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The fallout from recent protests over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have reignited long-standing concerns on the part of many Black journalists about their roles in the newsrooms they work in, and the value they are given (or not given) by the media companies they work for. In one particularly egregious case, Alexis Johnson, a Black journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was prevented from covering the protests because of a single innocuous, joking tweet. Others have also been silenced in a variety of ways, or had their work tokenized by largely white newsrooms. Journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and many other leading publications have expressed their experiences of racism in those companies.
We brought together a group of Black journalists this week using CJR’s Galley discussion platform to talk about their experiences with systemic racism in the industry, a group that included CBS News reporter and former Washington Post correspondent Wesley Lowery, author of a recent essay in the New York Times entitled “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists” (which sparked a related discussion series on Galley about whether objectivity has outlived its usefulness). Others who have taken part include Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th, a nonprofit focusing on gender-related issues, and a former national correspondent on race for Associated Press; Karen Attiah, global opinion editor for the Washington Post; Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root; Alissa Richardson, an assistant professor of journalism at USC Annenberg and author of the recent book Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism and Adriana Lacy and Erin Logan, who both work at the Los Angeles Times.
One theme that ran through many of the discussions was the additional work that Black journalists often have to do in newsrooms. On top of often covering stories that involve violence against other Black people, with the associated emotional trauma that can produce, many Black journalists are also called on to give advice about stories written by non-Black reporters, and to educate their colleagues about racism and its effects. “In one of my group texts, this one with two other black male reporters, we recently were all talking about how there’s been a noticeable uptick in ‘Hey – could you give this a glance?’ notes that we’ve gotten from colleagues in recent weeks,” said Lowery. “And, to be clear, almost every black reporter I’ve ever encountered is eager and happy to help, but… there is very little appreciation of the real labor involved in being every person in the newsroom’s ‘black friend.'”
“It’s really, really exhausting,” said Attiah. “And here’s the other part of it — too often we have this idea that covering ‘Black stories’ means covering pain, trauma, and racism, which in and of itself, is not only taxing, but a limited way to look at the totality of what it means to be a Black person in America. We need more stories that center us, without having to constantly cater or explain ourselves to a white gaze. We are more than just our pain and trauma.” Erin Logan made a similar point. AndRichardson, from USC Annenberg, said: “Newsrooms can re-create some of the most objectionable forms of racism when they refuse to promote qualified Black reporters, dismiss their story ideas, pigeon-hole them as only fit to report so-called ‘Black’ stories, and compound marginalization for Black women or Black queer communities. One of the reasons I left the newsroom is that I believed I could tell more stories about Black life from outside that structure. Many Black journalists leave for this reason too.”
Adriana Lacy said that as student starting out in journalism, “I knew that finding success would be challenging. I knew that I would often enter newsrooms and journalism spaces that have few Black people. Still, even knowing all of these things, it was still extremely jarring entering this industry. I’ve definitely seen my judgment called into question on issues about politics or race and felt like I wasn’t given an opportunity because of my Blackness.” Today on Galley, we’ll be continuing the discussion of these issues with Cierra Hinton, executive director and publisher of Scalawag; Jane Coaston from Vox; Alexandria Neason from CJR; Nicole Ellis from the Washington Post; Howard French from Columbia’s journalism school; Naomi Nix from Bloomberg; Kaitlyn Wells from Wirecutter; and Makeda Easter from the LA Times. And on Friday we will have a day-long roundtable discussion with all of our interviewees.
Here’s more on Black journalists and racism:
- Mental health: Alissa Richardson talked about her friend and former colleague Darran Simon, a journalist at the Washington Post and a former Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma fellow who died as a result of suicide in April. “While there is so much stigma around mental health, it is time for newsrooms to examine the trauma that comes with reporting Black pain, over and over again,” Richardson said. “And while I want my friend to be defined by his incredible body of work with the Miami Herald, CNN, Newsday and the Washington Post, any conversation that we have about Black people in newsrooms that does not involve mental health seems disingenuous to me.”
