If context is king, it’s abdicated

by | Apr 9, 2020 | Blog

by Dan Gillmor and Kristy Roschke

Like most people, we’ve been glued to breaking COVID-19 news coverage. We regularly visit local and national news sites for the latest. We also regularly run into a fundamental flaw in how news works. Far too often, breaking news lacks context. And machine-driven approaches to creating context, notably algorithmic linking, can do more to confuse audiences than enlighten them.

In both cases, journalism organizations aren’t fully grasping their opportunity to deliver what news communities crave during this emergency. We need up-to-date news with context. We need it to be comprehensive, yet easy to navigate. We need to be able to catch up quickly, and not be forced to go hunting for the latest nugget of new information. In an essential way, we need journalism that tweaks some recently adopted practices, and requires journalists to think first about their communities.

Traditional journalism has never been great at providing context. That’s particularly true in breaking news, the fabled “first draft of history” where journalists assume everyone already knows the full backstory, which is rarely the case. 

The best and most efficient way to provide the context we need would be wide and deep collaboration across news organizations. Some regional and local collaboration is taking place, but Big Journalism’s long-standing traditions have made this approach a rarity at the national level. Whether newsrooms collaborate or not, they should make context central in how they approach this story. Here are some suggestions on how to make that happen.

All COVID-19 coverage should be part of a package that has at least some of these elements: 

Context in Coronavirus Coverage

News organizations should collaborate on coverage, especially at the local and regional level. One obvious example: share the responsibility for covering regular press briefings with government officials.

Create a microsite that clearly showcases the latest developments and highlights important community resources, including those curated by community members.

Focus on context for developing stories. Link to the best related stories, even if you didn’t publish them yourself. 

Don’t link to outdated stories. Consider screenshotting and deleting tweets to outdated stories. Share the screenshot with a transparent explanation as to why it has been deleted.

Clearly explain to audiences what is known, what is not known, and why. 

  • A “start-here” summary with a brief history, preferably a bulleted list.
  • A round-up of latest developments, brief items posted blog-style, i.e. in reverse chronological order. The Washington Post’s is a great example, but we suggest adding dates to the timestamp since it allows for multi-day scrolling.
  • The best public-health information available right now from CDC, WHO, local health authorities, reputable medical journals, etc.
  • Data that is carefully explained — in context — and never misleading.
  • Links to well organized and vetted community-led resources, ideally at the neighborhood level, such as volunteer-group contacts; what restaurants are delivering meals; grocery store opening hours; etc. 
  • Links to in-depth stories done by one’s own organization, and by others.

The in-depth stories should be constantly updated to reflect current conditions. In ways that don’t hold up to scrutiny anymore, journalism organizations still follow a norm that says once a story is published, it is essentially finished for all time.

That’s a problem for many reasons, but outdated information is downright pernicious at a time like this — and it calls into question a common practice in today’s online journalism: linking to previous coverage. Here’s an example: We recently followed a link from a local newspaper’s story to a COVID-19 FAQ (frequently asked questions), dated early March. Though some of the information in the FAQ remains current, a great deal of the information was (and remains) outdated, or worse, outright and dangerously wrong. 

The instinct to link back to earlier coverage is understandable, but unsustainable. It stems from a solid instinct, to give people more information about a topic than what a single story provides. “You’re reading about what we know today; here’s a link to what we know the last time we wrote about this topic.” 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.

And especially when a story is unfolding so rapidly and dramatically as this one, the shelf-life of a single piece of news is at most a couple of days, and maybe just a matter of hours.

Through today’s lens, many U.S. coronavirus news stories from January and February seem breezy and untroubled — hardly fitting the pervasive social media narrative of the “fear-stoking media.” Many of these stories continue to circulate on social media. And though we’ll be deconstructing media coverage of this event for decades to come, we don’t blame news organizations for not recognizing the magnitude of what was to come.

But that was then. Today, we need to do better. Linking to a breezy article with a clickbait headline about how we don’t need to wear masks around town is just tone-deaf, not to mention potentially harmful, when it has been superseded by the public-health experts’ newest advice.

This brings up another facet of the COVID-19 situation that we should all do a better job of understanding, and which journalists and public officials alike should explain more clearly. Things are changing rapidly, including what we actually know about this disease: how it’s transmitted, what treatments we may have, how the testing situation looks, and so much more. The realities are mutating, not just the virus.

Journalists and officials should forthrightly explain to their communities how much they don’t know, and get the public accustomed to nuance and, much as this makes us uncomfortable, uncertainty. Telling the truth also means acknowledging the messiness of it all. That’s essential context, too, and we rarely see it.

In news-media parlance, this is the biggest story of our lives, at least for most of us. The challenges for journalists have never been greater. Nor has the need for quality information been more clear. 

That reality should spawn journalistic clarity of all kinds, starting with context. The public needs as much of it as news organizations can provide. 

Kristy Roschke, managing director of the ASU News Co/Lab, is a media scholar and educator. She previously served as executive director of KJZZ – SPOT 127 Youth Media Center, a community initiative of the Phoenix NPR member station that mentors and empowers the next-generation of digital storytellers.