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How do you write about traumatic situations without retraumatizing those involved? Read this new guide for journalists, for starters

The vocabulary of medicine has an unfortunate quality: Many of its words are so descriptive that they also cry out for non-medical use. If you say someone is toxic, you probably don’t mean that they’re damaging your liver function. If your novel needs an antagonist, you’re not looking for someone to block the function of...
Posted: July 28, 2021, 6:22 pm

“We disagree on what the space should be”: Editors discuss the future of comment sections

For many newsrooms, providing a forum for community members to interact — such as in a comment section — is part of their mission. Figuring out how to make these spaces thrive, however, often represents a challenge. To understand the latest thinking on comment sections, the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at...
Posted: July 28, 2021, 4:19 pm

Reporters must center climate justice. Here’s how.

This article is adapted from a piece for NBCU Academy and is published here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story. AS A YOUNG REPORTER FOR VALLEY PUBLIC RADIO, in Fresno, north of the small farm town where I grew up, I saw firsthand the human […]
Posted: July 28, 2021, 3:37 pm

Lessons from the Miami Herald’s Monica Richardson

Monica Richardson had an epiphany early in her career. While covering education at The Florida Times-Union, Richardson wanted to sit with the copy desk and learn different aspects of how the paper worked. “And they said to me, ‘We’re not ready for you to do that yet.’ I remember thinking, it’s not what you’re ready […]

The post Lessons from the Miami Herald’s Monica Richardson appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 28, 2021, 12:45 pm

Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and the media’s coverage of mental health in sports

Yesterday, during the women’s gymnastics team final at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Simone Biles, of the USA, lost her bearings while performing a vault, and stumbled as she landed. Soon after, she left the venue, accompanied by a medical official; when she returned, it was only to watch her teammates. All this happened early in the morning, US time. NBC, which holds the rights to the Olympics, was broadcasting the event live on Peacock, its streaming service, but not on linear TV. The Today show picked up the story of Biles’s exit—speaking from inside the venue, Hoda Kotb, an anchor, described it as “a really, really big deal” that sent “this ripple, this wave, through this arena.” Later, we learned that Biles had pulled out of the event because she wasn’t in “the right head space” to continue. Yesterday evening, Mike Tirico, an NBC anchor, addressed Biles’s withdrawal as he introduced the prime-time rebroadcast of the event. At the end of the broadcast, Tirico said, “whether or not we see the great Simone Biles compete again, hopefully the next stop on her journey is joy.” Early today, Biles withdrew from tomorrow’s all-around competition. It’s unclear if she will participate in events next week.

Tirico’s commentary, which won praise from many journalists and viewers, echoed the tone of much mainstream coverage of Biles’s exit—many news articles framed it sensitively, while prominent essays praised her “champion mindset” and “radical courage.” Journalists highlighted the enormous pressure on Biles’s shoulders, and US gymnastics officials’ role in exacerbating it. A number of commentators pointed out that the media, too, has been complicit in that pressure. Biles has been central to NBC’s promotion of the Olympics—so much so, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ann Killion argued, that she came to personify its “multibillion-dollar investment in these Games and one of the primary reasons that there was no way in hell the network was going to allow” them to be canceled. Tony Reali, of ESPN, noted that media judgment—and even media praise—are “stressors” that can affect a top athlete’s performance; Biles’s GOAT, or Greatest Of All Time, status is well deserved, Reali added, but “comes with a weight that gets compounded in a particle accelerator at such ungodly speed by we in the media.” Jeremy Littau, a journalism professor at Lehigh University, cited Daniel Boorstin’s work, from the 1960s, on the celebrification of the media, which even then was getting out of hand. “In media culture, the hero journeys to celebrity, and then they fall,” Littau wrote, summarizing Boorstin’s argument. “That is, media and consumers create celebrities so we can destroy them.”

ICYMI: Is this the messiest phase of the pandemic in America?

Littau also linked to a new article by Brian Moritz, a journalism academic who writes about sports media, and who argued yesterday that Biles’s withdrawal “is one of those news stories that will have a long-lasting impact on how we view athletes and sports” because it runs directly counter to the “sport ethic.” This theory holds that elite athletes share the belief that sport necessarily entails sacrifice, athletes should play through pain, quitting is bad, and winning matters. Moritz argues that sports media has played a key role in perpetuating the sports ethic, in no small part because it relies on athletes as sources and pundits—and yet “the reaction to Biles’s withdrawal has not been universal condemnation, as we might expect.” This reaction, Moritz writes, could be an outlier, reflecting Biles’s established greatness and huge popularity. Nonetheless, it does seem that “how we view athletes is evolving.”

The Biles conversation yesterday was able to build on a high-profile recent precedent: the decision of the tennis star Naomi Osaka to withdraw from the French Open, in May, after she skipped press conferences on mental-health grounds and was fined for doing so. Osaka’s withdrawal, like Biles’s, inspired many supportive media takes at the time—but it also (given the centrality of journalists to the story) occasioned much journalistic handwringing about players’ obligations to availability and transparency. Osaka has since reengaged with the press, but on her terms; she guest-edited a tennis magazine and contributed an essay to Time, writing in the latter that “the majority of tennis writers” believe the traditional press conference to be “sacred,” and have resisted her ideas about refreshing the format. “Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions,” Osaka wrote. “I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms—frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me.”

Much of yesterday’s coverage of Biles felt informed by the broader debate about mental health in sports that Osaka amplified. Osaka was present in Olympics coverage in a more immediate sense, too: she lost in the third round of the women’s tennis tournament, ending her hopes of earning a medal at these Games. Like Biles, Osaka was under enormous pressure to perform at the Games; she represents Japan, and lit the Olympic cauldron on behalf of the host nation at the opening ceremony on Friday. Osaka’s defeat inevitably intensified the media scrutiny on her, both domestically and globally. A reporter asked her if she had, in the end, found the pressure too hard to handle. “I mean, yes and no,” Osaka replied. “I should be used to it by now.” Though much coverage linked Biles and Osaka, some that I saw of Osaka’s defeat felt tonally blunter than that of Biles’s exit—perhaps because losing happens all the time in sports, whereas it’s rare for an athlete to choose to withdraw on mental-health grounds.

In general, the mainstream media’s awareness of, and sensitivity around, mental wellbeing seems to have improved in recent times, and not just in sports: see also Britney Spears and Meghan Markle. (There will always be those who will pour scorn on Meghan or call Biles a loser; usually, it will be Piers Morgan.) Still, even well-intentioned journalists have work to do. If Biles had suffered a physical injury yesterday, it would still have been a big story, but it wouldn’t have been seen as abnormal. And no amount of supportive commentary will fix the root problem when it comes to the pressure we put on elite athletes, which, arguably, is a function less of tone and framing than of the sheer amount of coverage we produce. As The Guardian’s Barney Ronay puts it, modern sports stars exist, unlike their forebears, in a “twenty-four-hour rolling hell,” a place of “unceasing noise, reverence, poison, expectation.” Ronay recommends that we all sit back and listen. The media industry often feels more comfortable making the noise.

Below, more on the Olympics and gymnastics:

  • Bile: After Biles exited the competition yesterday, the US women’s gymnastics team achieved a silver medal. Russia took the gold. Outlets in that country hailed its team’s achievement; one, Championat.com, took a pop at Biles, suggesting that it’s “odd that she didn’t show leader’s qualities: she left her peers in the middle of the fierce fight. And this is a celebrated American champion?” Slate’s Yana Pashaeva has more. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast’s Julia Davis reports that Russian state media attacked Biles as part of a broader “rampage” against Black and LGBTQ+ athletes that has been “shocking even by the Kremlin’s standards.” Pundits have called the Games “a cesspool of degradation, debauchery, and ‘impurity,’” and suggested they should be segregated.
  • Misgendering: Openly trans athletes are competing in an Olympics for the first time, which is a big deal—and yet, as Britni de la Cretaz reports for Vice, some broadcasters have misgendered them. “It’s common for broadcasters to practice saying unfamiliar names before they go on air, making sure they can say it right. It’s a sign of respect,” de la Cretaz writes. “Similarly, they can practice unfamiliar pronouns before a broadcast, and if they slip up, they can issue a correction in the moment. It’s not really that hard.”
  • Ratings: Stephen Battaglio writes, for the LA Times, that while “ratings for NBC’s telecasts of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are down significantly from 2016,” they are “still among the most-watched TV events of the year,” with streaming also performing strongly. The viewership picture “shows the Olympics facing the same downward pressure experienced by other major TV events that reliably attracted massive audiences for decades,” Battaglio writes, “as online streaming provides more choices and competition for viewers’ attention.”
  • Gymnastics: In 2018, CJR’s Alexandria Neason assessed why journalists were slow to the story of Larry Nassar, the team doctor who abused US gymnasts, including Biles. “There is no easy explanation,” Neason wrote. “Women’s gymnastics is unlike any other sport, in that its top athletes are so often children. It’s organized both on the individual level and in teams; there is no local franchise for kids to buy jerseys in support of, no mascot, no mainstream, year-round spectator culture. Sports like basketball and football attract beat writers in a way that wouldn’t work as easily for gymnastics, which has, historically, been left absent a critical press.”
  • A broader lens: For more insightful reading on gymnastics, Dvora Meyers is out with a new essay, for FiveThirtyEight, making the case that it’s time to end the era of the teen gymnast. “There’s no evidence that girls in gymnastics need to specialize quite so young,” Meyers writes. “And there are pressing reasons to rethink the entire early developmental timeline of female gymnasts.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee

