Journalists covering the COVID 19 pandemic are struggling to access credible information as the public seeks the facts on a fast-changing story.
Representatives of top health care, business and science writing associations and front-line journalists participated in a Power Shift Project webinar on April 27, 2020, about covering COVID 19, moderated by Freedom Forum fellow Jill Geisler. All agreed that their members are scrambling to report a story that encompasses health, science, the environment and the economy.
“Right now, everybody is a health reporter,” said Len Bruzzese, executive director of the Association of Health Care Journalists. His organization is offering a special six-month half-price membership for journalists who have been thrown into the pandemic story who may previously have been covering the police beat, for example. AHCJ offers tip sheets, resources and webinars on topics ranging from understanding what a preprint (scientific research that has yet to be peer-reviewed or published) is to lessons learned from past health crisis.
Meaghan Parker, executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, says many of her members are freelancers who regularly move across beats. “One of the first things we did was to put out some tips sheets on environmental angles to this crisis – from respiratory conditions exacerbated to decreased emissions to gas prices.”
The National Association of Science Writers checked in with its members in early April, said executive director Tinsley Davis, finding that 77 percent of respondents were worried about future employment, freelance opportunities and the ability to balance work and family amid the crisis.
Parker said the SEJ launched rapid-response grants that allow members to continue to cover important environmental issues, which are being overshadowed by pandemic coverage. “We wanted to make sure our members were able to access funding to continue to do what they do best.”
Kathleen Graham, executive director of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, said, “This crisis underscores the important role business journalists play in an economic crisis. Our membership is business journalists who have been thrust into health reporting.”
SABEW has offered webinars about using data to report the COVID 19 story, as well as transitional job advice. “We’re seeing people get furloughed, get laid off. Can they transition to being a freelancer?”
All expressed concern about the lack of transparency on both state and federal levels.
Early in the crisis, the Centers for Disease Control “routinely held weekly briefings,” said Felice Freyer, reporter for The Boston Globe and vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. That ended in early March when the White House took over, reportedly because the CDC’s message contradicted the White House.
“The politicians need to step aside,” said Freyer. “I want a top briefing from a health official who really knows what’s going on. Polls show those are the people who are most trusted anyway. You want the doctor out there.”
Added SABEW’s Graham, “Also important to us is defending the First Amendment. We are calling for greater accountability in the government. Who is getting these (small business) loans?”
State and local governments are often taking different strategies to release information, Freyer said. Some states aren’t revealing where deaths are occurring, or who is dying. “People have been lax on reporting the virus’s impact on people with color,” Freyer said. “That requires a willingness to track that information and release it.”
Kim Quillen, business editor at the Chicago Tribune, said she’d like to see more regular updates on the virus’s economic impact from the Labor Department. “Tracking the curve and flattening the curve is very important. I’d like to see more regular reporting on the broad economic toll this virus is taking.”
Meera Subramanian, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, agreed that reporting credible information is critical. “We need to be working toward a freedom from misinformation act. Part of the frustration right now from the journalists’ side is we are already dealing with an industry that is struggling, that has never recovered from the 2008 (financial) crisis.” People live in news deserts where there are limited or no sources for local news. “People are hungry for information but those sources have been gutted.”
“We’re really all awash in misinformation,” said Siri Carpenter, president of the National Association of Science Writers. “Every day there’s something new and sometimes shocking. I don’t know how many times I’ve said ‘I can’t believe people believe that or that people said that.’”
But journalists need to be careful when debunking bad information. “We need to be very clear with what the false information is, and saying what the truth is,” Carpenter said. “Hearing ideas repeated has a way of making it seem true. When we are refuting misinformation, it’s very helpful to give voice to experts. In many cases, their voices will carry more weight than journalists’ voices.”
Superficial credibility is something reporters should be alert to, Carpenter said, citing experts who come from reputable organizations but aren’t experts in the area of concern.
Carpenter recommends as a resource The Open Notebook, a nonprofit organization that helps journalists improve their skills, such as “how to read scientific papers, spot shaky statistics” and manage the emotional toll that can come from covering a crisis.
“One of the things I see reporters struggling with is covering science that hasn’t been published yet,” or “preprints,” Carpenter said. Preprints are scientific manuscripts that have not yet undergone peer review or been published in journals. If reporting on preprints, journalists should “explain those concepts and approach those stories with a lot of skepticism, seeking independent comment.”
Already, the journalists were looking at the next-stage stories reporters to pursue.
Freyer said the crisis has laid bare problems in the health care system, from access to critical equipment to the precarious financial conditions of many institutions and impact on workers.
Health care workers “are being held up as heroes,” Freyer said. “They are also getting sick and dying. They didn’t sign up for something as dangerous as what they are doing.”
Kim Quillen of the Chicago Tribune said the newspaper is doing stories about how to look for a job amid the pandemic, as many readers are out of work, and looking at the gradual restarting of businesses, the next phase of the story.
“We’re keeping our focus on the economic impact and the various ways it touches our lives, whether it’s the food we get, the impact on our savings and being out of work,” Quillen said. “On a certain level, everyone is a business and economic reporter. There’s this giant economic crisis that’s being unspooled.”
Journalism will change, too, post-pandemic, said Subramanian. “We’ve hit the reset button and we don’t know what’s going to emerge from that.”
Advertising has collapsed even further during the crisis. “All of these models are continuing to implode. There’s hunkering down and being fearful, but there’s also thinking creatively.”
Bruzzese said the struggles of rural hospitals are an important story. “What will state and federal governments do to make sure we don’t lose them entirely? And the whole world of telemedicine. We’ve heard the promises for years. Is this the event that pushes it over those hurdles – is the value so much clearer?”
Subramanian is curious about the long-term impact on food workers and the food supply. “Environmental rollbacks that were already underway are continuing to happen. Human health and the environment are so interlinked.” She also wonders how to communicate long-term crises, such as climate change, and “how we overcome aspects of our brains that can’t deal with the faraway. How to translate conceptual things people are struggling with.”
Journalism students covering the pandemic can tap into multiple departments across campuses for information, Parker said, adding “A lot of the untold stories out there are on pockets of vulnerability. Part of that is understanding what’s happening in these vulnerable communities whether it’s about race or age or ethnicity.”
Added Geisler, “No matter who we are, we have to be looking at who’s not at the table.”
Davis advised, “If you are still in school, take a statistics class online. Every individual in America should have a basic understanding of statistics.” Also, leverage a network that allows you to connect with local communities.
“An effort to tamp down panic is a mistake,” said Freyer. “You’ve got to separate reasonable fear from panic. Fear is a very important motivator. It gets people to do what they need to do to protect themselves.”
The most important thing journalists can do sometimes, she said, is to say “This is what we know and this is what we don’t know.”