Tow Center

The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter: Is the media the mirror or the antidote?

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Amid this pandemic, publishers face a daunting task in a drastically altered world. Revenue has dropped sharply as small businesses, having closed or lost customers to shelter-in-place rules, pull their advertising. The work of journalism itself has shifted, as reporters lose face-to-face contact with their editors and their sources. And misinformation about the virus, its spread, its potential cures, and protests against shelter-in-place orders demands ever greater vigilance.

But publishers must also consider the larger role of the media in context: schools of thought in communication studies, in particular media effects and health communications, argue that the media, and the way it frames, presents, and writes about issues, can shape audience behavior. Public behavior is crucial to stymying the pandemic itself, so what works, not just for the business model but for the wider health of the population? Should journalism strive to present to readers an objective reflection of society, or should it publish and promote content in the hope of changing public behaviors?

It is up to each publisher to decide for themselves how they will answer these questions, as they consider their relationship with their readers, their professional journalistic ethics, and their personal view of journalism’s role within larger political, social, technological, biological, and cultural ecosystems. Joe Kahn, the New York Times’ managing editor, last week told Recode, “There’s a line between doing aggressive reporting and kind of acting in the role of a public health agency. And you never have a degree of complete certainty about the medical analysis, and the epidemiology.”

To assist publishers grappling with this uncertainty, we’d like to provide resources. Here, we focus on scholarly research from communities in public health, in particular how the media and messaging interacts with, shapes, and influences public health. With these resources, we hope to describe the role and scope of media messaging within large public health crises. These sources take a largely positivist and liberal view of health messaging, meaning that they frame individuals’ behaviors as important pieces of public health, and that tailored media messaging can operate as an influential intervention into these behavioral patterns in a way that would be beneficial, at either an individual or societal level. We’ve gathered these links from institutional sources like academic journals supported by scientific processes of peer review, including the American Journal of Public Health and the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics, as well as institutional and academic bodies of scientists and health experts, including the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

  • Effective Health Risk Communication About Pandemic Influenza for Vulnerable Populations | AJPH | Vol. 99 Issue S2
    The American Journal of Public Health features this article about effective health communication, with a focus on vulnerable populations. This article is especially noteworthy for its focus on the “sociocultural, economic, psychological, and health factors [that] can jeopardize or facilitate public health interventions.”A key takeaway is the “Framework for Communication Preparedness and Implementation,” including the recommendation that communications be phased alongside tactical and operational responses, that communications be tailored to situational contexts such as schools, workplaces, and public gatherings, and that channels of communication be carefully considered to reach the community being addressed. This framework also suggests being deliberate about focusing on community-first communications, by targeting local outlets with accessible, action-based messaging and embracing trusted sources by tapping into local networks of trust within communities headed by faith-based leaders, civic organizers, PTA leaders, and others.
  • Media–The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century—NCBI Bookshelf
    The National Center for Biotechnology Information presents its write-up of the role of media as an actor in the public health system. This features overviews of the media in the aids crisis and the 2001 anthrax attacks, health-focused entertainment including TV shows like ER, and the role of media advocacy. Key insights are that public health messaging can improve public awareness of a health problem, that media plays an important role in focusing the attention of important opinion leaders, and that news media can promote health at the community level. This piece is prescient about the tensions that may arise between politicians, public health officials, and reporters, and the potential of journalist training to alleviate some of these tensions.
  • What Should Health Science Journalists Do in Epidemic Responses?
    The American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics offers this paper on the role of health science journalism, with a case study of the 2013–2016 Ebola epidemic and recommendations for strategies for improved epidemic reporting. These recommendations, directed at public health officials and practitioners, include designating an online resource library for best journalism practices during epidemics, enhancing channels of communication between responders and reporters, engaging journalists and responders in trust-building exercises, making money and equipment available to journalists covering epidemics, viewing local journalists as colleagues, and helping responders and clinicians understand that good journalists strive to be allies in navigating an outbreak.
  • Health Communication & Health Promotion Resources
    The Columbia Mailman School of Public Health offers a number of resources for health communications. This page contains many links to these resources, including storytelling workshops, free online courses in health communication, and sources to design presentations and graphics.

—Elizabeth Watkins, researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Data + Society



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Tow Center: What revenue conversations are happening right now? 

Will Lee, SVP of Digital for Meredith Entertainment Group: I’d say that digital media businesses that have scale haven’t been affected tremendously by corona—and in fact at Meredith our digital audiences have definitely grown in the past month, fairly significantly—and businesses that have been able to maintain or grow scale are going to be in a much better position in a few months’ time. And we’ve done a really good job across the portfolio, not just at the entertainment brands, of maintaining audience and pivoting coverage to address the needs of the audience. When you have brands like Health and Parents, whatever they were doing before, they’ve obviously become even more important brands for the consumer.