- Education: The only way out of this cycle is “for people to actually bother to educate themselves about those different from them,” said Danielle Belton. “As a Black woman, I couldn’t have survived high school, let alone my career in journalism, if I didn’t understand white people, white culture, white history, etc. I just wouldn’t have made it. But white people can go from birth to the grave not knowing anything about someone different from them because it’s not required of them to learn. The only way out of putting all the burden of blackness on black people is for white people to do the hard work of education themselves about race, redlining, slavery, Jim Crow, as well as other aspects of Black history.”
- Free and fair: Journalism is one of the pillars of democracy, said Errin Haines, “and if we are not constantly striving for a more free and fair press, we are not doing our part as part of that democracy to perfect this union.” The question for Black journalists need to answer, she said, is “are you working in a newsroom where you are celebrated, or just tolerated? Newsroom culture matters; as with any workplace, journalists should expect the working conditions and support that allow them to do their best and highest work. It is immoral to ask journalists to confront systemic racism in its pages, on air or online, only to have to confront the systemic racism in their newsrooms. Newsroom leaders should be asking themselves in this moment: Am I part of the problem, or part of the solution?”
Other notable stories:
- Jack Crosbie interviews Ben Smith about his job as media writer for the New York Times, and finds that Smith “doesn’t want to pick a side,” as Crosbie puts it, when it comes to some of the moral or ethical questions that are being debated in the industry around objectivity, bias, etc. “I care about the story. I want to read the story. I don’t care that much about the tactics,” says Smith. “I think that sometimes for reporters, it’s more valuable to see these as tactical questions rather than moral questions. Like our job is to bring people information and there are different ways to get there.”
- An independent audit of Facebook’s content strategy criticized the social network for allowing hate speech and disinformation to thrive and potentially posing a threat to the November elections, according to a report in the New York Times. The 88-page document said that the company had not done enough to protect people on the platform from discriminatory posts and ads and that its decisions to leave up President Trump’s inflammatory posts were “significant setbacks for civil rights.” Meanwhile, a BuzzFeed report found that while Facebook claims to be against hate, it is running an ad placed by a white nationalist group warning of a so-called “white genocide.”
- CNBC has signed former Fox News journalist Shepard Smith to anchor a new one-hour evening news program that will debut this fall in the seven to eight PM time slot, the network said Wednesday. Many see the introduction of Smith’s newscast as a significant shift in the network’s programming strategy, which currently relies on what the Wall Street Journal calls “light, unscripted fare.” One of the first on-air hires at Fox News when it launched in 1996, Smith left the channel last October amid what appeared to be increasing tensions with the network’s opinion side, specifically Tucker Carlson.
- In her regular weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project, a joint venture between CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, Lauren Harris looks at the financial crisis confronting local news, and whether government support is one of the solutions to that problem. A new report suggests that allocating federal advertising budget funds to local media outlets could provide a form of relief: in mid-April, nearly 250 House members drafted a letter in support of such a move, and in mid-May, Congressman Tim Ryan sponsored the Protect Local Media Act, which includes amendments to PPP funding requirements so they would apply to more small news organizations.
- Facebook has announced that the Oversight Board it is putting together to review its content and policy decisions will not launch until “late fall,” after the elections that many are worried will involve manipulation of Facebook content. The board explained that while it would like to “officially begin our task of providing independent oversight of Facebook’s content decisions,” it will be unable to do so for a number of months. The board was first discussed by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, in 2018. One critic argued on Twitter that it should be renamed “the Hindsight Board.”
- Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and the Google News Initiative are piloting an eight-week virtual bootcamp on journalism entrepreneurship, run by Phillip Smith, founder of the Journalism Entrepreneurship Training Co. Smith developed and tested the idea for a bootcamp while he was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University. The curriculum is focused on helping people understand and try to mitigate the risks of entrepreneurship, he told the Nieman Journalism Lab, by interviewing potential customers, potential sponsors, and advertisers and “getting into the weeds of what their business is going to be.”