Posted: July 28, 2021, 12:41 pm

‘This is how I’m going to die’ — police officers recount the terrifying riot of Jan. 6

We watched the horrific acts live as they happened on Jan. 6 when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol. In the months since, we’ve seen more videos and photos and listened to firsthand accounts of what happened on one of the darkest days of our democracy. And yet, on Tuesday, when we saw those videos again, and […]

The post ‘This is how I’m going to die’ — police officers recount the terrifying riot of Jan. 6 appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 28, 2021, 11:30 am

You can save for retirement — even as a young journalist making $18,500

Below is an excerpt from The Collective, Poynter’s newsletter by journalists of color for journalists of color and our allies. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox the last Wednesday of every month. Rule No. 1: It’s not what you make but what you save. That’s what my parents always told me as a kid. My […]

The post You can save for retirement — even as a young journalist making $18,500 appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 28, 2021, 11:00 am

Should we even be COVID testing people who are asymptomatic?

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. Many of the most high-profile breakthrough cases involving Olympic athletes, vaccinated Texas lawmakers and vaccinated New York […]

The post Should we even be COVID testing people who are asymptomatic? appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 28, 2021, 10:00 am

An Olympics hot mic video allegedly of an NBC producer isn’t real — it’s a joke

A spoof video shared on a comedian’s Twitter page has journeyed from joke to scandal as some people sharing and seeing it online appear to believe it’s authentic. It’s not. But here’s the premise: an NBC producer is caught on a hot mic saying: “We just spoke to a chief medical examiner. They said 60% […]

The post An Olympics hot mic video allegedly of an NBC producer isn’t real — it’s a joke appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 28, 2021, 9:55 am

Gannett has sold 24 publications back to local owners

During the pandemic, more than 70 newsrooms in the U.S. closed, leaving the communities they served with merged newsrooms based in other cities or no local newspapers at all.  But a new piece examines the fate of local newsrooms that are moving in a different direction — back into local hands.  Mark Jacob wrote about […]

The post Gannett has sold 24 publications back to local owners appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 27, 2021, 6:12 pm

At Futuro Media, Maria Hinojosa is building a home for authentic Latino storytelling

In the halls of Congress in April, reporter Pablo Manríquez started asking United States representatives and senators about a 2019 report from the Office of the Inspector General that detailed allegations of sexual harassment by members of Congress against custodians on the night shift in the Capitol. For Manríquez, the D.C. correspondent for Latino Rebels,...
Posted: July 27, 2021, 5:59 pm

Journalists share the stories behind their stories with virtual storytelling collective Local Live(s)

In January, María Ramírez Uribe reported a story for Charlotte-based public radio station WFAE about a local woman named Martha who was struggling to send remittances to family in her native Honduras. For migrants in the U.S., sending money to loved ones in their homeland is a common practice, but the coronavirus pandemic caused Martha’s […]

The post Journalists share the stories behind their stories with virtual storytelling collective Local Live(s) appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 27, 2021, 3:49 pm

Want a new job in news? Here’s how to get started

Three months before Cox Media Group sold The Palm Beach Post to GateHouse Media, I knew I wanted a new challenge, aka a new job. (I’d been at the same paper for almost four years.) And two years after that sale, I was ready to start looking. For me, though, looking and applying were two […]

The post Want a new job in news? Here’s how to get started appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 27, 2021, 3:30 pm

Is this the messiest phase of the pandemic in America?

In June, the World Health Organization recommended continued mask-wearing as a defense against the spread of COVID-19, even among people who are fully vaccinated—advice that differed from that of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said in May that fully vaccinated people could ditch their masks in most settings. In the US, the clashing guidance caused some confusion that rippled through media coverage; on the whole, though, the WHO story got lost in the broader COVID news cycle, which alternated between tentative optimism about the end of the pandemic and tentative concern about the Delta variant, often emphasizing sharp distinctions between those who were already vaccinated (Nothing to worry about!) and those who weren’t (Get vaccinated!). As I wrote at the time, the tenor of this coverage (as reflected in a slew of Independence Day analogies) was often introspective and distinctively American—a reflection of relatively low case rates and high vaccine availability in the US, as coverage in countries lacking one or both of those benefits, like the United Kingdom, continued to focus on collective risk and protections, including masks. The US still has a lot of vaccine, but cases are now rising nationally again. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the mask debate is back. The CDC’s guidance hasn’t changed, but many experts think it should, and some areas have reimposed mandates.

Much COVID coverage has continued to underscore the divide between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The focus on vaccine hesitancy has only grown in urgency. “It’s almost like we need two kinds of newscasts, or two versions of the weather report,” Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, said on Sunday. “The forecast is pretty sunny for the vaccinated, but it’s quite bleak in some states for the unvaccinated.” As Stelter also noted, however, the pandemic is still a story of risk calculations, and “those nuances don’t always come through in the media coverage.” The vaccinated are inevitably affected by such calculations, especially when, as with mask mandates, they are collective. And, in recent weeks, there has increasingly been media chatter about “breakthrough infections” that have occurred in fully vaccinated people, especially when those people have been famous. A COVID outbreak among vaccinated New York Yankees players generated a welter of news stories, as did a case at the White House. Reporters peppered Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, with questions about the latter, and asked if she would commit to full transparency should there be more such cases in the future.

ICYMI: The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee

As coverage of breakthrough infections has increased, some commentators have argued, with ample justification, that it ought to decrease again. Such infections are neither common nor unexpected, and they almost always involve mild or asymptomatic illness; by hyping isolated cases, the argument goes, the press risks inducing undue worry among the vaccinated and undue skepticism among the unvaccinated. A big part of the problem here is that data on breakthroughs is lacking, making it harder for reporters to properly contextualize anecdotal examples. The CDC once tracked all such infections, but in May, it narrowed its focus to breakthroughs that precede hospitalization or death—a move that the agency said would ​​“help maximize the quality of the data collected on cases of greatest clinical and public health importance,” but which has also, undoubtedly, exacerbated uncertainty as to the scope of the problem, depriving the public of a centralized data source and leaving reporters and experts to instead pick over leaked CDC estimates and local tallies that aren’t standardized. As Apoorva Mandavilli, a science reporter at the New York Times, pointed out yesterday on the paper’s Daily podcast, while most breakthrough infections are not individually serious, they can play a role in overall viral spread. Which brings the story right back ’round to the unvaccinated.

Breakthrough infections aren’t our only data blind spot at the moment. Recently, a number of states, including Nebraska and Florida, stopped reporting daily tallies of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and moved to weekly reporting instead. (As the AP’s Josh Funk writes, Nebraska briefly stopped all of its data reporting after the governor declared an end to the state’s health emergency, only to backtrack.) “Doing this weekly report just leaves you completely in the dark about what’s going on,” Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times. “And then on Friday, all of a sudden, like, boom, you get this surprise number.” Nationally, daily COVID testing rates—which were arguably never high enough to provide a truly accurate picture of the state of the pandemic in the US—have declined substantially from their peak. Data collection and reporting can be labor-intensive, and it’s legitimate, of course, to debate where stretched health bureaucracies should direct their resources for maximum benefit in this new phase of the pandemic—but as I’ve written before, from a journalist’s point of view, the more data we have, the more reliable the picture of the world that we can build.