A brand like Entertainment Weekly, for instance, is in a more challenged place because so much of what they cover on a day-to-day basis has just gone away. There aren’t as many shows and movies being released right now. But even that team has done a really impressive pivot to being a great curator for people who are stuck at home and need entertainment. We had five shows on People Video that were fully studio shows. All shot in studio. You had a crew, control room, all that stuff. Literally, all of our shows haven’t missed any release. They’re still going daily or weekly. They’ve stayed on schedule with teams that are fully distributed. I mean, fully working from home. Not a single person in a studio. So that is something that obviously is going to make us rethink how certain shows get produced. Now, people have asked me a number of times, like, do you think celebrities are going to do their stuff from home or do interviews from home in their sweats? And look, the audience still wants to see celebrities look good, you know, aspirationally, and be glamorous and beautiful. That’s not going to change. So I think we’re not going to see a bunch of people doing interviews from their couches. But in terms of how we produce video, I think this is a really important moment for us to learn how to do it in a different way.

Excerpt from an interview by Nushin Rashidian, edited and condensed for clarity.


An update on how platforms and publishers are reacting to the pandemic

covid-19 continues to devastate the news industry, with publishers announcing layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, and print reductions daily. Last week began with Condé Nast CEO Roger J. Lynch informing six thousand employees globally about immediate pay cuts and furloughs. Regarding future layoffs, he wrote, “While we consider it a last option, we do expect there will be some role eliminations as part of these efforts.” As the New York Times reports, after years of losses Condé Nast was on track to turn a profit in 2020, due to successful subscription and paywall efforts for many of its properties, and expansion onto new platforms such as TikTok. Profitability now seems like a pipe dream.

Last week was a difficult one for digital-only publishers, as well. Slate announced company-wide pay cuts up to 20 percent, while Vox Media is furloughing 9 percent of employees, among other cuts across its properties (which now include New York magazine). The Vox plan seems to be a result of contentious negotiations with the Vox Media Union, which tweeted, “While we appreciate Vox Media talking to us in good faith, we don’t agree with the company’s decision to furlough employees—especially after hundreds of us told the company we were willing to take wider pay cuts to save all jobs.” Elsewhere, BuzzFeed shut down its morning show AM to DM and laid off its entire staff.

In an especially devastating blow to local news in California, the Los Angeles Times’ parent company, California Times, closed three suburban newspapers serving the cities of Burbank, Glendale, and La Cañada Flintridge. As the Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton writes, “These are not small cities that are losing their papers. Glendale has 201,000 people and Burbank has 103,000. (La Cañada Flintridge has 23,000.) The idea that a city of 200,000 people could not support a daily newspaper would’ve seemed foreign to a publisher a few decades ago; that it apparently can’t support a weekly now is the unfortunate reality.”

On the platform side, Google announced a variety of relief efforts for news publishers, finally joining Facebook in offering direct support to journalism during the pandemic. The Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund will “deliver urgent aid to thousands of small, medium and local news publishers globally” and is “open to news organizations producing original news for local communities during this time of crisis, and will range from the low thousands of dollars for small hyper-local newsrooms to low tens of thousands for larger newsrooms.” The application can be found here and will close on April 29.

Google also announced it will waive ad-serving fees for news publishers for the next five months., the charitable arm of the company, is giving $1 million collectively to the International Center for Journalists and Columbia’s own Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Elsewhere, Amazon is cutting commission rates for members of Amazon Associates, its affiliate program that drives revenue for digital publishers like BuzzFeed and the New York Times’ Wirecutter. Amazon’s business is among the few thriving during the crisis.

While social media companies seem like the rare businesses that could benefit financially from a world where everyone remains home, the New York Times reports that even Google and Facebook may face a slump in digital advertising. However, “as gloomy as the situation may appear for Google and Facebook, the outlook for the rest of the digital advertising industry is even bleaker,” the Times reports. “What little digital spending there is will still flow to them, leaving smaller social media platforms and publishers out in the cold.”


Other stories of note:

  • The European Journalism Centre’s newsletter lists a number of new projects offering funding to journalists and newsrooms, several of them from platforms including Google and Facebook.
  • The European Commission is taking civil libertarians’ concerns to Google and Apple over the development of covid tracking apps proposed for the companies. Thierry Breton, the EU’s single market commissioner, called a half-hour conversation with Google CEO Sundar Pichai “good and constructive,” but also said that “the development and interoperability [of contact tracing apps] need to fully respect our values and privacy,” according to a story about the exchange in the Financial Times.
  • National Geographic’s Natasha Daly has made a hobby of debunking fake feel-good animal news on Twitter, including a recent fantastical-seeming story about dolphins roaming free in the canals of Venice as humans stay inside. Her analysis of the topic can be read here.
  • New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow has a modest proposal for media organizations: stop airing the president’s coronavirus briefings. Blow recalls the much-cited mediaQuant study estimating the value to his campaign of then-candidate Trump’s exposure to voters by the press corps at $2 billion. The cost to society of repeating this mistake, Blow writes, is more than money: “He delivers his disinformation flanked by scientists and officials, whose presence only serves to convey credibility to propagandistic performances that have simply become a replacement for his political rallies.”
  • For Harvard’s Nieman Lab, journalism consultant Tom Trewinnard predicts that “the distributed newsroom is here to stay.” The future, he writes, belongs to decentralized media outlets that can shift workflows into their workers’ personal lives and spaces. “In doing so, we can capitalize on all the things that can make distributed work so effective—the sustainability benefits, the enhanced diversity and accessibility of our newsrooms, the new opportunities for engagement, and the increased flexibility—while also retaining and supplementing the advantages of in-person interaction offered by physical newsrooms.”
George Civeris, Elizabeth Watkins, Nushin Rashidian, and Sam Thielman work at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School.