Tow Center

The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter

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In the three and half years since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a wholesale reevaluation of how platforms and the press interact with each other, and platforms have directed a great deal of funding at journalism and at what might broadly be called “fighting misinformation.” Last week, Google offered yet more funding, though not much of it—$6.5 million—to fact-checkers and non-profits fighting misinformation about COVID-19, and Facebook put $100 million into the global journalism world through $25 million of direct support and $75 million of “marketing spend.”

But when it comes to tackling the far more multivariate problems of reporting a new, changing, and deadly story, the lessons of the “last war” of misinformation in the 2016 election are limited. The lack of good information is now a greater problem than the circulation of incorrect information. The need for consistent reporting and good data far outstrip the need for fact-checking and debunking, yet the latter are the techniques that have attracted the attention and investment.

Charlie Warzel characterizes this as an information war in this weekend’s New York Times. This might be true, but we are still underinvesting in the front lines of that war—reporting—and in studying the role that journalists play in creating a safer environment.

What the COVID-19 crisis has shown us is that fighting “misinformation” cannot substitute for systemic changes needed in platform design, deep investment in reporting and editing, and the cultivation of a knowledgeable and deep bench of professional journalists from local and national outlets. A piece by Sarah Kreps and Brendan Nyhan in Foreign Affairs magazine last week argued that platforms’ tighter controls on posts and comments about Coronavirus are different to the measures required for political speech, the former being more urgent and existentially threatening, and thus needing more policing, while the latter are more difficult and dangerous to police. This seems to be a false reading: The pandemic is a highly political story which should be led by public health considerations, but the policies enacted around them are inevitably colored by government response.

What are the rules for reporting a pandemic? Plenty of guides and advice carry misleading or just plain wrong advice that might, in ordinary circumstances, be considered uncontroversial. A warning not to show upsetting images or sensationalize coverage might be useful in the wake of a bombing, but is it useful when conspiracy theorists are spreading a hashtag campaign suggesting hospitals are in fact empty and the pandemic is a hoax? Powerful reporting, such as the almost unreadably graphic ProPublica story from inside a Louisiana hospital on lung failure, is in fact exactly the type of coverage which illustrates a reality that needs to be understood, rather than avoided.

Similarly, advising journalists to point readers or viewers to “official sources” during a health crisis, as each of the technology platforms has done, is insufficient for anyone wishing to be properly informed since official sources are so variable in quality. When searching Google for COVID-19, scanning news on Twitter, or opening the Facebook COVID-19 resource center, a Center for Disease Control link is prominent, and while that site is both comprehensive and official, its messaging has been poor, particularly on testing and whether or not to wear masks.  A White House briefing, though “official,” is in fact dangerously unreliable, touting unproven medication, giving ambivalent messages about social distancing, and politicizing a matter of life and death. Although New York City was clearly horribly underprepared for the onset of the epidemic, Andrew Cuomo’s press briefings have become appointment viewing, largely for the predictability of the numbers and slides that illustrate the disease’s daily progress, and the walkthrough of what the state is doing about it. I wrote about that this week here at the Guardian, along with the changes we are long overdue in terms of how political and lobby reporters relay briefings.

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For those wanting to know more about the press, the pandemic and what the role of journalism can deliver, and where it is getting it wrong, I highly recommend the series of webinars science journalist Andrew Revkin is running through the Earth Institute at Columbia. This one with Pulitzer winning reporter Laurie Garrett is a really fascinating watch that gives insight into how difficult it is to report stories politicians—and often the public—do not want to hear. And this one featuring Jay Rosen from NYU and sociologist and writer Zeynep Tufekci on how the press can improve are both terrific, as well.

—Emily Bell, director

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

Layoffs, furloughs, and major budget cuts continue to devastate the journalism industry. In the New Yorker, Michael Luo writes, “Already, the disease has exposed the fragility of the American health-care system, highlighting its weak points, showing us where it is easily overwhelmed. It will do the same for other systems, including the media ecosystem. The question at this point is how much of it can survive, and how much of it might be rebuilt.”