Meanwhile, there’s still a lot we don’t fully understand about the science of the virus, with new variants, in particular, proving confounding. “It’s a bit maddening, because it felt like we got to a point where we got to know this virus a little bit,” Mandavilli said yesterday on The Daily. “Delta has really changed that entire calculation. There are just so many more questions than I think we expected to have at this point. And it feels a little bit like an inflection point—another one—where the country could go in either direction.” I agree. In fact, I’d make the case that this stage of the pandemic is the most complicated and uncertain that America has yet faced—not the worst, by any means, but perhaps the hardest for people, and the media, to get their heads around. The problems that bedeviled our early coverage of the pandemic—a lack of scientific certainty and consensus; inadequate data flows—are still problems, in ways new and infuriatingly unchanged. And the mitigation measures we had to cover back then—while never the beneficiaries of political consensus—were relatively blunt compared to the more subjective and situational risk calculations of this moment, which still very much apply, even as cases rise again. The vaccines are magnificent, but we still don’t know everything about them. The situation differs substantially by place, and it can be hard to easily compare them. And it’s arguably more urgent than ever that Americans look out on the world, large swathes of which are desperately struggling right now.

Again, the state of the pandemic in the US right now is not uniformly bleak; it is, rather, a mishmash of good news, bad news, and uncertainty. The situation is better than many imaginable alternatives. But that doesn’t make it any easier for the press to cover. Perhaps more than at any other point in the pandemic, reporters are having to strike an increasingly fine tonal balance between the good and the bad, and communicate an increasingly nuanced and diverse set of truths—exploring uncertainties around the vaccines, for example, without blunting the central, basic truth of their effectiveness and desirability—in an informational climate that is both murky and infested with bad actors. COVID hasn’t stopped challenging us yet.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • A different type of mandate: As cases have risen among unvaccinated people, experts and commentators have increasingly debated the appropriateness of imposing vaccine mandates in certain settings. Yesterday proved to be something of a watershed in that regard: New York City announced that select municipal workers must be vaccinated by September or else face weekly testing, California announced similar rules for all state employees and public and private healthcare workers, and the Department of Veterans Affairs demanded vaccination of over a hundred thousand frontline healthcare staff. The Biden administration has, up to now, resisted the notion of federal mandates; Psaki said yesterday that the administration hasn’t yet decided whether to issue further situation-specific vaccine mandates, and acknowledged that Biden “recognizes that he is not always the right voice to every community about the benefits of getting vaccinated.”
  • More Psaki: The White House press secretary also spoke yesterday with Peter Hamby, on Snapchat. At one point, Hamby asked Psaki about the Biden administration’s attitude toward Fox News. (The president has publicly called out Facebook for helping spread vaccine misinformation, but has not similarly castigated Fox for its role, which some commentators see as a mistake.) “Our view at this moment is we don’t have to approve everything they do editorially or everything their personalities say and do, but it is still a platform for us to communicate with the public,” Psaki said. “The other piece of it is getting in a fight with Fox News at this point in time for the administration isn’t particularly constructive coming off of an administration that completely destroyed trust in media.”
  • A change of perspective: In December, Phil Valentine, a sixty-one-year-old conservative radio host in Tennessee, said that while he wasn’t an anti-vaxxer, he had concerns about getting the shot: he described his odds of getting COVID as “pretty low,” and his odds of dying from it at “way less than one percent.” Valentine is now critically ill with COVID pneumonia. Last week, he put out a statement, through his station, urging his listeners to get vaccinated. “Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an ‘anti-vaxer’ he regrets not being more vehemently ‘pro-vaccine,’” the statement said, adding that Valentine “looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon.”
  • Long COVID: The Biden administration also announced that it is working to ensure that sufferers of long COVID have appropriate access to “rights and resources” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law thirty one years ago yesterday. Morgan Stephens, a production assistant at CNN, is among the many people to have suffered from the condition. More than eight months after she was diagnosed with COVID, “the breakdown of my own physical and mental health has given me front-row access to the long COVID-19 crisis in a way I never imagined,” Stephens writes. “The waves of illness have not let up. I’m not alone.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The Local Live(s) project humanizes reporters by putting them onstage

Posted: July 27, 2021, 12:36 pm

California Gov. Gavin Newsom calls out right-wing media, including Fox News

California Gov. Gavin Newsom blasted right-wing media and politicians, including several by name, because he believes they have spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. He said it both in a press conference Monday and during an appearance on MSNBC. According to The Sacramento Bee’s Andrew Sheeler, Newsom said in his Monday press conference, “We are exhausted, respectfully, […]

The post California Gov. Gavin Newsom calls out right-wing media, including Fox News appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 27, 2021, 11:30 am

How to write with honesty in the plain style

I know how to tell you the truth in a sentence so dense and complicated and filled with jargon that you will not be able to comprehend. I also know — using my clearest and most engaging prose — how to tell you a vicious lie. This dual reality — that seemingly virtuous plainness can […]

The post How to write with honesty in the plain style appeared first on Poynter.

Posted: July 27, 2021, 11:15 am

Small steps, but: Most big American newspaper newsrooms are now led by someone other than a white man

Last week, two dailies near and dear to my heart hired new top editors to lead their newsrooms.1 The Dallas Morning News announced that Katrice Hardy of The Indianapolis Star would be its next executive editor. And three hours down I-45, the Houston Chronicle named Maria Reeve executive editor, moving her one spot up the...
Posted: July 26, 2021, 8:33 pm

Female video game journalists on what to do when the mob comes for you

The weirdest harassment campaign Ash Parrish ever faced came after she wrote a cheeky, semi-facetious story for Kotaku about why the new Xbox Series X creeped her out. Microsoft’s flagship machine is equipped with an exhaust port consisting of dozens of circular holes. Parrish has trypophobia, which is defined as “an aversion to the sight...
Posted: July 26, 2021, 1:27 pm

The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee

In late May, over the Memorial Day weekend, the top story on NBC’s Meet the Press was a recent vote by Republican senators to kill the prospect of an independent, fully bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. (Six Republicans backed the commission, but their votes weren’t enough to overcome their colleagues’ filibuster.) At the top of the show, Chuck Todd, the host, correctly noted that it was Republicans who blocked the commission. Then, however, he called the vote “a stress test for our democracy” that “our democracy failed, and failed big time.” He said that top Republicans had plainly torpedoed the commission for reasons of electoral self-interest, then said that “this Congress” had voted it down. He interviewed Barbara Comstock, a former Republican Congresswoman who supported the commission, about the reasons for her party’s opposition, then asked Jason Crow, a Democratic Congressman, whether his party’s leadership in the House would voluntarily retain the commission’s proposed bipartisan structure in any replacement investigation it may constitute, in order to ensure its “credibility.” Todd also asked, “​​On this Memorial Day weekend, if Congress can’t even agree on an independent January 6 commission, what can it agree on?”

Todd’s framing reflected the variety of motifs found in other media coverage of the January 6 investigation, and of Washington politics more broadly: there was some moral and factual clarity, but it was muddied, both by impersonal language that obscured lines of accountability, and the twin implications that bipartisanship is desirable, and that Democrats bear responsibility for upholding it—even in the face of explicit Republican obstructionism. As the story has developed—with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi establishing a select committee to investigate January 6 in lieu of a commission—these motifs have persisted; last week, they crescendoed, as Pelosi blocked two Republican Congressmen—Jim Banks and Jim Jordan—from appointment to the panel, leading Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, to pull all five of his picks. 

ICYMI: The Local Live(s) project humanizes reporters by putting them onstage

Banks had been overtly hostile to the prospect of the committee and Jordan may be a material witness to Donald Trump’s complicity in the insurrection; both men voted to reverse Trump’s defeat in key states, abetting the Big Lie that incited the insurrection in the first place. Pelosi’s decision not to seat them thus looked like a move to shore up the credibility of the committee’s investigation against inevitable bad-faith attacks from within. And yet a number of journalists and commentators reached very different conclusions. Rachael Bade, of Politico, said that Pelosi had given a “gift” to McCarthy: “He wanted this panel to look partisan and political. Now it’s definitely going to look partisan and political.” Politico’s DC Playbook team, of which Bade is a member, wrote that, while it had called out Republican “cowardice” in rejecting the idea of a commission, Pelosi’s decision “will make the investigation even easier to dismiss for people who aren’t die-hard members of Team Blue,” arming the GOP with a “legitimate grievance.” Chris Cillizza, of CNN, told anyone still harboring hopes that the committee might deepen public understanding of January 6 to “give up on those hopes now,” because Pelosi had just “doomed” them. (Confusingly, Cillizza then went on TV and pinned most of the blame on McConnell.) The Hill wrote that Pelosi had helped Banks burnish his “brand.” And so on.