- Journalists need to be more prepared to admit and contextualize ambiguity and uncertainty when reporting on things like the coronavirus, Jon Allsop writes for the summer issue of CJR’s print magazine. “With masks, much of the coverage parroted whatever the official guidance was at the time, with scant scrutiny,” he writes. “Expertise, many news organizations felt, was to be defended against bad-faith attacks. Though many good articles acknowledged that science is a process, not a ready-made consensus, plenty of others fixated on batting down whatever the right-wing position was—and, in doing so, accepted the premise that there are two “sides” in competition for truth.”
- After months of downplaying the effects of the pandemic, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has tested positive for the coronavirus. Bolsonaro, one of few Latin American leaders who has not imposed a national lockdown to limit the spread of COVID-19, was tested in March, but refused to release the results of his test until a court told him to do so. After Bolsonaro took his mask off during a news conference on Tuesday where he confirmed his positive test results, the Brazilian Press Association announced that it will be suing the president for putting journalists at risk of contracting the virus.
Media critic Margaret Sullivan lays out what went wrong with the local news business and how it might be fixed
Gannett’s vice president for local news, Amalie Nash, told me last month that what keeps her up at night is a Pew Research Center survey that found 70% of U.S. adults think local newspapers are doing fine as businesses. Here is a timely antidote for those outside the industry looking in: Margaret Sullivan’s new book, […]
The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here. Good morning, everyone. Tom Jones is on vacation, but the team at Poynter is keeping tabs on the latest media news and analysis. Here’s what you need to know today. CNBC will bring on Shepard Smith, a former […]
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Factually is a newsletter about fact-checking and accountability journalism, from Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network & the American Press Institute’s Accountability Project. Sign up here Fact-checking a moving target Over the weekend, The New York Times reported on a debate between 239 medical doctors and the World Health Organization over whether aerosolized droplets spread COVID-19. The […]
The post How journalists can respond to shifting scientific consensus appeared first on Poynter.
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. President Trump and the CDC just reshuffled coronavirus guidelines for schools President Donald Trump said the Centers […]
The post President Trump and the CDC just reshuffled coronavirus guidelines for schools appeared first on Poynter.
This article was originally published on April 6, 2020, and has been frequently updated since. It was last updated on July 8. It’s getting hard to keep track of the bad news about the news right now. But we have to. Here’s our attempt to collect the layoffs, furloughs, and closures caused by the coronavirus’ […]
The post Here are the newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures caused by the coronavirus appeared first on Poynter.
This story was last updated on June 23. In many places, it started with a cut in print days. Furloughs. Layoffs. Just to get through the crisis, newsroom leaders told readers. In some places, none of it was enough. Now, small newsrooms around the country, often more than 100 years old, often the only news […]
The post The coronavirus has closed more than 30 local newsrooms across America. And counting. appeared first on Poynter.
Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said President Trump’s daily briefs are ‘like a mini novel.’ But they’re written for quick reading.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, and is republished here with permission. If your time is short The President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, is the primary daily intelligence report prepared before dawn for the president and other designated administration officials. There is no set length […]
News leaders and tech platforms must safeguard journalists from digital harassment to ensure press freedom
With the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice erupted from big cities to small communities across the United States and reporters took to the streets to cover them. Shockingly, police and people in crowds attacked hundreds of journalists. Newsrooms, industry associations and journalists used to covering […]
The post News leaders and tech platforms must safeguard journalists from digital harassment to ensure press freedom appeared first on Poynter.
The International Fact-Checking Network Wednesday added a team of top researchers to the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance. After collecting more than 7,600 fact-checks about COVID-19 in the first 5 months of its collaboration, the alliance will now turn its focus from cataloging the infodemic to studying its impact and offering in-depth knowledge about the largest global proliferation […]
The post The CoronaVirusFacts Alliance expands again: Meet our team of selected researchers appeared first on Poynter.
Last year, 80 local online news sites launched and were added to the University of North Carolina’s database on the local news landscape. Another 80 closed and disappeared from that list. Nothing about the news business is easy, especially now as the coronavirus pandemic continues damaging the economy and the media through layoffs, closures, pay […]
The post Ready to start a newsroom? Apply for this boot camp first. appeared first on Poynter.
