Coronavirus crisis shows our nation’s need for good journalism
By Tom Jones
The Poynter Institute
It’s easy for journalists to get discouraged about their profession.
News organizations across the country have been hit hard by layoffs, pay cuts and diminishing resources. Just as damaging has been the hateful and harmful rhetoric accusing honest and responsible journalists of producing “fake news” and being the “enemy of the people.”
Never in our time has the media been more underappreciated and overly attacked for simply doing what journalists have been doing forever — being watchdogs, holding the powerful accountable and, most of all, providing its audience with the valuable information they need.
And while the coronavirus is a story none of us wish we had to cover, it has proven something encouraging: Americans need — and more importantly, want — good journalism.
Major news websites — places such as CNN and Fox News — are seeing huge spikes in traffic numbers. Local news organizations are seeing renewed interest in their products.
“We’re … heartened to see how many people are coming to us to stay informed,” Seattle Times executive editor Michele Matassa Flores wrote in a column. “Readership of our website has been triple our normal volume — even 10 times the volume at key breaking-news moments. And despite the fact that we’ve made our coronavirus stories free as a public service, this coverage has drawn new subscribers at record levels.”
Seattle is one of the hot spots for the coronavirus story, but we’re seeing incredible local coverage from all over — places such as San Francisco, Buffalo, Boston, Dallas, Tampa Bay and everywhere in between. Newspapers there are producing local newsletters or podcasts and doing area-specific stories.
Journalists are performing under very difficult circumstances — many are working remotely while trying to keep themselves and their families healthy. Journalists are doing their jobs, which often come with very long hours — but this story is pressing the boundaries of what they are used to.
On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper said her staff is working on little sleep, often starting early in the morning and finishing well after midnight, to give its readers the very latest information on a story that often changes by the minute.
In her column, The Seattle Times’ Flores wrote, “In my 35 years as a journalist, I can say I’ve never felt so keenly the importance of local journalism to our community. And in my 27 years at The Seattle Times, I’ve never seen the entire company rally behind our mission the way we are now.”
She wrote the paper is working at a “breakneck pace,” doing what it can to inform its audience, while keeping its journalists safe.
“While we don’t pretend to have all the answers — no one does — we’re doing our best,” Flores wrote.
In times like these, ideally, government officials would focus on getting us the information we need. But over the weekend, Surgeon General Jerome Adams went a step further and said something that is the antithesis of journalism’s role as a watchdog for Americans.
Adams seemed to scold the media by saying, “No more bickering, no more partisanship, no more criticism or finger-pointing.”
Perhaps Adams’ heart was in the right place about coming together as a nation, but his plea also could be viewed as dangerous. As CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote in a special weekend “Reliable Sources” newsletter, “What Adams called ‘bickering’ and ‘criticism’ is what most of us call accountability.”
Stelter added, “Adams used the word ‘need,’ talking to the press corps. So I will too. He needs to spend his time educating the public about how to protect each other, not lecturing the press about what’s newsworthy.”
Stelter’s Sunday morning “Reliable Sources” show on CNN was good as it gets. Admittedly, I’m already a fan of the show, but Sunday’s was especially good in talking about the media’s coverage of the coronavirus story, and some of the places to find the best journalism (and to avoid the worst journalism).
Fox News is stepping up its coronavirus coverage. “Outnumbered Overtime” anchor Harris Faulkner will dedicate an hour each weekday, starting at 1 p.m., to a show titled “Coronavirus Pandemic: Questions Answered.” Dr. Marc Siegel and Dr. Nicole Saphier will join Harris to offer medical news and analysis. Viewer questions will be taken via email, social media and Skype.
In addition, Fox News is going 24 hours with live broadcasts — in the past, overnight programming usually involved repeats of shows aired earlier that night. Shannon Bream will anchor an extended version of “Fox News @ Night” from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. That will be followed by chief breaking news correspondent Trace Gallagher hosting from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m.
FoxNews.com is also beefing up its coronavirus coverage. Each weekday starting today, Fox News Digital will put a daily newsletter called “Fox News Today: The Coronavirus Crisis.” It will be sent out to subscribers around noon. And, Fox Nation, which is Fox News’ streaming service, will also provide extra coronavirus coverage.