This genre of coverage—and Playbook’s analysis, in particular—attracted some intense criticism online, with numerous media-watchers characterizing it as the latest iteration of a familiar journalistic problem: bothsidesism. The New Republic’s Alex Shephard wrote, in an article headlined “Both Sides Journalism Will Never Die,” that many political journalists treated Pelosi’s decision as “just another sigh-inducing instance of partisanship in Washington”—a position Shephard paraphrased with the question: “Why can’t both parties just stop messing around and get things done? If only Nancy Pelosi would stop playing politics and allow people who tried to overturn a legitimate presidential election to serve on a committee investigating a violent attempt to overturn a legitimate presidential election!” Salon’s Amanda Marcotte agreed: everyone knows that the GOP wants to derail the January 6 investigation, she wrote, “and yet, because the slow decline of our democracy is like a horror movie where the scantily clad young woman is ignoring audience pleas not to go down that dark hallway, the mainstream media is framing this as a ‘both sides’ problem.” Speaking on Pod Save America, NBC’s Mehdi Hasan said that the insurrection led to hope that journalists might abandon the both-sides approach—and yet, six months on, “the ‘legitimate grievance’ is the pro-insurrection party complaining that they don’t get to be on the insurrection investigation.”

This is, indeed, bothsidesism as we’ve come to understand the term, insofar as it bent over backward to find Democratic culpability in a problem that Republicans created. But this understanding arguably reflects a slippage from a clear-cut understanding of the term that, to my mind, was once more prevalent in gripes about political coverage, especially early on in the Trump era: namely, the idea of false equivalence, or treating two things that aren’t the same as if they are. Much of the coverage of Pelosi’s decision fit this classic frame—casting it as part of a “partisan brawl,” or juxtaposing soundbites from Pelosi and McCarthy without adding much context. The most objectionable coverage, however, committed far graver sins; arguably, the worst of it was so bothsidesy that it approached onesideism, scolding Democrats while letting Republicans off the hook. This is itself a much broader problem than mere false equivalence, reflecting—as Brian Beutler, of Crooked Media, and others have put it—the commonplace journalistic assumption that “Republican bad faith… is just a feature of the landscape,” whereas a given Democrat is “an actor with agency, and subject to scrutiny.” This problem, as Hasan noted, has an analytical cousin: in the eyes of many pundits, a given political development is often framed as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans.

In addition to its cravenness, much political analysis of Pelosi’s decision, taken on its own terms, got lost down a series of empirical and logical dead ends. Numerous outlets claimed, for example, that Pelosi set a precedent, in terms of committee-appointment practices, that Republicans will likely wield against Democrats the next time they have control of the House. But Republicans have shown time and again that they are more than happy to themselves blitz precedent in service of a political objective, be it a Supreme Court justice or Trump back in the White House. The idea they need the cover of Democrats doing it first is absurd. 

Much of the conversation around the “credibility” of the January 6 investigation has been absurd, too—yoking the definition of the term to actors who have explicitly stated their intent to delegitimize the investigation. Similar is true of the claims that Pelosi blew up the bipartisan nature of the committee, which often elided the fact that Liz Cheney, a prominent Republican, will still serve on it. Such an analysis implies that, to satisfy the demands of bipartisanship, Republicans aren’t Republican enough if they take seriously the thing the committee was created to take seriously. This, clearly, is circular, and self-defeating.

Last week, Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Washington Post, suggested that those covering the investigation should ask themselves a question: “What sort of inquiry into January 6 would Republicans declare to be a legitimate one?” If the answer is blatantly antithetical to the purposes of any actual inquiry, Sargent reasoned, then it must follow that Republicans, not Democrats, are to blame for the absence of bipartisanship. I’d propose a second question that should guide coverage—one that doesn’t just look back at the events of January 6, but forward to the prospect that Republicans will try to subvert an election again, perhaps with more success. Journalists should ask themselves whether, in such an eventuality, they will be able to look back on their present coverage of Republican democracy subversion and defend it; if not, they should correct course now, substituting clarity for complacency before it’s too late. This act of imagination doesn’t require any certainty of prediction. It merely requires a recognition of plausibility, and the acknowledgement that chattering about the electoral consequences of this move by Pelosi, or that move by McCarthy, is pointless if elections aren’t played on a level field.

Below, more on the January 6 investigation:


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The COVID Olympics get underway

Posted: July 26, 2021, 12:44 pm

The Local Live(s) project humanizes reporters by putting them onstage

The Local Live(s) project launched amid the pandemic, partnering with newsrooms to host live online events in which journalists talk about their work. Last year, the group worked with six newsrooms to hold ten live events; this year, they’ll expand their scope to highlight the work of thirty local newsrooms across the country. (Disclosure: the […]
Posted: July 23, 2021, 4:00 pm

The COVID Olympics get underway

The Olympic Games officially open today. Thousands of people, including journalists, have faced a gauntlet of health restrictions to gain access to Tokyo, where COVID-19 cases recently spiked. Before leaving their home countries, reporters were asked to record two negative tests and log health data into numerous apps, which often didn’t work. Upon arrival, visitors have been held, in some cases for hours, at the airport, where they’ve been asked to download more apps and take another test by spitting into a plastic tube—an exercise, David Wharton writes for the LA Times, that is “a lot harder than it might sound” after “eleven dehydrating hours” on a plane. (Officials “have taped up snapshots of citrus fruit, with the suggestion that you ‘imagine,’ to help generate the necessary bodily fluids.”) Next: three days of quarantine in a hotel. With nowhere else to go, journalists have written and spoken about the weirdness—and tedium—of the experience. “For two days, I sat here and just watched this dolphin swim back and forth,” Tony Florkowski, a producer at ESPN, said, referring to a tank visible from his window. “He’s kept me engaged.”

Some journalists—a team from the BBC, for instanceare being held in quarantine for as long as fourteen days, after being deemed to have been in close contact with an infected person somewhere along their journey. For the rest of the press, once the three days are up, they’re allowed out, but only to travel in approved vehicles to approved venues within the Olympic “bubble.” This week, a group of reporters was escorted outside the bubble for what they thought would be an opportunity to report, but which turned out to be a brief tour of empty tourist sites. There’s been plenty of grumbling that many of these rules feel arbitrary—athletes exposed to COVID have not been asked to isolate, and there is no flexibility for reporters who are fully vaccinated. Worse, some journalists say that the rules feel ineffective and out of step with the latest science about the virus. “Reporters are packed onto buses shoulder-to-shoulder but are forbidden from sharing a taxi. We can loiter on the sidewalk outside our hotels for only 15 minutes, but we can linger together in clumps indoors,” Michael Rosenberg writes, for Sports Illustrated. “The operating principle seems to be that as long as protocols are time-consuming or voluminous, they must work.” As of early this week, at least seven media workers in Tokyo for the Olympics had tested positive.

ICYMI: Facebook’s disinformation problem is harder than it looks

Throughout the Games, these restrictions will sharply limit reporters’ access to events and athletes: members of the press must apply in advance for the former, owing to space restrictions, and can only conduct interviews in authorized zones. “One of the joys of reporting on the Olympics is the randomness, the serendipity that comes from being at an event with representatives from two hundred countries,” Ken Belson, of the New York Times, said—something that will be much harder to document this year. ESPN’s Florkowski, who is covering his fourteenth Games, described these Olympics as “the biggest challenge of my long career. Normally at an Olympics we don’t have a lot of access because we’re not NBC. So that’s hard. Now you put it into a pandemic and it just ramps it up everywhere.” Not that NBC (which holds the rights to the Olympics in the US) is finding things a whole lot easier—according to the Hollywood Reporter, a handful of NBC correspondents have served enough time in quarantine that they can leave the Olympic bubble, but other staffers will have to work and broadcast from their hotel. “We think of the Olympics as this idea of welcoming the world,” Lester Holt told THR. “In this case it is just the opposite in the face of the pandemic.”