A little over a week ago, China unveiled and immediately implemented a draconian new law cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong. Its first full day in effect—July 1, which marked the twenty-third anniversary of Britain restoring Hong Kong to Chinese control—ought to have been marked by massive pro-democracy protests; thousands of people did take to the streets, but faced water cannons, pepper spray, and mass arrests, including under the new law. (Among those detained: a 15-year-old with a pro-independence flag.) As Vivian Wang and Alexandra Stevenson reported for the New York Times last week, the enacting of the law also led to self-censorship: activists deleted social-media accounts; writers asked at least one news website to remove their old posts. “We are being paranoid,” Albert Wan, who owns an independent bookstore, told the Times. “I don’t know how else to put it.” Since Wan said that, books by pro-democracy leaders have been pulled from public libraries, pending a “review.”
As is often the case with speech restrictions, the new law is broad and vague. Nominally, it criminalizes “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism,” and “collusion” with foreign powers; in practice, observers fear that it gives China’s ruling Communist Party a pretext to ban activity that it doesn’t like. On the mainland, one such activity is independent journalism; Hong Kong, by contrast, has traditionally been a beachhead for free reporting, with a vibrant local press and a heavy presence of international news organizations. Now journalists in the territory fear a retrenchment. Before the law was enacted, almost all of the respondents to a poll conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association said that they expected it to affect press freedom, and a strong majority said that it made them either very or somewhat afraid for their personal safety. Sure enough, the law as enacted contains provisions that will regulate news outlets and impose limits on their reporting, including their access to court proceedings. Technically, Reporters Without Borders writes, the law can be used to threaten journalists writing about Hong Kong from anywhere in the world. According to The Guardian, foreign freelancers who have been covering the protests in Hong Kong are thinking about leaving, and local outlets are seeking to clarify whether they’re still allowed to quote pro-independence slogans; in a tweet last week, RTHK, a public broadcaster, rendered “Liberate Hong Kong” as “L*******#HongKong.” According to the Financial Times, one unnamed outlet already started rejecting sensitive content.
The law contains provisions specific to foreign media working in Hong Kong. (This comes, of course, in the context of a tit-for-tat between the US and China over press registration and access; in March, China expelled American journalists working for the Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal from the mainland, and banned their employers from reassigning them to Hong Kong.) China has established a new national-security bureau in Hong Kong which, among other things, will oversee “the management of and services for” foreign news agencies. On Friday, we learned that the bureau will be headed by Zheng Yanxiong, a Party official from Guangdong province, which neighbors Hong Kong, who has a background in propaganda and crushing dissent. In 2011, during a local uprising which garnered significant international attention, Zheng was recorded saying that “foreign media can be trusted when pigs can climb trees.” The Journal’s Chun Han Wong reports that Zheng was involved in suppressing critical newspapers in Guangdong. Wu Qiang, an expert in Chinese politics, told the Journal that Zheng is expected to “impose stricter controls over press and speech freedoms in Hong Kong.”
What might that look like? Jodi Schneider, a Bloomberg editor who heads the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, told the Post recently that she expects Beijing to place limits on the number of Western correspondents allowed to work in the territory. Bill Bishop, who writes the newsletter Sinocism, says he expects visa accreditation to become more complicated. Gady Epstein, China affairs editor at The Economist, even speculated, to Axios, that international outlets that use Hong Kong as a regional hub might decamp for Tokyo, Singapore, or Taiwan.
Journalists working in Hong Kong are no strangers to restrictions on press freedom. The territory’s media climate has deteriorated in recent years—in 2002, it ranked 18th on Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index; now it ranks 80th. (The 2020 index lists 180 countries and territories worldwide. The US ranks 45th; China ranks 177th.) Figures linked to the Chinese government have expanded their ownership of local outlets, allowing Beijing to manipulate coverage from afar. In 2018, Victor Mallet, then Asia editor at the Financial Times, was expelled from Hong Kong, after he chaired an event with a pro-independence activist. Journalists faced official harassment while covering pro-democracy protests in 2014, then again last summer; a year ago, Clarence Leung wrote for CJR that police routinely assaulted reporters at the protests, and that 2019 was shaping up to be the worst year for Hong Kong media since the territory was returned to China, in 1997. In February this year, police arrested Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media mogul, on charges including “illegal assembly”; last month, officials charged two reporters, Ma Kai-chung and Wong Ka-ho, with “rioting” after they covered the occupation of a legislative building.
