Digital Publishing

Newsrooms Must Be Flexible with Coronavirus Coverage

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It’s easy to think of the coronavirus pandemic as a health story. It’s also a vehicle for enterprise storytelling, service journalism, and (sadly) political coverage. It’s even become a sports story.

But at its core, the coronavirus is a breaking news story—probably the biggest of our lifetime, simultaneously fast moving and persistently slow, spread out over several months. That’s an important fact to realize, because like most breaking news stories, we’re reporting the best information when we know it with the knowledge things can quickly change.

Take the New York Times, which in February published a report on its Wirecutter product review website—based on interviews with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and two epidemiologists—that Americans didn’t need to wear a mask to protect themselves from the coronavirus. At the time, it represented the most up-to-date scientific thinking about a virus that had barely begun to spread across the country.

Now we know that masks and facial coverings are an essential tool in driving down the spread of the virus, so the Times made the decision to pull the outdated report down from its website.  

“We advised readers that they didn’t need a mask to protect themselves from the coronavirus,” the Times wrote in July. “That was what we saw as the best advice from experts at the time. But that advice is obviously no longer true. Everyone should wear a mask for the sake of people’s collective health.”

Joy Mayer, the director of Trusting News, said it’s a good example of informing readers not only that the facts have changed, but acknowledging the Times itself is also learning about the virus as it reports more.

“When it comes to breaking news, something like a train derailment or a shooting, you can attach language that acknowledges information will change and we will correct anything we find to be untrue,” Mayer said. “But that doesn’t work as well when you’re talking about months of reporting and hundreds or thousands of stories.”

Mayer suggests newsrooms be as transparent as possible on all aspects of their coronavirus reporting, including what sources they’re turning to for facts and figures about the pandemic. Whether it’s the local health department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Johns Hopkins University, Mayer thinks it’s important to let readers know where your data is coming from and why you find it credible.

One example is WEWS, an ABC affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio, which took the time on a local newscast to explain to viewers why it was reporting routinely on coronavirus deaths and not recoveries. It all came down to what information was being provided by the state’s health department.

“There is no conspiracy by the media to suppress good news about the coronavirus, as some have suggested,” digital producer Ian Cross explained. “It’s a simple matter of available data.”

“It seems sort of boring, but I think it’s really important for people to understand this information is fluid,” Mayer said. “It’s realizing that people might think we’re trying to suppress this information…because it fits our personal agenda, and addresses that head on.”

One easy way to accomplish this is to create a static page or a “what you need to know” list that outlines where your newsroom gets its coronavirus data, the latest numbers, and what metrics you focus on in your reporting. You can link to that from every article about the virus you end up writing, complete with some informal language that can easily be added to the top or bottom of news stories.

The Times did this by adding a short note to the top of certain stories involving parents and schools that reads: As coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, were working to answer the questions on many parentsminds. This is a fast-moving situation, so some information may be outdated. For the latest updates, read The New York Timess live coronavirus coverage here.

At the Philadelphia Inquirer where I work, all coronavirus stories have a constantly updated information box embedded programmatically offering the latest overview on cases, symptoms, and frequently asked questions, as well as a link to our daily live coverage. The Washington Post does something similar, promoting its latest coronavirus news, cases and maps, and suggestions how to help.

“I think journalists worry a lot about repetition and redundancy in terms of explanations and transparency, and we just don’t see the public complaining about that,” Mayer said. “The pixels on the phone screen are precious, and it can feel onerous to add things to the page, but when a reputation is at stake and we know people are making assumptions about our work that calls into question our credibility, I think it’s really worthwhile.”

Another potential avenue for misinformation during this pandemic is linking to older stories written about the virus. In normal times, this is borne out of an understandable desire to provide more information and context about a subject. But during this pandemic, you could also mistakenly link to an outdated story about, say, potential symptoms for coronavirus that hasn’t been updated since April (I won’t name the metro daily that recently made that mistake).

“This works as a running body of coverage. But it’s not particularly useful to make sense of the bigger picture of a developing story—and it’s downright bad for communities to be presented with outdated and incorrect information,” Dan Gillmor and Kristy Roschke, the co-founder and managing director of Arizona State’s News Co/Lab, wrote in a piece on Nieman Lab.

Other suggestions to consider for your coronavirus coverage include:

Avoid projections. It may seem relevant to report on predictions about the potential number of deaths in your community, but projections can vary widely and constantly as data changes. It’s probably better to focus on trends backed by solid figures from reputable sources.

Use neutral language. We’re dealing with the most life-altering event of our lifetime, so you can cool it with the strong adjectives you’d normally deploy to get readers engaged with a story. They end up becoming another avenue for readers to mistrust your reporting.

Keep an eye on traffic. Old stories that are still getting search and social traffic should either be updated or have a note attached to the top pointing out the information is old and might have changed.

Talk to local experts whenever possible. In an environment when someone like infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has become political, Mayer suggesting letting experts in local hospitals explain things. 

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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