The Olympics are a big deal financially for NBC, which has sold advertising worth more than a billion dollars and counting. The disastrous run-up to the Games—which, at one point, looked like they might not go ahead, given the rise in cases and widespread public opposition in Japan—threatened to jeopardize the network’s plans; even now, advertisers have concerns about associating their brands with the event. (Toyota pulled its Olympics ads from Japanese TV, citing a lack of public support for the Games, though the company will continue to run ads in the US.) Ratings, even if they’re solid, are expected to be down from past Olympics. The absence of spectators at most events poses a paradox of sorts for NBC’s coverage: empty arenas, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy notes, mean that “by definition” the Olympics will be a “made-for-TV event,” and yet, as Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand put it recently, the definition of a good made-for-TV event—in the US, at least—involves “fans, and cheering, and noise, and cutaway shots.” To compensate, NBC plans to highlight sound that viewers might not otherwise hear, from “thrashing and splashing in the pool to those intimate conversations between competitors and coaches”; the coverage will also incorporate US-based watch parties. Still, per Ourand, the absence of fans will likely be “jarring” for TV viewers, who have grown accustomed to seeing full stadiums on their screens again.

Jeff Shell, the CEO of NBCUniversal, has sounded sanguine about the success of the Games: ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, he said, “everybody was worried about the traffic”; in 2016, in Rio, there was pre-Games fear about the Zika virus. “Once the Opening Ceremony happens, everybody forgets all that and enjoys the seventeen days,” Shell said. “And I think this is going to be the same thing.” As well as being insensitive, that seems like wishful thinking—it’s not unusual for non-sports stories to gain traction in the run-up to an Olympics, but COVID is of an entirely different magnitude and won’t exit the stage. In some coverage, the build-up to Tokyo has been framed not as an outlier, but as a tipping point—a perfect illustration of the Games as Rapacious Multinational Business, riding roughshod over the interests of its host countries, the world’s poor, and the climate. Some commentators have suggested that, going forward, the Olympics ought to be hosted in a single central location. (As Dave Zirin, of The Nation, pointed out this week, that would likely upset journalists, who love an opportunity to travel on the company dime as much as anyone else.)

The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch has noted that NBC is casting the Olympics as ​“the communal experience the world needs right now” and that it’s been pushing that theme in its coverage of the opening ceremony, which began around an hour and a half ago. (Seeking a communal experience in the US, NBC will repackage the ceremony with a special pre-show and broadcast it again tonight, when everyone will be awake.) For all the athletes filing in, however, the stadium—and consequently the footage—feels eerily empty. The more consequential gathering may be one that is happening outside the stadium, where anti-Olympics protesters have convened. Their shouts can be heard inside. There’s your atmosphere.

Below, more on the Olympics:

  • A challenge: Last month, Andrew Keh, a sports reporter at the Times, joined Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker, to discuss the Games, the likely limits to reporting, and the broader erosion of spontaneous access to sports stars. You can listen here. This week, Keh told John Otis, a Times colleague, that, perversely, the restrictions might make the Games “a great situation for a reporter.” In Otis’s words, “the challenge of working in strange, obstructing circumstances should produce interesting journalism. There has never been an Olympics like this.”
  • Peacock: In addition to NBC, Olympics coverage will be shown on eight other channels owned by Comcast—including CNBC, USA, and Telemundo—as well as on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, which was launched last year to coincide with the Olympics that were pushed back by the pandemic. Matt Bonesteel writes, for the Washington Post, that Peacock’s live Olympics coverage will be pretty limited, offering only gymnastics, track and field, and Team USA men’s basketball events that take place early in the morning. (Peacock will also offer Olympics news and highlights shows.) Per Bonesteel, the “limited menu of the Olympics’ most popular sports is part of NBC’s plan to increase the subscriber and digital advertiser base for Peacock.”
  • Sexism: According to EFE, a Spanish news agency, the United Nations’ gender-equity body and the International Olympic Committee have co-produced a guide that aims to help news organizations avoid sexist coverage of women’s sports. In the past, coverage has mentioned “aspects outside of the realm of sports,” Lisa Solmirano, an official involved with the guide, told EFE. “There are comments related to their sexual orientation or physical appearance. They are treated like children and described as ‘the girls.’”
  • Cardboard beds: Ahead of the Games, a mini-news cycle sprang up around the presence of cardboard beds in the Olympic village. Numerous news organizations reported that the beds were designed to prevent athletes from having sex (and thus risking the spread of COVID), but that isn’t true. “These beds were designed long before Covid, and the aim was not to prevent athletes from having sex but to promote eco-consciousness as they are 100% recyclable,” Joshua Hunt, a former Japan correspondent, tweeted. “I’ll never understand why western media are so obsessed with projecting weird sex narratives on Japan.” (An Irish gymnast also demonstrated that the claim is “fake news”—by filming himself jumping up and down on his bed to test it.)


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Facebook, Fox, and what ‘killing people’ means in a pandemic

Posted: July 23, 2021, 12:30 pm

Facebook’s disinformation problem is harder than it looks

That Facebook can distribute dangerous amounts of misinformation around the world in the blink of an eye is not a new problem. But the attention stepped up when President Joe Biden told reporters during a White House scrum that Facebook was “killing people” by spreading disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories about COVID-19, and in particular […]
Posted: July 22, 2021, 11:45 am

Facebook, Fox, and what ‘killing people’ means in a pandemic

Last Thursday, with confirmed cases of COVID-19 again rising across the US, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, issued his first advisory since the Biden administration took office: health mis- and disinformation, he said, has prolonged the pandemic, not least by exposing Americans to anti-vax propaganda, and social-media companies should do more to stamp it out. On Friday, Biden himself put a finer point on things. Asked by an NBC reporter for his message to platforms, particularly Facebook, Biden replied, “They’re killing people,” then added, “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated.” His bluntness drove a media frenzy and infuriated Facebook, which hit back—claiming that it is actually “helping save lives, period,” by putting good vaccine information in front of billions of users, and accusing Biden of making the company a “scapegoat” for his administration’s missed vaccination targets. On Monday, Biden was asked about his remark, and said this time that Facebook “isn’t killing people”; rather, a small but prolific number of users are. Some news outlets reported that Biden had “clarified” his earlier comment. Others saw a “softening,” a “walk back,” even a “U-turn.”

Biden’s intervention—along with rising cases and plummeting vaccination rates—have reignited urgent media conversations about vaccine hesitancy, whose fault it is, and to what extent. Facebook has been central to this conversation, with observers debating the proper balance between the good messaging it has instigated and the bad messaging it has allowed on its platform. Right-wing media outlets—and, given its huge reach, Fox News, in particular—have also been central, with some commentators arguing that they deserve a greater share of the blame for sowing mistrust of the vaccines and Biden’s efforts to distribute them. (“Who’s winning the war between Biden and Facebook?” a headline in Wired asked. “Fox News.”) On Sunday, CNN’s Dana Bash asked Murthy whether Fox is also “killing people”; Murthy replied that the general cost of misinformation “can be measured in lives lost,” but declined to be more specific. Oliver Darcy, a CNN media reporter, called this a “dodge” that reflected poorly on the administration’s priorities: “misinformation on Fox is distributed intentionally, while Facebook is at least putting some effort to combatting it.” Yesterday, Darcy’s colleagues Kaitlan Collins and Brian Stelter reported, citing anonymous official sources, that the White House has sought to engage Fox, via regular, “high level” discussions about its coverage. The White House, however, disputed the “high level” characterization, and Fox dismissed CNN’s reporting. (“We had one routine briefing with the White House in early May on vaccination rates,” the network said, “and our DC bureau personnel are regularly in touch with them on a variety of issues.”)

ICYMI: The risible launch of ‘Britain’s Fox News’

Talks or none, many media observers have this week noticed an apparent shift in Fox’s coverage of COVID vaccines. On Monday, the network ran on-screen banners advertising official vaccine resources, and Sean Hannity urged his viewers to take the pandemic seriously; on Tuesday, Steve Doocy, of Fox & Friends, said that the vaccine “will save your life.” These efforts have met, in more liberal quarters, with relief, and even some praise. It’s not clear, however, that they really represent any sea change. Hannity and Doocy have both endorsed vaccines before; in February, the latter appeared, alongside several other Fox hosts, in a vaccine PSA. And, more pertinently, hosts who have consistently cast doubt on the vaccines have continued to do so: following Hannity on Monday, for instance, Laura Ingraham accused Democrats of trying to cancel “inconvenient opinions regarding their Covid response,” and brought on a guest who called the idea that there is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” a “lie.” Some of this week’s Fox-has-changed commentary reminded me of the post-election period, when supposed instances of hosts turning on Trump belied a more sordid reality. With vaccines, as with Trump’s election lies, low expectations can dilute our standards of accountability.