Vice announced it would cut salaries for top staff and freeze promotions, while Bustle Digital Group laid off 24 employees across its digital properties and abruptly shut down Josh Topolsky’s The Outline a year after acquiring it. Maven Media, which owns Sports Illustrated and TheStreet, announced layoffs amounting to 9% of its staff.

Local news publishers continue to be hit especially hard as advertising dries up, despite rising readership. Since last week’s newsletter dozens more local newspapers have suspended their print editions. Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which owns more than 200 daily newspapers in the US, announced major cuts including unpaid furloughs for staffers. Lee Enterprises, which owns newspapers in 25 states, also announced furloughs and pay cuts. The San Francisco Examiner and SF Weekly cut pay and hours for all employees by 40%. Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a reporter and columnist with the Examiner, told KQED’s Devin Katayama, “It’s not about me personally. That’s not what I’m worried about. I’ll be fine. This mission of hyper-local San Francisco news, really, it’s what we think about every day. It’s what we talk about every day. We breathe it. The hardest part is not a furlough of pay. The hardest part is the furlough of mission.”

We at the Tow Center are attempting to keep track of all newsroom cuts taking place during the pandemic. If your newsroom has experienced layoffs or budget cuts due to COVID-19, please consider helping us out by filling out this form.

On the platform side, Facebook and Google continue to announce products, grants, initiatives, and partnerships related to journalism and the pandemic. The Facebook Journalism Project announced the first 13 recipients of its $1 million grant program dedicated to Coronavirus fact-checking, while the Google News Initiative pledged an additional $6.5 million to “fight Coronavirus misinformation” around the world. The bulk of this money will go to fact-checking organizations around the world, including further bolstering Google’s longtime support of First Draft, which will now provide “online courses, crisis simulation training, resources, collaboration and a global ‘highlight’ tipline” for journalists covering the pandemic.

Facebook has pledged $25 million in emergency grant funding for local news including direct funding to newsrooms through its COVID-19 Community Network grant program, which will announce its remaining recipients later this month. These $5,000 newsroom grants, however, are just a small portion of Facebook’s recent $100 million investment in the news industry, the bulk of which does not yet come with an explicitly stated purpose.

Google has still not announced any direct funding to journalists or publishers covering the pandemic.

As part of an upcoming article on how local newsrooms in New York City have been covering the city’s Covid-19 crisis, Tow’s Senior Research Fellow Sara Rafsky recently spoke with Jarrett Murphy, Executive Editor of the nonprofit news organization City Limits.  Here is an excerpt from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

What has changed in your newsroom in terms of coverage and how you allocate editorial resources?

Our DNA has been to fill the gaps—whenever everybody is talking about one thing, to be talking about something else and to try to draw attention to what’s not in the spotlight.  But we have abandoned that strategy now. We are all Covid, all the time. There’s no reason to be talking about anything else and it’s very difficult to be reporting on anything else, and the story is so sprawling and so important to the kinds of things that we traditionally cover. Our focus in covering it has been on how the most vulnerable are being affected. So, while we have obviously listened to the Governor and the Mayor’s press conferences and we’ve done some of that kind of general stuff, we have focused a lot on the jail population and senior citizens and the homeless shelters, public housing, undocumented immigrants, that kind of thing, which frankly is what we always try to focus on anyway.

We also are paying for more translation of stories from Spanish into English and from English into Spanish. We have this thing called Voices of New York that aims to translate ethnic, non- English speaking local press into English, and so we’ve accelerated that as well. Our coverage of coronavirus actually started in [late January] with our translating stuff that was in some of the Chinese press about how restaurants were being affected by the reputational impact of the disease. That’s where our coverage began.

Is there anything you’ve learned from covering past crises in New York City that applies here, or is Covid-19 totally unique? 