Still, the new law marks a clear escalation of these trends, and could be a grim turning point for journalism in Hong Kong. Yesterday, Charles Ho, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference who also owns a media company in Hong Kong, told the Financial Times that foreign reporters could be expelled from the territory should they “cross the line” in their coverage of the independence movement. (“If you promote Hong Kong independence of course they will kick you out,” Ho said. “Don’t do any fake news, that’s the most important.”) Stevenson, of the New York Times, shared the interview on Twitter. Ho’s warning, she wrote, “doesn’t mean it will happen. But [the] fact that it’s acceptable to talk about curbs on free speech says a lot about how things are changing.”
Below, more on China, Hong Kong, and international press freedom:
- A reckoning for big tech: On Monday, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all said they would halt compliance with government requests for data on users in Hong Kong while they assess the implications of the new law. (TikTok, a video app which is owned by a Chinese company but is not available in mainland China, said it would remove its app from use in Hong Kong completely.) Authorities in Hong Kong have threatened that tech companies’ staffers could be imprisoned should data requests go unfulfilled. Paul Mozur writes, for the Times, that tech giants are on “the front line in a global fight between the United States and China over censorship, surveillance and the future of the internet.”
- A growth area: Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that outlets in the US are increasingly looking to invest in coverage of China, its economy, and its relationship with the US, despite mounting restrictions such as the Hong Kong security law. In May, Politico launched a new China newsletter that the site says has established itself as a top-performing product. And The Information is launching a Chinese-language tech newsletter that will be anchored by Yunan Zhang, a reporter based in Hong Kong.
- Stifling dissent: On Monday, police in Beijing arrested Xu Zhangrun, a law professor who has sharply criticized the Chinese government, on charges that he solicited prostitutes. In a series of essays that he started in 2018, Xu condemned Chinese President Xi Jinping’s moves to consolidate power.
- Meanwhile, in Russia: Yesterday, officials in Russia arrested Ivan Safronov, a former journalist who was advising the country’s space agency, on treason charges; he stands accused of leaking classified intelligence to another country. Throughout the day, journalists held single-person demonstrations in Moscow to express solidarity with Safronov. At least eight of them—including Elena Chernenko and Kristina Dyuryagina, of Kommersant, and Olga Churakova, of Proekt—were arrested. Meduza has more.
- Meanwhile, in Poland: Voters in Poland will elect a new president on Sunday. In recent days, the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, who is running for reelection, has waged public attacks against German media companies, including Axel Springer, and accused them of trying to interfere in the election. On Monday, Duda and his opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski, appeared on separate TV networks after they failed to reach agreement on a presidential debate. Jan Cienski has more for Politico.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR’s new magazine on election coverage, Nicholson Baker reflects on his love of YouTube, despite its dark corners. In its early days, the site “was tremendously new and fun and confessional: first-person journalism,” Baker writes. “Now YouTube is a million times bigger—an indispensable, life-enhancing tool, and also a source of poisonous neo-medieval yammering.” Also for the magazine, I assess how a narrative of mask culture war swept the media, and what it says about our relationship with ambiguity.
- With the coronavirus surging anew in the US, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong writes that many of the public-health experts on whom we now rely are dispirited, and nearing burnout. “By now they are used to sharing their knowledge with journalists,” Yong writes, “but they’re less accustomed to talking about themselves.” In other virus news, the US formalized its withdrawal from the World Health Organization, effective next July. And Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil who has relentlessly downplayed COVID-19, now has it himself.