Many commentators have sought, in recent days, to push the conversation about vaccine hesitancy beyond easy narratives of discrete blame. Renée DiResta, a researcher at Stanford’s Internet Observatory, noted on MSNBC last night that “it’s really difficult to differentiate between media and social media at this point,” since major outlets all now use social platforms to reach audiences. “We’re kind of perpetuating this idea that the two ecosystems are wholly different,” DiResta said. “That’s not exactly right.” Others have widened the frame still further, beyond these ecosystems: Dr. Peter Hotez, a virology expert at Baylor, wrote for the Daily Beast that Biden’s focus on social media is insufficient, and that he must instead fight the misinformation Ghidorah (a three-headed dragon, apparently) of anti-vax media and political punditry, anti-science NGOs, and malicious state actors; many experts have also noted the range of socioeconomic factors that drive different types of vaccine hesitancy. Amid all this, some columnists have pushed back, specifically, on Biden’s claim that Facebook is “killing people.” Farhad Manjoo, of the New York Times, accused Biden of “rhetorical shoddiness” that reduced “​​the complex scourge of runaway vaccine hesitancy into a cartoonishly simple matter of product design: If only Facebook would hit its Quit Killing People button, America would be healed again.” Charlie Warzel wrote in his newsletter that Biden teed up “an unproductive, false binary of a conversation on a complex topic that deserves far more nuance.”

There’s a lot to agree with here: vaccine hesitancy has a variety of causes, and our information ecosystem is a messy place where the lines blur between individual bad actors and their poison pools. Importantly, though, none of this diminishes the moral responsibility of individual bad actors—and zero tolerance for their individually bad actions remains the proper standard. Biden’s “killing people” remark captured our attention because it sounded so inflammatory; indeed, it sounds like the worst thing you can accuse someone of doing. But, in the context of a global pandemic, the meaning of such a remark has changed: the whole world is now itself a messy ecosystem of cause and effect, where everyone’s routine decisions, passive or active, can put others at potentially mortal risk. This isn’t to drain Biden’s words of their moral weight; it’s to recognize that, as well as being a sharp rebuke, it is literally true to say that anything that contributes to vaccine hesitancy is “killing people.” Biden must have known how his words would land; it seems possible, to me, that he wanted to center Facebook in a weekend media storm, then assert some plausible deniability. But his “killing people” remark was not inherently lacking in nuance—it was entirely compatible with it. And sections of the media bear responsibility for hyping the political attack without teasing those nuances out.

Nor did Biden really do a “U-turn” on Facebook, as much coverage suggested. Facebook both is and isn’t killing people—for the reasons I outlined above, but also because we can define “Facebook” in different ways: it’s both a corporate entity run by people and a universe within which misinformation thrives, with the former responsible for the latter. Similar is true of Fox: it’s run by people who say they support vaccines, and yet it lets vaccine doubt pollute its airwaves. The proportionalities of blame within and between such organizations are harder to calculate. These are important, because the media should be mindful of relative power. But analyzing them needn’t and shouldn’t serve to dull sharp moral statements like Biden’s. Every pointillist painting is built of tiny dots. Focusing on the dots can feel hopelessly small, and won’t in itself get shots in arms. But neither will losing them in the bigger picture.

Below, more on vaccines and misinformation:

  • Vaccine passports: Top Fox hosts haven’t just spread doubt about the vaccines; they have also taken aim at the idea of “vaccine passports” that might regulate access to public settings. (Tucker Carlson recently called them the medical equivalent of Jim Crow.) Ryan Grim reported on Hill TV this week, however, that despite this on-air rhetoric, Fox’s parent company has implemented something that looks very much like a vaccine passport at its offices. The company’s system “allows for employees to self-report to Fox the dates their shots were administered and which vaccines were used,” CNN’s Darcy wrote in a follow-up story. “Employees who report their status are allowed to bypass the otherwise required daily health screening.” (The system is voluntary for Fox staffers.)
  • Useful breakthroughs?: Amid concerns about rising case rates driven by the more contagious Delta variant, Axios reports that many lawmakers, staffers, and journalists working in Congress have started wearing masks again, and Congressional leaders are considering reintroducing some COVID rules, despite high vaccination rates on the Hill. Axios also reported yesterday that a vaccinated White House staffer and aide to Nancy Pelosi have tested positive for COVID; neither Biden nor Pelosi is known to have been exposed, and the staffers’ cases are mild, but questions about them still ate up a large part of yesterday’s White House briefing. Some observers argue that cases among vaccinated people should not be treated as news stories in and of themselves. “The Every! Breakthrough! Infection! Is! Big! News! news cycle is getting pretty annoying,” Nate Silver tweeted yesterday, “and is probably going to give vaccinated people a lot of unnecessary anxiety about Delta while also providing kindling to anti-vaxxers.”
  • Mistrust: Sara Fischer reports, also for Axios, on a new study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which found that people who follow conservative news outlets are less likely to have confidence in public health institutions and experts, such as the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci, and more likely to believe vaccine misinformation. “When you begin to reduce trust in experts and agencies telling you that vaccines are safe, you’re creating all kinds of susceptibilities that can be exploited for partisan gain,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the APPC’s director, said.
  • Delayed response: On Monday, YouTube—which, as Warzel and others have noted, often attracts less scrutiny than Facebook—pledged to do more to combat health misinformation on its platform; it plans to label more videos containing junk, and highlight more authoritative information, including “information panels” with sources approved by the National Academy of Medicine. As CNBC’s Jennifer Elias writes, however, “the tool’s effectiveness will be based on the viewers’ willingness to click on it,” and “experts have repeatedly doubted similar tools the company added to election videos last year.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: How a Twitter thread sparked a lawsuit against Nieman Lab’s founder

Posted: July 21, 2021, 12:37 pm

The risible launch of ‘Britain’s Fox News’

Last week, Guto Harri, an anchor on GB News, in the United Kingdom, addressed a pressing news story: the racist abuse that Black English players faced following the final of the European soccer championships, which England lost, and the broader debate around the players’ practice of taking a knee before games. Some fans have booed the anti-racist gesture, and many more Brits see it as evidence of an insidious liberal agenda: Boris Johnson, the prime minister, initially refused to condemn the booing; one lawmaker from Johnson’s Conservative Party boycotted England’s games altogether. Harri—who, in a past life, was an adviser to Johnson when he was mayor of London—had himself previously questioned the gesture, but he said on GB News that his perspective had changed. “I may have underestimated how close to the surface the racism still was,” he said. “I actually now get it—so much so that I think we should all take the knee. In fact, why not take the knee now?” With that, he got up off a couch, and kneeled on the studio floor. “It’s a gesture,” he said, “but it’s an important gesture.”

On its face, this was a surprising thing to witness on GB News. Ahead of its launch, last month, the network promised to broadcast serious journalism from around the country, but also to prioritize protecting free speech against the dual threats of “cancel culture” and “wokeness”—so much so that the network was quickly dubbed “the British Fox News.” (This was never really accurate, but more on that later.) On launch night, GB News scored strong ratings, but things quickly went downhill from there. The channel’s early days were beset by amateurish technical faults—glitchy audio, shoddy camerawork, typos in chyrons, banging noises off camera—in studios so dark that viewers compared them, variously, to a wartime bunker and a scene from Silence of the Lambs; anchors read out messages from pranksters with lewd names that even Moe Szyslak might not have fallen for, and weird clips went viral online. (Pedophile is a medical term… Jeffrey Epstein was an ephebophile.”) Advertisers started to pull out, and ratings quickly slid. Just two weeks in, Andrew Neil—a former BBC journalist who had been a driving force in founding GB News, as well as its most high-profile anchor—announced that his show was going on hiatus. He said he was taking his annual leave, but he didn’t set a return date.

New from CJR: The right-wing media capital of America

Then, Harri took a knee, and everything that was left to go wrong at GB News went wrong. Furious viewers accused him of pandering to the wokes, and declared a boycott of GB News; at times last week, the network’s viewership fell so low that one ratings agency measured it as zero. Some of Harri’s colleagues defended his taking of the knee as consistent with GB News’s free-speech bona fides, but management clearly did not agree: the network suspended Harri, and publicly denounced his gesture as an “unacceptable breach” of its editorial standards. Harri has now resigned from GB News; on his way out, he wrote in a newspaper column that the network had become an “absurd parody” of itself, replicating cancel culture “on the far right” rather than confronting it. According to The Guardian’s Jim Waterson, senior off-air figures with backgrounds at credible outlets quit, too, reportedly following pressure to dial back the journalism and dial up the culture wars. In a metaphor so excruciatingly on-the-nose that you couldn’t write it, Alastair Stewart, another heavyweight anchor on the network, was forced to take a break from hosting after a horse he was leading to stables bolted, breaking Stewart’s hip. On Friday night, Neil weighed in via Twitter. “Start ups are fraught and fractious,” he wrote. He insisted, however, that GB News “is finding its feet and has a great future. Watch this space.”