I wasn’t here for 9/11, but one lesson I learned from Hurricane Sandy was that you have to be aware that what you’re seeing is just one slice of the city’s reality. So here in the Bronx there was no damage [from Sandy], the kids just got one week off from school and I was lulled into a feeling that we were overplaying the crisis. But then someone called me from Brooklyn and said, “you got to get down here. It’s a disaster.”And so I did and then I realized that in fact it was a huge disaster for a massive swath of city, just not my swath. I think I learned that awareness and making sure that tunnel vision doesn’t set in are key to understanding that a crisis like this is sprawling and evolving by the moment. There can be a lot of different perspectives on it. And there’s no one right one; only together do they kind of capture what’s happening.

READ: Conservative Newswork: A report on the values and practices of online journalists on the right

So it’s important to spread out. And that’s part of why I’ve been kind of happy, in a way, that we’ve been forced to send our reporters out to the four different neighborhoods where they live, to, even if only  through osmosis, observe what’s happening. I much prefer that to us spending all day in our office infecting each other and not seeing that. It’s forcing us to pay attention to how this is evolving in different places.

Other stories of note:

  • In a statement to the New York Times, Facebook admitted to banning posts and comments organizing mask-making and donation efforts. “The automated systems we set up to prevent the sale of medical masks needed by health workers have inadvertently blocked some efforts to donate supplies,” Facebook told the Times. “We apologize for this error and are working to update our systems to avoid mistakes like this going forward. We don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people doing a good thing.” The company previously told users the posts violated a ban on sale of regulated goods and services, the Times reported.
  • Bellingcat’s Robert Evans tracks the spread of lies related to the pandemic—a circular trail from conspiracy media like ZeroHedge and Infowars to high-traffic twitter accounts and back again. Evans focuses on the baseless claim that the coronavirus originated in a bioweapons lab in Wuhan, and on the high-volume twitter-aggregator websites that turn stray right-wing tweets into news stories and are in turn cited by other outlets.
  • New Orleans blues musician Landon Spradlin, who died of COVID-19, inspired a wide variety of coverage from across US and international media based on his pro-Trump Facebook posts. Patheos’s Friendly Athiest blog noted that Spradlin, also a pastor, had posted to Facebook criticizing the media reaction to the pandemic. The BBC interviewed his daughter Jesse, who is quoted at length criticizing the media her father ignored to his detriment. One of the quotes: “I was frustrated with the way that the media was very agenda driven—and it’s on both sides. I feel like the coronavirus issue turned into something that was ‘party against party’ instead of one nation under God.” Writing in Foriegn Policy, Emily Brumfield Hessen took the opposite point of view. “The local blues musician and small-time street preacher became a symbol and a punchline, presented as a pandemic-denying Trumpist evangelical who got what he deserved,” she writes. “But Landon Spradlin wasn’t killed by his misguided religious beliefs, and he deserves better than to be remembered as a punchline.”ICYMI: What TV stations’ public files tell us about Mike Bloomberg
  • National security stalwart Marcy Wheeler notes that Donald Trump fired the intelligence community’s in-house watchdog, inspector general Michael Atkinson, late on Friday night in the middle of other breaking news. He likely did this, Wheeler writes, as revenge for Atkinson’s role in the impeachment hearings, but the dismissal may also help to preempt an internal inquiry into the president’s mishandling of the classification structure to paper over his refusal to respond to the growing threat of COVID-19 or take warnings about it seriously. In March, Reuters reported that since “dozens of classified discussions about such topics as the scope of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions have been held since mid-January in a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), a key player in the fight against the coronavirus,” keeping the meetings out of the press but also keeping high-level personnel at HHS without clearances out of the meetings.
  • The AP’s Terry Tang writes about the use of social media to oppose race-hate directed at people of Asian descent. “For Asian Americans, there’s the virus of COVID-19 and there’s the virus of hate,” Chinese American author Helen Zia tells Tang. “The hate virus is also going to get much worse.” A recently established reporting center for hate incidents logs more than 1,100 reports, many of them taking place in grocery stores and pharmacies, often using language that mirrors Donald Trump’s insistence on referring to the novel coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.”
  • The Wall Street Journal calls daily notes from Columbia’s Craig Smith, published by Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, “essential reading.” Check them out here.
George Civeris, Emily Bell, Sara Rafsky, and Sam Thielman work at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School.