher,” they wrote in summary, but “online interest in the pandemic has never been lower.” In the last two weeks, news stories about covid-19 saw their lowest level of engagement on social media (likes, shares, and so forth) since early March, when interest in the pandemic was on an upward trajectory. That’s not because there’s less covid journalism to engage with: the number of stories appearing now is comparable to the summer months, Rothschild and Fischer report, and cable-news mentions of the pandemic have persisted at a high level. (Surprise! Trump’s claim that mainstream outlets would stop coveringcovid, covid, covidcovid, covid, covid” once the election was over was wrong.) Rather, they conclude, “lower interest—not less media coverage—is responsible for the lower engagement.”

Engagement, of course, is not the only way of measuring news consumption and interest, both of which elude easy quantification. Still, as the pandemic has progressed, other data points have driven at a similar conclusion. In March, news sites benefited from a pronounced covid traffic bump, but it quickly dissipated. As spring turned to summer turned to fall, other big stories—the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests; the election—frequently overtook the pandemic in terms of interest and media attention. According to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of respondents who said they were following covid news “very closely” declined from nearly sixty percent in March to thirty-five percent in September, with the latter figure further declining to twenty-six percent among people who support or lean toward supporting the Republican Party—a partisan attention gap that has widened considerably over time. Overall, more people—and many more Republicans than Democrats—think the pandemic has been overhyped than think it has been minimized or treated with an appropriate level of attention.The US isn’t alone here: research published over the summer by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found a sharp rise in “news avoidance” in the UK, with most avoiders saying that covid news put them in a bad mood.

From the magazine: For Pueblo

More immediately, the NewsWhip data chimes with a broader sentiment that has been much covered recently: covid fatigue. Clearly, our collective engagement—in the broader, non-social-media-specific sense of the term—with the pandemic story has not risen and fallen with the severity of the scientific facts on the ground; rather, it has responded to a complex mix of social, political, and, simply put, very human factors. As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote in April, addressing the decline of the initial covid traffic bump, “Sustained attention is hard to maintain over time, no matter how objectively important a topic might be. The lives of nearly every American (and, of course, billions elsewhere) are now starkly different than they were a couple months ago—but their interest in news has rapidly regressed toward the mean.” While coverage has continued at a high level—and some of it has been excellent—much of it has become routine, settling into familiar, circular grooves. Of course, living and working in the permanent state of high-pitched, anguished fury and grief that the facts here demand is hardly sustainable. The covid story is many things at once: persistently tragic, but also deeply uncertain and, sometimes, boring, all of which complicates the production of journalism. We shouldn’t be in the business of sugar-coating and false hope, nor of contriving excitement.

The pandemic is an inherently difficult story to cover, let alone while we all, as journalists, deal with varying levels of exhaustion and health risk, as well as layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, and the rest. There are, though, things we could do differently, and in recent weeks, media-watchers have spelled some of them out. Yesterday, for example, Rothschild and Fischer quoted from a recent episode of Peter Kafka’s Recode Media podcast that featured an interview with Zeynep Tufekci, a techno-sociologist and breakout authority on the pandemic. Tufekci referred to coverage that she said drove her “up the wall,” including alarmist headlines about the death of a participant in a vaccine trial (the person in question was in a control group, and even if they hadn’t been, alarm need not have followed) and teachers who caught covid. The problem, Tufekci argued, is that news organizations are “overproducing the article of the day” and parroting the words of experts and politicians, rather than working out how they can synthesize and add value. “Everyone is publishing more. And I’m kinda like, publish less,” she said. “People are publishing readable stuff and oversimplifying.” Sometimes outlets end up contradicting each other and themselves. “We end up in an environment where people don’t really trust the media as much, because this one said this and this one said that,” Tufekci said.

There are many reasons for media mistrust, of course, and they aren’t uniformly journalists’ fault. Tufekci, though, makes a good point about the risks of overproduction and oversimplification. Vaccine coverage is a good example of the point: as The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang wrote recently, vaccine trials usually proceed outside of the glare of immediate public scrutiny, but this year, interest in the process is so intense that every minor development makes news, a situation that can make it hard to know which are important and which aren’t. The recent announcements, by Pfizer and Moderna, that their vaccine candidates appear to be highly effective are undoubtedly important, but their results were preliminary and published via press release, and not in a peer-reviewed journal—caveats that were present in much coverage but often emphasized much less strongly than the topline impression of “good news.”