The space, it turned out, would quickly be filled by a familiar figure. Over the weekend, GB News announced that it was handing a weeknight prime-time slot to a show hosted by Nigel Farage, the right-wing British politician who was a key architect of Brexit, and may be best known to American viewers for his campaign cameos at Donald Trump’s side. The show debuted last night. The bunker aesthetic was gone, bleached by the harsh lighting of a late-nineties teen-pop video. In his opening monologue, Farage assailed media criticism of the network’s faltering first month, excoriated Harri, and reiterated the GB News mission. “There is, for all the talk of diversity, almost no diversity in British broadcast media. They pretty much take the same center-left, liberal, woke, pro-cancel culture view on virtually everything,” Farage said. “Outside of metropolitan London, there is a very large population of people who have an entirely different view. And yet they’re looked down upon—despised, virtually—by so many in politics and media in this country.” If GB News is British Fox, here, at last, was its Tucker Carlson.

Farage promised strong opinions, as well as a commitment to open debate. In the hour that followed there was little of the latter and a lot of the former. Farage started by excoriating the British government’s pandemic policies, stopping only to (falsely) suggest that its successful vaccine rollout wouldn’t have been possible without Brexit. He then rolled “exclusive footage” of a group of migrants who had arrived in Britain by boat earlier in the day, all of whom appeared to be young men. “I’m not so sure that desperate people have brand new Nike trainers, smart iPhones, or—when they arrive—high five each other, or punch the air,” Farage said. “If it’s so awful where they’ve come from, why on earth have they deserted the women and children there?” Later, he debuted a segment, called “Every Pub is a Parliament,” in which he interviewed a Conservative lawmaker over a pint of beer. (“That should get some puritans screaming before we even begin,” Farage said, as he sipped his pint. Neither man finished his drink.) Then, Farage cut to an anti-lockdown protest outside the prime minister’s residence, only to have to cut away after a protester called a GB News correspondent a “Nazi fucking wanker,” among other insults. Farage apologized for the profanity. Free speech, again, had met its limits.

The farcical particulars of GB News’s early struggles may be surprising, but the fact of the struggles is not. Launching a new media company is hard—especially on British TV, where channels must abide by a range of impartiality and other rules. GB News pledged to stand up for “marginalized” voices—but conservative outlets are, in reality, already plentiful in the UK, in print and online if not on traditional broadcast TV. In the face of such competition, GB News could nonetheless have stood out by leaning decisively into US-style culture-war content. Yet its approach has always seemed conceptually muddled: in the US, the point of such content is that it opposes traditional journalism, rather than aspiring to appear alongside it. The result has been a network that, so far, has been neither sensible enough to appeal to the sensible, nor quite outrageous enough to appeal to the outraged. Harri’s taking of the knee was a case in point.

The unleashing of Farage, in addition to the reported high-level off-air staffing changes, suggests that GB News now plans to attack the culture wars with a more singular focus. Assessing whether that might work brings us back round to the “British Fox” comparison; Fox, to my mind, is rooted in specifically American grievance politics that one can’t simply replant in a different context without first checking the fertility of the soil. (The Farage-Carlson comparison perhaps has more merit.) As I’ve written before, I’m unconvinced that the culture war is as aflame in the UK as it is in the US. That’s not to say that there is no audience for it, and that GB News should now be written off completely—but if the network is to stabilize, it will likely be as one of many minor players within the UK’s media ecosystem, and not as a transformational upstart. Its decision to call on Farage feels, already, like a final throw of the dice. Then again, maybe not. There’s always Piers Morgan.

Below, more on Britain and Britons:

  • Freedom! I won’t let you down?: Yesterday, Johnson’s government removed almost all remaining public-health restrictions in the UK, even though cases in the country have risen sharply in recent weeks; people who have come into close contact with a COVID carrier are still expected to self-isolate, leading Farage to declare “Freedom Day” a “FREEDOM FARCE” on his show. Given the high rates of viral transmission, the isolation rules have disrupted many British businesses and public services: on Sunday, the BBC was forced to scrap its local-news bulletin for London and instead show a bulletin for the South-East region after COVID impacted a local production team.
  • Jess Brammar: Recently, the Financial Times reported that Robbie Gibb—a former government communications adviser who now serves on the BBC’s board—intervened to try to stop the broadcaster from appointing Jess Brammar, the former editor of HuffPost UK, to a senior role, on the grounds that her appointment would fray the BBC’s relations with the government. Liberals have since criticized Gibb for infringing on the BBC’s editorial independence; conservatives, meanwhile, have scoured Brammar’s social-media history for evidence of supposed liberal bias. They found some pretty innocuous tweets (that Brammar has since deleted) and have made a very big deal of them indeed.
  • Prince Harry: Yesterday, Penguin Random House announced that Prince Harry—who “Megxited” Britain’s royal family last year, and now lives in the USwill publish a memoir in 2022; Harry’s book promises to be “wholly true,” and to lay out “the definitive account of the experiences, adventures, losses, and life lessons that have helped shape him.” The proceeds will go to charity. According to Page Six, Harry is working on the memoir with J.R. Moehringer, a “power ghostwriter” who has previously worked with the tennis star Andre Agassi and Phil Knight, of Nike, as well as writing his own autobiography.
  • Katie Hopkins: Recently, the Australian edition of Big Brother announced that Katie Hopkins—a British far-right troll whose tweets occasionally wormed their way into Trump’s feed, before she was banned from the platform—would appear in a forthcoming season. After arriving in Australia, however, Hopkins posted videos to social media in which she bragged about breaking the country’s quarantine rules and her plans to expose herself to hotel workers; Big Brother subsequently booted Hopkins from its lineup, and the Australian government has now deported her. The reality-TV star Caitlyn Jenner will still appear in the show—while also running for governor of California.
  • Dawn Foster: Last week, Dawn Foster, a British journalist and commentator, died. She was thirty-three years old. “We bonded over a mutual compulsion to place the experiences of working-class individuals in their proper context, in a media landscape that talks over and about working-class people,” Lynsey Hanley writes for Jacobin, the US-based socialist magazine for which Foster wrote. “We were both sick to death of seeing reporting on politics and social affairs that was as dangerous as it was careless, written by people comfortable enough to assume that indignation is the same thing as anger.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The danger on our devices

Posted: July 20, 2021, 12:38 pm

The right-wing media capital of America

Before the trouble started, Fox News host Sean Hannity likened Matt Gaetz to a “young Mickey Mantle” of the right. The Florida Republican reciprocated by calling Hannity a “transformational figure of the media.” Together they became a virtual tag-team act on Hannity’s show, where Gaetz appeared on a near-nightly basis to tout Donald Trump, cry […]
Posted: July 20, 2021, 10:55 am

Nothing against the “Death Star,” but the LA Times thinks its new daily news podcast can go where the biggies can’t

Any journalist who wants to launch a daily news podcast probably needs to think about the Death Star first. That would be The New York Times’ wildly popular show, The Daily, which looms over any conversation about daily news podcasts. “The Daily is the Death Star podcast. It’s humongous, it’s huge,” said Gustavo Arellano, the...
Posted: July 15, 2021, 3:49 pm

How The New York Times assesses, tests, and prepares for the (un)expected news event

The New York Times experiences traffic levels that ebb and flow with the news cycle. Planned events that occur at a fixed time and date, such as an election or the Olympics, are known traffic generators. We expect our users to visit The Times’s website and apps for special coverage during those events. However, unplanned...
Posted: July 15, 2021, 2:40 pm

I have come to bury Knewz, not to praise it

Knewz is dead, and shame on anyone who bought even a sliver of the hype. It’s standard marketing practice to pump up your new product — revolutionary! transformative! — but Knewz set a new bar for empty boasts backed by product nonsense. For those of you blessedly unfamiliar, this terribly titled site was a dull...
Posted: July 14, 2021, 4:00 pm

“At first, Facebook was happy that I and other journalists were finding its tool useful…but the mood shifted”

Since last year, New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose has been using Facebook’s data analytics tool, CrowdTangle, for a purpose the company doesn’t like — to show that the posts with the most engagement on Facebook are far more likely to come from right-wing commentators than mainstream news outlets. He tweets the most-engaged posts each...
Posted: July 14, 2021, 2:13 pm

If you’re not a climate reporter yet, you will be: Covid-19 coverage offers lessons for reporting on the climate crisis

In early January 2020, the BBC reported about a new “mystery virus” in Wuhan, China. Since then, news organizations around the world have learned important lessons from covering Covid-19 that could become valuable for how they cover the climate crisis. Never in the history of modern news journalism has a science story — the story of...
Posted: July 14, 2021, 1:35 pm

Cleveland’s Plain Dealer decided to “completely ignore” politicians’ “false statements and stunts.” It’s working.

