April 20, 2020

For more than a month now, coronavirus news has crowded out almost every other story. And it’s almost all gloom and doom.

Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds and Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, discuss the ethics of good news. Do editors and news directors have a responsibility to tell us something good, particularly when most of the news is dire?

Edmonds: That may sound like a plain question of editorial judgment. But I think it is an important here-and-now ethics issue, too. Here’s why. This touches on two of the guiding principles you and Tom Rosenstiel defined in your collection of essays on ethics for the digital era.

First, accuracy. Like never before this means perspective and a rounded picture for your home community, not just a fire hose of stories that get the facts right.

You and Rosenstiel also proposed “community” as a value. I would define community in this context as jumping on stories that show business and government and other actors coming together in unexpected ways.

We’ll come to specific examples in a minute, but what’s your general ethical take?

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McBride: In theory, I agree. In my experience most newsrooms fail miserably on the execution. And if you can’t get the execution right, I’d rather journalists stick with the topics of deadly plague and political incompetence.

The ethical imperative is not to provide a mix of good and bad news. Instead, journalists have a duty to really listen to their audience. Do that well, and then let what you hear influence your choice of stories.

So first, how do you listen? Every newsroom needs a mix of hard and soft measures. Analytics for sure: What are people consuming? What are they spending the most time with? What are they sharing? But also ask what is your audience saying? How can you hear that answer? Do you have audience panels you can tap into? Or a service like Hearken that you can use?

With the coronavirus crisis, there isn’t a single person who isn’t affected. You have to listen closely to hear those stories, then edit or select the most meaningful ones. What you’re going to hear is mostly negative, but there are also moments of levity and clever ingenuity.

I worry that when editors look for the mix of stories, they are taking their cues from other journalists instead of their audience. As a result, even with the joyful stories, you see a repetition of Zoom birthday parties and novel workout solutions to the point that they quickly become cliches. I personally gravitate to the stories that simply take me inside the new normal for a look around. This is really hard for journalists to do with everyone locked inside their houses. But it’s not impossible. You simply have to exploit your network. (Be sure that you break out of your filter bubble, too.)

So my take on the ethical obligation is this: Don’t just provide a mix of stories. Don’t just try and diversify the emotional tone of your work. Instead, listen to your audience. If you can’t do that well, you are failing. Too harsh?

Edmonds: No quarrel from me on listening better to the audience. And no better time than now. I hear you saying that in frantic times like these, editors and reporters may default to familiar story frames — political bickering, death tolls and the like. All that certainly belongs in the coverage but should not completely dominate.

As for following leads from the audience, you provoke a question. As newspapers now reach a narrower slice of their communities, their audience leans heavily to the more prosperous half. I guess that is what you mean by “filter bubble.” People like you and me have been able to move our offices home. We and many in our demographic can negotiate getting food in the house and social distancing.

But we do not want a report just for people like us, do we? My thought is that everybody ought to and probably does care about the devastating health and economic effects on those who have not been prospering. You could even say it is a learning moment about inequalities.

Agreed? But that may be easier said than done for newsrooms stretched by layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.

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McBride: Yet another reason why I disagree with people who say we have an ethical imperative to find some good news. Our duty: Find the most significant stories that impact our community. There are definitely going to be fewer stories, given that we have fewer reporters.

Choose wisely. And make sure your selection process accounts for the lack of diversity in your newsroom.

Finally, manage your own bias. Too many of the clever, joyful stories are about white people and the tragic injustice stories are about people of color. Why’s that? Most likely because newsrooms are filled with well-intentioned white people (like you and me). There’s an unspoken hierarchy of stories that looks something like this:

  1. General, big picture pandemic stories
  2. Scrutinizing the system as it cares for the sick and dying
  3. Stories of injustice and inequity
  4. Macroeconomics and the big picture
  5. Microeconomics and individual stories
  6. Life and how it has changed (this is where you might find some joy)

The further down the list you get, the less community diversity seems to be represented. That is a direct consequence of the diversity of our newsrooms. So sure, mix it up. But you know, mix it up.

Rick, you started by arguing that non-coronavirus stories need to be part of the news diet. I’m not so sure they do. I’ve seen and heard a couple pieces that were reported clearly before that pandemic dominated our lives. Editors finally found a way to air or publish them. And I feel like the tone is always off.

Can you show me a few stories that you think are worth the read or watch or listen?

Edmonds: Here are a couple of shots at substantive topics. And I like number six on your list. I have a huge appetite for both hard reporting and storytelling on how life has changed.

Channeling my inner math nerd (while not trying to outdo Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx): Are we at a juncture where we can say many people in many communities have weathered the first wave? Specifically, those communities who are not in “hot spots.” You are not sick. OK, you could still be a carrier or exposed to one. But you have self-isolated for at least two weeks — and so has your family. The front-line medical people, first responders and store clerks are being careful, too.

So in any community pandemic report, I would want some context and relative assessment of risk along with the grim numbers getting such prominence.

You and I live in Pinellas County with 14 reported coronavirus deaths. That is 14 too many and the number will grow. But Pinellas County has just under a million residents. The odds of coming through safely are good for right now.

So reporting attention ought to be pivoting turning to issues of keeping the curve flat staying safe in the next phase.

Another: Johns Hopkins epidemiologists estimate that 50,000 people in the U.S. have now recovered from the virus. The New York Times had a front-page story on that last Sunday. As a reader I want to know all about the experience of getting sick and then getting well — not from all over, but where I live.

And another: Coping hits me as the heart of the local story as your last point suggests. And let’s indeed mix it up with at least some focus on white people who are in trouble and some African Americans (as you and I have learned from work with the black ethnic media) who are not down and out.

The economic side has fewer green shoots and may be a topic for another day. First, though, tell me if I am being a rose-colored-glasses guy about the disease. (And I do agree that non-coronavirus stories that were in the can and have been pushed forward have mainly landed with a thud).

McBride: OK, those are just good stories, not necessarily good news stories. You are asking reporters to listen to the questions that people like you have about the relative risk of getting the disease now, as opposed to three weeks ago, and what it’s like to survive the virus.

I think you are just asking for more insightful, sophisticated journalism. Not good news.

Even though I started out a little cynical, I realize that what we both want is journalism that answers our questions. We are asking for reporters to use their influence to do the math.

I just got eight reusable cloth face masks from Amazon. How is my family of seven supposed to keep them separate? My dog needs her nails trimmed. Show me a bunch of videos of people doing this for the first time and help me decide if I should even attempt. Build me a toilet paper finder app.

Edmonds: You remind me of the Miami Herald’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It was full of very practical details — where to find water, even how to locate missing people whose homes had been flattened.

They also had a slogan in Miami, first pushed by the movers and shakers but embraced widely: We Will Rebuild. I can live with a little boosterism right now, together with the tough love local coverage.

And let me put in a plug for professionally shot and edited photos and video. For instance, this stunning photo from the San Antonio Express-News of an automobile food line. Or this powerful three-and-a-half-minute video of empty streets and hometown icons in Seattle. Nobody is tossing around the fish at Pike Place Market — but they will be again some day.

Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. She can be reached at kmcbride@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kellymcb.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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  • Pardon my typos please. I should type slowly next time

  • I loved reading this. the perspectives are insightful, however predominantly American or Western more broadly in terms of examples given. That said, it is totally understamdable in this context . Where I come from and live (Ghana) trimming dog nails is completely out of the question even for the most eloquent ad ellitist families or members of society. How the majority poor make it through each day, overwhelms our reportage but we still put a focus on audience feedback to direct programming and how state intuitions are fighting the pandemic. Thanks for sharing this