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Science proceeds slowly, but the news cycle does not. When important things are happening in the world—from the vaccine developments to the latest surge in confirmed cases and the overwhelming of many hospitals—our instinct is to cover them, because that’s what journalists do; when coverage of a crucial topic—climate change, for instance—is not adequately forthcoming or prominent, media critics like me are wont to complain, often in quantitative terms. None of this is wrong, and the covid story is so huge and all-encompassing that it can be told from near-infinite angles. Each death, each livelihood destroyed, tells a story. Yet the proposition that less, sometimes, can be more also contains merit, and needn’t contradict the prior point. Herding less instinctively around “the article of the day,” as Tufekci puts it, and being more patient with the intrinsic messiness of the scientific process could open up attention and resources to redirect elsewhere, and could even freshen up the general tenor of covid coverage. Whether or not that will re-engage lost public attention is harder to say. On that score, there are no easy answers.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • The costs of paying attention: According to Claudia Wallis, of Scientific American, recent studies have shown that the pandemic’s toll on mental health has been even worse than experts expected, especially among young adults. Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, found that “increased engagement with media coverage of the outbreak” is a major driver of anxiety among people of all ages. “If people are engaged with a great deal of media, they are more likely to exhibit and report distress, but that distress seems to draw them further into the media,” Silver says. “It’s a cyclical pattern from which it is difficult to extricate oneself.”
  • Long covid: In a Twitter thread, Mara Gay, a member of the New York Times editorial board, thanked journalists for paying attention to “long COVID,” or the persistence of health problems among people (including Gay) who contracted the disease, but also offered her perspective on how coverage could be improved. “Stories that mention in passing that some of us may be permanently disabled (or not), or have a chronic condition (or not), without taking the time to lay out what that may or may not mean aren’t helpful or actionable, only terrifying,” Gay wrote. “covid survivors are healing slowly, but we are still healing. They need more focus on what is working, where to get help, and where to find support.”
  • The danger of small events: Public-health officials across the country have said that small social gatherings—such as dinner parties and sleepovers—appear to have emerged as a significant driver of the recent surge in confirmed cases. As Karin Brulliard wrote recently for the Washington Post, this marks a change: for months, “the danger of large events has been a focus of state and local restrictions and of media coverage.”
  • The industry damage: The Davis County Clipper, a local weekly newspaper in Bountiful, Utah, will cease publication next month after nearly one hundred and thirty years in business. In a statement, R. Gail Stahle, the paper’s publisher, said that the pandemic has exacerbated its longer-term financial struggles, and that “the operating model for the Clipper is just no longer viable.” The Deseret News has more. (As ever, to stay up to date on the impact the pandemic has had on the news business, subscribe to Lauren Harris’s “Journalism Crisis Project” newsletter, a production of CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.)


Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s new magazine on a transitional moment for journalism, Mary Retta explores “commentary YouTube,” where videos are grounded in cultural and political analysis. “Individuals with large followings and the time to devote to research are seizing the opportunity to challenge the dominance of mainstream outlets,” Retta writes. These creators and their audiences are “a young crowd… typically no older than thirty.” Also for the magazine, Abe Streep profiles John Rodriguez, the publisher of the Pueblo Pulp, a monthly in Colorado, who tried to get public funding to keep his paper afloat. “This isn’t just about news,” he told local officials. “Local media also drives the local economy.”
  • In Washington, Pentagon officials announced that the US will halve its number of troops in Afghanistan before Inauguration Day; the officials refused to take questions, drawing the ire of reporters. Mark Esper, Trump’s former defense secretary who opposed such a drawdown, was recently fired by tweet; yesterday, the same fate befell Christopher Krebs, a Homeland Security official responsible for election cybersecurity who publicly disputed Trump’s election lies. As Trump’s challenges to the result founder, he shuffled his legal team again, including by tapping Marc Scaringi—a Pennsylvania lawyer and talk-radio host who recently said, on his show, that Trump’s litigation “will not work.”
  • Elsewhere in Washington, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, the respective CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, testified virtually before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As is typical, Republican gripes about content moderation dominated—but as Makena Kelly writes, for The Verge, “with the pressure valve of the election fully released, the hearing struck an unusually libertarian tone, suggesting some Republicans may be cooling on the idea of heavy-handed tech regulation.” Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey addressed how their platforms will approach Trump’s accounts once he leaves office, with Dorsey stressing that Trump will no longer qualify for the special latitude afforded world leaders.
  • Jeremy W. Peters, of the Times, profiles Real Clear Politics, a site for politics nerds that has made a “sharp right turn” in the Trump era. Since Trump took office, “donations to its affiliated nonprofit have soared,” and “large quantities of those funds came through two entities that wealthy conservatives use to give money without revealing their identities.” Real Clear has also developed business ties with The Federalist, a hard-right site.
  • Poynter’s Amaris Castillo spoke with reporters in Georgia, who are pivoting from the state’s presidential race to cover runoffs that will determine control of the US Senate, all amid huge national interest. “Everyone wanting to know what’s happening in Georgia was overwhelming, but in a good way,” Stephen Fowler, of Georgia Public Broadcasting, says. “Too often I feel like there’s a focus on Georgia and the South in a reductive way.”
  • In media-business news, cryptocurrency reporters from outlets including CoinDesk and Forbes have formed the Association of Cryptocurrency Journalists and Researchers, a member-based group. Elsewhere, Marker, a Medium publication, launched The Mobilist, a blog, written by Steve LeVine, focused on “the future of batteries, electric cars, and driverless vehicles.” And Business Insider is staffing up for a new bureau in Singapore.
  • In France, lawmakers began debating a new security bill that would, among other provisions, make it a crime to publish images of police officers’ faces with the intent of undermining their “physical and psychological integrity.” Press-freedom and human-rights advocates protested against the bill, which they fear will be used to gag journalists and protect law enforcement from legitimate scrutiny. France 24 has more.
  • Also in France, Radio France Internationale accidentally published pre-written obituaries for around a hundred celebrities, including the Queen and Clint Eastwood, who aren’t dead yet. RFI blamed migration to a new CMS for the error; Abdoulaye Wade, a former president of Senegal, saw the funny side, noting that “not everybody gets the chance to take note of one’s obituary while still alive.” Aurelien Breeden has more for the Times.
  • And Twitter launched “fleets”—a Snapchat-like feature allowing users to post messages that disappear after a day. When Twitter unveiled the idea, back in March, Nieman Lab’s Benton wrote that fleets might make journalists’ feeds cleaner while damaging journalism as a whole: “The most news-friendly social media platform,” he wrote, has taken a step toward ephemeral content that “the news isn’t that great at producing.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.