The coronavirus crisis demands journalism collaboration, not competition

by | Mar 18, 2020 | Blog | 0 comments

This blog is cross-posted from Medium, where it originally appeared March 8.

It’s Sunday, March 8. Two of America’s best journalism organizations are featuring deep looks into the confusion, incompetence, and outright malfeasance that has marked the Trump administration’s “response” to the accelerating spread of Covid-19.

Both articles are excellent¹. From my vantage point, however, they’re slightly different angles on the same topic, if not essentially the same story. Moreover, they are far from the only reporting of its kind. This theme — America’s astoundingly, dangerously inept response to the emergency — will resonate widely, and across all kinds of media organizations, long after the worst of this crisis abates.

There might have been a time, back in the days when the journalism business was making monopoly and oligopoly profits, when this vast duplication of effort would have seemed sensible. Today, in a time of dwindling resources for journalism overall, it is insane — and a vast disservice to the public.

Journalists should have been collaborating long before now on what had emerged as the central issues of our era. The most immediate one is the global attack on representative democracy and the rule of law, exemplified in America by the beyond-corrupt Trump regime’s dismantling of decades of progress. The bigger one, even more scary, is the accelerating global disaster stemming from climate change.

In both cases, I warned journalists several years ago, the business-as-usual approach was not just a failure, but an active contributor to the building catastrophes we face. I begged the people in the craft I called my own for a quarter century to recognize the emergencies, and band together to — among other things — give the public the full context, not just the latest examples. Exclaiming about the latest brush fire while not showing how the entire forest was ablaze was more than a disservice, I argued. It was journalistic malfeasance, on an epic scale.

Rising to the challenge, I wrote (then in context of the Trump attack on so many things including freedom of expression itself, but still highly relevant):

That means breaking with customs, and some traditions — changing the journalism, and some of the ways you practice it, to cope with the onslaught of willful misinformation aimed at undermining public belief in basic reality. You can start by looking at the public’s information needs from the public’s point of view, not just your own.

 

The collaboration needs to be broad, and deep, across organizations and platforms. It can be immediate — such as an agreement among White House reporters to resist the marginalizing, or banning outright, of journalists who displease the president. If a legitimate reporter is banned from an event, or verbally dismissed in a briefing or press conference, other journalists should either boycott the event or, at the very least, ask and re-ask his or her question until it’s answered. In the briefing room, show some spine, and do it together.

 

Much more important — and something that should become a standard practice — is to collaborate on the fundamental journalism itself. One vital element of this should be providing the context that is so often missing. Today’s short-attention-span breaking news coverage amounts to mini-scoops followed by maxi-repetition and, typically, zero explanation of where the latest bit of news fits in the larger picture — the classic focus on trees while missing the forest. As Todd Gitlin put it recently, ignoring context is like “reporting a baseball game as if people in uniforms are running around a diamond and chasing a ball for no apparent reason at all.”

Collaboration, I said then and repeat now, would mean working together on the news stories. Each of the dozen “tick-tocks” (a term journalists use to describe the ostensible how-it-happened-on-the-inside stories like the ones in the March 8 Washington Post and New York Times) covering the same ground will, to be sure, produce some new facts (or likely ones) that the others didn’t get. But I would strongly argue that this is a massively inefficient way to do this kind of coverage, especially when resources could be deployed in smarter ways that the public needs.

With Covid-19, the need for a major journalistic coalition — doing this the right way — has never been more obvious.

How would collaborative journalism on the coronavirus look, in my ideal scenario? Above all, it needs to be:

  • Calm but authoritative, because panic could cause more damage, if it turns into a societal meltdown, than the virus itself. Refuting lies with reality, boosting communities’ innate best instincts, and tamping down discrimination are part of this. Journalists who fuel panic will have blood on their hands.
  • Broad, but also deep, because so much of the shallow stuff we’re seeing has more “value” as clickbait than any public good. Cover as many angles as possible — linking to existing work that meets high standards — but never lose sight of the overall mission.
  • Precise, because every mistake journalists make at a time like this is another wound to the craft’s credibility, not to mention potentially dangerous to the communities journalism serves.
  • Transparent, because we all make mistakes even when we’re trying hard to get it right. Try harder, but when there are errors, fix them immediately, notify people who’ve seen them, if possible. Demonstrate the transparency that leads to trust, not the Trump-like secrecy and deceit that erodes it.
  • Engaged, especially at the local level, by which I mean connecting with people and communities via deep conversations and collaborations. The large collaborations should be mirrored regionally and locally, helping us deal with this where we live even as we better understand the big picture(s). Libraries, service organizations, AARP, and so many others could and, I’m convinced, would be glad to collaborate on all of this.
  • Relentlessly useful, because nothing less will do. Let other people do the trivial stuff, even if that helps them get more clicks. Be the responsible place that does the most to help.

Create a “war room” of editors, graphics experts, reporters (especially science journalists, not political ones), data specialists, and others who have the expertise and public-minded spirit for this kind of collaboration. Find someone not from any of the participating media companies to lead the project: a person of unchallenged credentials, who understands journalism, and is an expert in running complex projects in crisis mode.