- A tell-all book by Mary Trump, the president’s niece, will be published next Tuesday, two weeks earlier than planned, amid heightened interest. Yesterday, multiple news outlets got their hands on a copy. Amid many scandalous anecdotes about her uncle’s behavior, Mary Trump details how she became a source for the Times’s work on her family’s tax affairs; she says she initially rebuffed a reporter who called on her at home, but changed her mind after watching endless TV news while laid up with a foot injury. CNN has more.
- Yesterday, top executives at Facebook met with civil-rights leaders who are coordinating an ad boycott of the platform in protest of its policies on hate speech. The leaders said they were disappointed with what they heard, and that Facebook didn’t commit to acting on their recommendations. Today, Facebook plans to publish the findings of a long-term civil-rights audit, and is promising some changes to its approach. The civil-rights leaders remain skeptical, however. The Post’s Cat Zakrzewski and Hamza Shaban have more.
- For Poynter, David Westphal writes that paid, state-mandated public notices are an increasingly pivotal source of funding for smaller newspapers, amid collapsing advertising revenue. “When newspapers and their lobbyists tell legislators, as they sometimes now do, that loss of public notice income would shutter many newspapers, they aren’t bluffing,” he writes. “It would undoubtedly be a mass extinction event.”
- Morgan DeBaun, the founder and CEO of Blavity, a media company that covers Black culture, told Digiday that she had trouble raising funding for the site due to systemic racism, and that advertisers are wary of having their brands associated with content about racial injustice and police brutality. “I’m taking so many financial hits for doing what’s right and covering what’s right—and what’s true, most importantly,” DeBaun said.
- For The Objective, Gabe Schneider argues that news outlets should stop using the words “culture war” to frame issues like Trump’s defense of Confederate monuments and our response to the pandemic. In the monuments context, the phrase “only works to frame a horrific challenge to Black Americans’ continued existence as up for debate.”
- Lionel Barber, who recently retired as editor of the Financial Times, used lockdown to write up his private diaries as a book; it’ll be published later this year, and promises “(juicy) stuff on Bannon, Blair, Cameron, MBS, Trump, Putin, the Royals, and more.” Last year, Amber A’Lee Frost interviewed Barber for CJR, and I assessed his FT legacy.
- And after Silicon Valley elites targeted Taylor Lorenz, a tech writer at the Times, she won support from an unlikely ally—the Twitter account of Pennsylvania’s state treasury. (It called the “harassment campaign” against Lorenz “disgusting.”) The account is a regular, acerbic commentator on political and media issues. The Philadelphia Inquirer has more.
Update: This post has been updated to clarify the position of Charles Ho.
On Sunday, Richard A. Oppel Jr., Robert Gebeloff, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Will Wright, and Mitch Smith, of the New York Times, published the most comprehensive analysis we’ve yet seen of the racial disparities shaping the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The reporters analyzed 640,000 COVID cases across nearly 1,000 counties—counties that, taken together, comprise just over half of the total population of the US—through the end of May. Their findings were horrifying: across the map, from rural towns to big cities to the suburbs, Black and Latino people have been three times as likely as white people to contract COVID-19, and nearly twice as likely to be killed by it. In some counties, especially in Arizona, Native Americans have faced a much higher likelihood of infection. Asian people, meanwhile, have been 1.3 times as likely as white people to catch COVID.
We now have these figures only because the Times sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for their release. Eventually, the CDC handed over data on 1.45 million cases, though more than half of the cases lacked adequate accompanying data on race, ethnicity, and/or location—apparently due to discrepancies in the way state and local officials first reported the data to the CDC—and so the Times left them out of its analysis. In other words, the best information we currently have about a problem of urgent national concern is incomplete, and wouldn’t be public at all were it not for a major newspaper’s legal and reportorial muscle.