It wasn’t all that long ago that news outlets were doing a lot of handwringing over whether to ever use the word “lie” in relation to politicians lying about things. “Each time President Trump says something that we know, based on the evidence, is not accurate, we hear from readers who are upset that we...
Posted: July 13, 2021, 5:36 pm

Community foundation support for journalism is increasing — but still has a long way to go

Foundation support is crucial for nonprofit news organizations of all sizes. A recent INN report, for example, found that grants from foundations accounted for an average of 47% of revenue across local, national, and global publications. With foundation funding disproportionately going to publications with a national focus, however, local news can get left out. There’s...
Posted: July 12, 2021, 6:16 pm

“White audiences who will pay” is still metro newspapers’ survival strategy

In late June, NJ.com journalist Tennyson Donyea’s Twitter thread and essay about his experiences trying to pitch and cover Black culture went viral. “Black journalists can’t breathe and it’s become my mental health hell,” he wrote. One of the most serious limitations preventing Donyea from chronicling Black life and culture in New Jersey? His editor...
Posted: July 12, 2021, 3:03 pm

On big tech and news publishers, Canada must follow Australia’s lead

Last month, Google announced deals that will see it pay eight Canadian publishers — including The Globe and Mail, the Winnipeg Free Press and Village Media — to license their content on a product called Google News Showcase, launching this fall. The companies didn’t disclose the terms. It came on the heels of Facebook signing...
Posted: July 12, 2021, 2:00 pm

“One of the main reasons why women leave”: Half of women journalists in Africa surveyed have been sexually harassed at work

Women working in African media were twice as likely to experience sexual harassment at work than men, according to a new report by Women in News, a media development program by the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). The study is the first large-scale data collection on sexual harassment in African media, which Women in...
Posted: July 8, 2021, 2:36 pm

USA Today is getting a paywall. Who’s the audience for it?

It was all the way back in 1996 — Whitewater! Bob Dole! a new cable channel called Fox News! — when The Wall Street Journal put up its first online paywall. It was a lonely bet at the time, with most newspapers still offering their news online for free. But as a business newspaper, the...
Posted: July 7, 2021, 7:15 pm

Things Americans say about news

Here are some quotes from the paper. “I usually have my iPad with me while I’m watching [the news]. I will google something. I’ll kind of do like a faux fact-check.” — John, middle-aged liberal “I have a dad that’s a genius. He consumes news like a maniac … I’m glad that he can do it...
Posted: July 1, 2021, 6:57 pm

The New York Times is using Instagram slides and Twitter cards to make stories more digestible

Last summer, Vox’s Terry Nguyễn wrote about the ways that our Instagram feeds had changed in the wake of the Black Lives Matters movement. We started to see more PowerPoint-looking slides that were made to communicate information about the protests, and they’ve since been co-opted for just about every subject. Nguyễn wrote about how those...
Posted: July 1, 2021, 6:30 pm

The Appeal is dead, long live The Appeal: Muddled management is shutting down the news site, but also handing it over to its staff

The criminal justice reform site The Appeal has had several courtrooms’ worth of drama the past few months, and it appears the differences are officially irreconcilable. An unusual joint announcement today from the site’s management and staff said The Appeal is officially dead — but hoping to be reborn: After years of groundbreaking reporting and...
Posted: June 30, 2021, 6:44 pm

The great unbundling of local news

Traditional local news sources, especially local newspapers, used to bundle news and information on a whole range of local topics. Local politics comes first to mind. But they have also covered stories that help build community, featuring local people who participate in local sports and local events, in addition to providing information such as weather...
Posted: June 30, 2021, 2:05 pm

Does reading fake news actually change people’s behavior? This Covid-19 study says yes, a bit — but potentially an important bit

“The spread of Covid-19 is linked to 5G mobile networks.” “Place a halved onion in the corner of your room to catch the Covid-19 germs.” “Sunny weather protects you from COVID-19.” These fake news stories and others like them spread rapidly on social media during the early stages of the pandemic. The wave of misinformation...
Posted: June 30, 2021, 2:01 pm

All the right words on climate have already been said

Sometime last week, an editor who semi-ghosted me on an article I wrote several months ago texted me saying she wanted to talk. I didn’t want to talk to her because my mild annoyance had faded to almost nothing and the idea of hearing an apology felt wearying. What I cared about was that it...
Posted: June 29, 2021, 6:11 pm

Punitive laws are failing to curb misinformation in Africa

Concern about the effects of misinformation on individuals and society has grown globally since 2016. In Africa, interest in the subject grew in particular after news emerged of disinformation campaigns run by Bell Pottinger, the British PR firm, on behalf of the Gupta family that stirred up racial tensions in South Africa in 2016 as a counter-narrative to...
Posted: June 29, 2021, 3:24 pm

As the pandemic recedes in the United States, publishers opt to keep experimenting with virtual events

In our annual predictions series, Rodney Gibbs, the senior director of innovation and strategy for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, predicted that virtual events would stick around long after the pandemic if they could offer something beyond just conference sessions on video. “Pedestrian Zooms reminiscent of access cable will persist in 2021,” Gibbs wrote. “But innovative newsrooms...
Posted: June 28, 2021, 2:51 pm

Hong Kongers, watching closure of Apple Daily, fear for independent journalism’s future

Hong Kongers were mourning the forced closure of Apple Daily, a populist, sometimes bawdy, always staunchly pro-democracy daily launched as the “Hong Kong people’s newspaper” in 1995, when more bad news dropped for the city’s once-vaunted press freedom. [Read: As Hong Kong’s Apple Daily goes dark, the newspaper’s web, app, and social content disappears too]...
Posted: June 28, 2021, 2:41 pm

BuzzFeed will go public. Here’s what it told investors about the future of digital media.

One of the fun things about a media company going public is that it lets investors (and the rest of us) get a peek under the hood. BuzzFeed, which now includes HuffPost, Tasty, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning BuzzFeed News plus smaller brands As/Is (beauty), Bring Me (travel), Goodful (health), Nifty (home), and Playfull (parenting), announced...
Posted: June 24, 2021, 6:41 pm

The Cookie Monster won’t be coming for the web’s most popular browser for another year-plus

After a decade in which hundreds of oddly named ad-tech middlemen squeezed their way into online advertising — each taking a cut that could otherwise have gone to publishers — the theme of the past year-plus has been the tech giants taking back control. Most recently, the giant taking action was Apple; in April, it...
Posted: June 24, 2021, 3:32 pm

Rather than privatizing public service media, we should be expanding it online

The UK government is reported to be pushing ahead with an investigation into privatizing Channel 4, reversing its 2017 decision that the broadcaster was a “precious public asset” that would “continue to be owned by the country.” Channel 4 was founded in 1982 with a public service remit to create “media content of high quality” that reflects “a culturally...
Posted: June 24, 2021, 2:50 pm

As Hong Kong’s Apple Daily goes dark, the newspaper’s web, app, and social content disappears, too

Press freedom in Hong Kong has been, as one observer put it, “alive but hanging from a thread” since a set of sweeping national security laws passed in 2020. It appears that final thread has snapped. On Wednesday, the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily announced it was shutting down after the government seized its assets and...
Posted: June 23, 2021, 6:55 pm

The Globe and Mail has built a paywall that knows when to give up

The Online News Association is holding its annual conference this week. One early highlight was Sonali Verma — senior project manager at The Globe and Mail, the largest newspaper in Canada — leading an absolute masterclass in dynamic paywalls on Tuesday. The Globe and Mail’s artificial learning technology, called Sophi, uses deep-learning techniques to automate...
Posted: June 23, 2021, 5:51 pm