Then create a Wikipedia-like “Start Here” page that combines basic information, including articles and videos (e.g. how to wash your hands properly) with a wealth of super-organized links to the best-quality information from every relevant source including government agencies (at least the ones not being muzzled by the Trump administration), scientists, medical journals, and more. If you’re like me, you have no idea where to start given the duplicative work we’re seeing from so many news organizations. I want the best. I don’t have time to hunt around for every new scrap of information.

Make a comprehensive list of what we know and what we don’t know: not speculation, not guesses, but facts. Here’s an example of something we don’t know: the mortality rate (that is the percentage of people who get the virus and die as a result); we don’t know because we have absolutely no idea how many people have gotten it, many showing no symptoms, much less how many have been exposed. Every number that appears in this journalism needs to be put into context and explained — and if the explanation is that it’s just a guess, don’t publish it.

Create a “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) page and organize it by topic. (Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the federal Centers for Disease Control, has combined those two concepts into a list of “19 Critical Data Gaps Limiting our Effectiveness Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic” — which journalists should link to in their work.)

If real experts disagree on some things, explain how and why they disagree. The both-sides-ism of quoting Trump alongside someone who knows what she’s talking about is not what I’m talking about; that is an abdication of journalism.

Don’t scrimp on the current coverage, but put every new development in context. And do it in a way that is specifically designed not to induce unnecessary fear, much less panic.

Don’t just cover the virus and its spread. Cover and/or link to information that helps the public understand the broad fallout this crisis is already causing and will cause in coming months and years. (I’m compiling a separate list of story ideas in this vein. Examples: Is our high-speed Internet infrastructure ready for the crush of usage that seems inevitable in days and months ahead? How can communities, not just individuals, prepare for disruption and keep things peaceful, if fraught?) Bring in all kinds of experts to help on topics that go beyond the medical and immediate political concerns. People want to help. Give them a way to do it.

And yes, there is definitely a political angle — a crucial one, because politicians are deciding what the public-health response will be. So journalists need to do stories like the ones in the March 8 Post and Times. The reporters should be both political journalists and science journalists, and the latter should have absolute veto rights over anything in the copy or broadcast to ensure accuracy.

The big tick-tock pieces, which are fundamentally about context, should be living documents. As information changes, update the articles. People who are new to them will get the best information. Then give people who’ve already the pieces a way to subscribe to updates.

I haven’t talked much about video here, but we have to remember that TV news shows are the way many if not most people are following this situation. They have special duties to treat this topic in a calm and informed way. Too often they’re doing the opposite. It’s in the nature of TV news, but at a time like this the public good should override the essential show-business culture that has captured television journalism to everyone’s detriment except the shareholders.

TV news — its journalists should absolutely be part of my proposed coalition — could have a hugely positive impact. But that would take a shift away from business as usual just as profound as the one I’m urging in my call for collaboration. TV could serve as, first, a resource aimed at keeping people from freaking out unnecessarily; second, a headlines service amplifying the key points that come out of the larger collaboration; and third, a pointer to the best resources available online, in public libraries, and other places where broadcast news’ innate shallowness doesn’t dominate.

None of the above is going to happen by itself, partly because it’s never really been tried before on something this big. Big Journalism has done some great collaborations in the past, including some superb recent ones. Collaboration has been the basis, meanwhile, of organizations like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. But in almost every case, the output has been in the category of one-offs: big investigative pieces in particular. What I’m asking for is very, very different, and it’s difficult to imagine the craft doing this on its own.

There’s a force in our society big and powerful enough to help jump-start it, however: major philanthropic organizations and wealthy individuals. I’m not just begging journalists to rise above business as usual here. I’m begging the funders, journalism-savvy and otherwise, to see the big picture — they’re often great at that — and come up with emergency resources right now to support what the public so manifestly needs.

I’m looking at you, Knight Foundation, Kaiser Family Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies (“I’m ready,” Craig just told me), MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Marc Benioff, Gates Foundation, and so many others. Please get on a video conference this week, first with each other and then with the top editors from ProPublica, the Times, the Post, CNN, McClatchy, and so many others. If Big Journalism won’t participate, do it without them; there are countless highly qualified former journalists who’d be elated at a chance to help.

I can’t describe the details of how it would work from an organizational point of view. And I’m well aware that it would be complex at best. But where it’s based, and what the structure looks like, are trivial next to the will — and the resources — to make it happen.

I wish journalists had already done this as I publicly hoped 18 months ago. The public would have a much greater understanding of the world’s increasingly, frighteningly retrograde politics and the reality of climate change. And it would be much easier to adapt whatever system was in place to address the temporary global emergency, hopefully not catastrophic, that we now face.

But they didn’t, and here we are. And I’ll say it again: If ever there was a time for journalists to put aside business as usual, for the greater good, it’s right now.

If they do, the craft of journalism will honor its most essential mission. And history will thank them.

Note: I will be updating this post regularly. I’ll put in footnotes to indicate what’s new or revised.

Follow-ups:

  • I’ve been watching the development of a superb resource called the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, the creators of which describe as “a crowdsourced resource for technologists building things related to the coronavirus outbreak.” Journalists could learn a lot from this.
  • In Oregon, many newsrooms are sharing stories. This is a great start, and I hope they’ll do a portal, and collaborate with community groups, scientists, and others with expertise.

[1] As always I have qualms about over-reliance on unnamed sources, which reduce the public’s trust in journalism. But they’re inevitable in this case given the administration’s lockdown on information and who’s allowed to give it out, plus its standard lie-about-everything practices.