That last depressing fact reflects a longer-term problem: since the early days of the pandemic, officials across the US, often citing privacy considerations, have withheld granular data that would illuminate various facets of the virus’s spread. As with the Times, many outlets—including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer, in North Carolina; the Arizona Republic and four local TV stations, in Arizona; and the Bay Area News Group, in California—have sued local officials for data related to the pandemic, including, prominently, details of outbreaks in nursing homes and prisons. After the Miami Herald sued the state of Florida for information on COVID deaths in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, officials pressured the paper’s law firm to drop the case; eventually, the Herald, in concert with different lawyers and other news organizations, won out. Florida won early plaudits for putting detailed COVID data online, but as the Herald’s Ana Claudia Chacin and Mary Ellen Klas wrote last month, the state’s reporting has been incomplete and inconsistent. In May, Rebekah Jones, a state official responsible for maintaining the online data, alleged that she was fired for refusing to manipulate it; Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, accused Jones of “insubordination,” and said that she faces “cyber stalking” charges. In Georgia, officials wrongly reported declining case rates three times in as many weeks. Various states and the CDC were accused of massaging testing data to make themselves look more aware of viral spread than they actually were. The list goes on.
In the absence of consistent, reliable official statistics, journalists and researchers have worked tirelessly to try and fill the gap; writers at The Atlantic, for example, founded the COVID Tracking Project to build a more unified national picture of viral spread and surveillance. (In March, Emily Sohn profiled the project for CJR.) Others have gotten creative. Last week, NPR, working with academics at Harvard and elsewhere, calculated how many COVID tests the US, and each individual state, would need to run in order to mitigate current outbreaks, and how many they’d need to run to start suppressing viral transmission altogether—a more ambitious aim under which life could start return to “some semblance of normalcy.” According to their figures, the country as a whole would need to run 1 million daily tests to achieve mitigation, and 4.3 million daily tests to achieve suppression. (Yesterday, 518,000 tests were run nationally.) Texas, to pick a state at random, would need to run 117,000 daily tests for mitigation and 431,000 for suppression. As of last week, it was falling far short of both metrics.
Even the data we can access is messy, and there are legitimate scientific disagreements about how best to interpret it—for instance, Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, questioned the usefulness of NPR and Harvard’s calculations, and advocated a greater focus on the percentage of people testing positive, instead. But there are relatively simple ways in which the media can use the available data to keep our scrutiny as sharp as possible. One of those, as Nuzzo suggests, would be to focus more consistently on the percent-positive rate, which cuts through administration bluster about rising test counts. Another would be to take the figures from the NPR database and ask federal and state leaders—repeatedly, if needed—what concrete steps they’re taking to hit at least the daily rate that would be needed for mitigation; the scientific-usefulness debate aside, more testing definitely leads to more data, which should enable more informed news coverage. As I’ve written before, we would do well to conceive of testing as a freedom of information issue, as well as a scientific one. And we would do well to make officials answer to specific performance benchmarks, rather than generalized outrage. If those in charge say that more testing isn’t the best approach, we should at least try and make them explain why; if they say that more testing would help, we should hold them to hard targets.
And, as the Times and many other outlets have done already, we should keep pressuring the federal government and its state counterparts—be it legally or through the moral authority of our coverage—to release key COVID data, around racial disparities and so much more, that they are collecting but keeping private. As Andre M. Perry, of the Brookings Institution, told the Times for its recent data analysis story, “You need all this information so that public health officials can make adequate decisions. If they’re not getting this information, then municipalities and neighborhoods and families are essentially operating in the dark.” The same goes for the press.
Below, more on transparency and the pandemic:
- PPP $$$: Yesterday, the federal government published data—that it originally said would remain confidential—naming businesses that benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program it initiated in the wake of the coronavirus. CNN’s Kerry Flynn tallied the media companies that showed up in the data: they include Forbes, Crain, the Daily Caller, Fortune, Washingtonian, Media Matters for America, Newsmax, Digiday, Newsweek, Entrepreneur, TV Guide, Los Angeles Magazine, New England Newspapers, TheSkimm, The Information, and Salon. The New York Observer, which used to be run by Jared Kushner and is still linked to his family, got a loan, as did businesses owned by members of Congress, and the Ayn Rand Institute. (The irony of that one was not lost on Twitter.)
- Uncertainty for foreign students: Also yesterday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement published new guidelines stipulating that foreign college students may have to leave the US should their school move classes entirely online in the fall. (Other options include transferring to a school that’s still offering in-person tuition; NPR has more details.) The impact on journalism students, who typically do a lot of reporting work outside of the classroom, could be especially pronounced—and that’s before one factors in time differences and internet connectivity (H/t: Miriam Abaya).
- A cover-up?: For the last five weeks, the British government has failed to release daily data on the number of individuals receiving COVID tests, having previously made that figure public. Yesterday, officials confirmed that they will not resume publishing that data. The government will still publish daily information on total tests administered, which officials say is a more accurate metric given that some people—hospital and nursing home staff, for example—get tested regularly. Opposition figures nonetheless accused the government of a cover-up. The Guardian has more.
- Bad business news: Also in the UK, Reach, a publisher of national and local newspapers, intends to cut 550 jobs, or 12 percent of its workforce, The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports. The company says that it has lost 27 percent of its revenue due to the pandemic. (As ever, for more on the pandemic’s impact on the news business in the US, check out CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project, and subscribe to its weekly newsletter, written by Lauren Harris.)
- Erm… good business news: Since the pandemic began, online sex-toy sales have spiked, and publishers that run advertisements for them are increasingly steering traffic to third-party sellers, Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber reports. BuzzFeed, which is one such publisher, “is even considering leaning further into this area by launching a new sex and love vertical to create a solidified destination for its audience to find sex toy product recommendations all in one place,” Barber writes.
Other notable stories:
- In an introductory note to CJR’s new magazine on election coverage, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, writes that the context of the pandemic and the nationwide reckoning with racism grants reporters “an opportunity, unprecedented in the middle of a contested campaign, to reset how we work”; to “set aside superficial trivia and focus on systemic and institutional failures.” Also for the magazine, Stephania Taladrid profiles Univision. Daniel Morcate, the network’s chief newsroom editor, told Taladrid that balancing the pandemic and the election is likely to prove “our biggest challenge.”
- Last week, Ken Doctor wrote, for Nieman Lab, that an unnamed nonprofit group might make a bid for McClatchy, the newspaper chain that filed for bankruptcy in February. (I explored the prospect here.) Yesterday, Doctor reported that the nonprofit was the Knight Foundation, and that it ultimately did not bid. Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund that is McClatchy’s biggest investor, is favorite to take over, though another hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, is also in contention. McClatchy is set to name a winner tomorrow.
- Adam Rawnsley, of the Daily Beast, uncovered a network of fake “experts” on the Middle East who have collectively planted nearly 100 opinion pieces in nearly 50 outlets, including Newsmax, RealClear Markets, and the Washington Examiner. “The articles heaped praise on the United Arab Emirates and advocated for a tougher approach to Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and its proxy groups in Iraq and Lebanon,” Rawnsley writes.
- On Sunday, Fox News used an image of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, the Epstein associate who was arrested last week, from which Trump had been cropped out. (Melania Knauss, Trump’s then-future wife, was left in the frame.) Yesterday, Fox called that an “error,” and apologized. In other Fox News news, the network will now capitalize the adjectives “Black,” “White,” and “Brown” as they pertain to race and ethnicity.
- Stuff, the largest newspaper group in New Zealand, is joining the global boycott of Facebook that has seen major advertisers pull away from the platform in protest of its lax record on hate speech. Stuff—which already stopped advertising on the platform following the Christchurch mosque shooting last year—will now “experiment” with ending all activity on Facebook and Instagram. The Guardian’s Eleanor Ainge Roy has more.
- In 2018, Svetlana Prokopyeva, a freelance journalist in Russia, attributed blame to the state after an anarchist blew himself up on secret-police property. (No one else was killed.) Yesterday, a military court convicted Prokopyeva of “justifying terrorism,” and ordered a fine and the confiscation of her computer and phone. The Times has more.
- And Dana Canedy, a former Times reporter who currently administers the Pulitzer Prizes, has been appointed publisher of Simon & Schuster’s namesake imprint. Canedy told Elizabeth A. Harris, of the Times, that the company first approached her in 2018. “I wouldn’t be taking this job if I thought [they] just wanted a Black publisher,” she said.