September 24, 2020

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.

From the beginning of this column, we have said we would help you with the coverage of the pandemic and would also include some help for how you cover other difficult and sensitive stories.

Today is such a day.

Protests overnight demanded the officers be criminally charged in Breonna Taylor’s death. Some want it to be easier to charge and sue officers who use undue force.  It is important for journalists to understand the legal underpinnings of this case that also exist in the majority of states across the country.

A Kentucky grand jury indicted one of the three police officers who were involved in the no-knock warrant that led to the deadly shooting of Breonna Taylor. The one officer who was charged was not charged in her killing — he was charged with endangering other people in the apartment complex when he fired his weapon.

Kentucky, like more than half of the states in the country, has no specific law that speaks directly to police self-defense, meaning that police have the same self-defense protection as every other person. So while police can — through a no-knock warrant — legally force their way into a residence in the dead of night, they also have a right to defend themselves when shot at.

The Marshall Project’s Jamiles Lartey, who teaches with me in Poynter’s Covering Jails workshops, lays out the complexity of charging police in the Taylor case this way:

Those circumstances make this case more legally ambiguous than it may seem at first glance, said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

“Most states don’t allow someone to claim self-defense when they are an aggressor,” he said. “But most states also say that when police are acting in their official capacity, they can’t be aggressors for purposes of self-defense law.”

So, both Walker and the police can reasonably claim self-defense, and the law makes it virtually impossible to define an “aggressor” in the situation. A kind of self-defense stalemate that leaves a lot of questions as to what charges a prosecutor could bring in Taylor’s case—and could even lead to the end of the no-knock raid in American policing.

However, Kentucky law does have a provision that could have allowed the grand jury to find the officer’s shooting inside the apartment, while in self-defense, was “wanton behavior.” That means they would have known that what they were doing was extremely dangerous, but they proceeded recklessly anyway. But the bar to that kind of behavior is pretty high, similar, one legal scholar says, to standing in a crowded room and randomly firing in every direction.

The Marshall Project also points to something called the castle doctrine, which collides with a Kentucky statute that protects officers. The castle doctrine, which applies everywhere except Vermont and Washington, D.C., says if an intruder comes into your home, you can legally use deadly force to protect yourself and not retreat. But Kentucky statutes also make it against the law to harm a police officer, providing the officer announced himself/herself, or if any reasonable person would have known the person entering the home is an officer. There is a lot of disagreement about whether officers announced themselves in this case.

Do not make the mistake of conflating the state criminal case with a federal issue of “qualified immunity,” which makes it difficult to sue a police officer who uses unjustifiable force. Lartey tells me that qualified immunity is a federal civil matter, while the matter in Kentucky involves state criminal law.

Join Lartey and me Friday at 2 p.m. Eastern for a live Poynter webinar where we will explore the issue of qualified immunity and other key justice issues at stake in the 2020 election. Lartey has been researching the main party platforms for justice and police reform. You can sign up to join us here. The webinar is part of Poynter’s Covering Jails project funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Virtual school classes getting videobombed

Stories are beginning to emerge about the number of times that videobombers have interrupted virtual school classes.  While some news stories call it “Zoombombing,” it is not confined to Zoom meetings. In Broward County, Florida, somebody dropped a live sex video into an online science class. The Sun-Sentinel reported that class was being held on the Microsoft Teams platform:

At least two other Broward County classes have been hijacked since the school year started Aug. 19. A masked man joined an online class at West Broward High School during the first week of classes and went on a disturbing, racist video rant. A few days later, another intruder posted obscene language in a fifth-grade virtual class at Parkside Elementary School.

KREM (Spokane, Washington) reported:

The Pullman School District posted a letter to parents on social media Friday that said there have been a string of “Zoom bombings” over the past two days. Superintendent Bob Maxwell said there were five separate attempts to “Zoom bomb” classes.

The Chicago Sun-Times documented a case in suburban Chicago:

Some students at Emerson Middle School in Niles got a lesson in digital security and racism.

During the first day of e-learning Thursday, classes were hijacked by an unknown hacker who used “inappropriate, racist, religious, hateful and homophobic language,” according to an email Emerson principal Samantha Alaimo sent to families Thursday. The hacker used the n-word and talked about resuming slavery.

Similar disturbing incidents happened again Friday, according to a second email sent to families.

It happened in Charlotte, North Carolina, too. Spectrum News reported:

A local Boys and Girls Club virtual learning program aid, Jeremiah Motta, witnessed it.
“It was about at least 18 messages full with the racist slur over and over and over again,”  Motta said.
Motta was in the middle of working with students on their virtual curriculum when a Carmel Middle School student alerted him of it.
“She actually like called me over and was like ‘Mr. Jeremiah come look at this,’ and I thought it was a video she was watching and she was like ‘this is my class’ and I was like…,” Motta said.

The station said, “School leaders say what’s likely happening is people are accessing the Zoom class with students’ login information, and teachers are unknowingly letting them in.”

The FBI recommends a handful of steps that would lower the chance of outsiders getting into a class:

  • Do not make meetings or classrooms public.
  • Require a meeting password.
  • Use the waiting room feature and control the admittance of guests.
  • Do not share a link to a teleconference or classroom on an unrestricted, publicly available social media post. Provide the link directly to specific attendees.
  • Manage screensharing options. Change screensharing to “Host Only.”
  • Ensure users are using the updated version of remote access/meeting applications.

New large study shows COVID is mutating

Let’s be careful to understand what we do not know about this largest study to date about how the coronavirus is mutating, as viruses do. The study, conducted in Houston, has not been peer reviewed yet. The study looked at 5,000 “genetic sequences,” one of which suggests the virus has the capacity to become even more contagious, but — and this is important — the mutations so far have not been shown to be more deadly. And the findings do not point to any changes that we need to make to respond to the virus as it mutates. Not yet, anyway. The Houston study is in line with another such mutation study in Europe. The Washington Post turned to an expert to interpret what this means:

David Morens, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reviewed the new study and said the findings point to the strong possibility that the virus, as it has moved through the population, has become more transmissible, and that this “may have implications for our ability to control it.”

Morens noted that this is a single paper, and “you don’t want to over-interpret what this means.” But the virus, he said, could potentially be responding — through random mutations — to such interventions as mask-wearing and social distancing, Morens said Wednesday.

One reason all of this matters is because like the scientists who develop the season flu shot, the labs developing the COVID-19 vaccination are shooting at a moving target as the virus changes to keep adapting and spreading. Again, that is what viruses do.

Learn more about virus mutations in this article from Nature.

Deaths from despair from COVID-19

The Robert Graham Center projects that 75,000 Americans may die during the pandemic due to what the study calls “Deaths of Despair” related to alcohol and drug abuse and suicide. The study said:

Across nine different scenarios, the additional deaths of despair range from 27,644 (quick recovery, smallest impact of unemployment on deaths of despair) to 154,037 (slow recovery, greatest impact of unemployment on deaths of despair), with 75,000 being the most likely.  When considering the negative impact of isolation and uncertainty, a higher estimate may be more accurate.

From and The Robert Graham Center. The darker the color, the higher the rate of projected “deaths of despair” related to the pandemic.

Are virtual meetings good for the earth?

The pandemic has forced us into virtual meetings and conferences that cost a lot of businesses a lot of money. But I had not thought of the notion that editorial writers for the journal Science Advances promoted this week.  The writers urged scientists to keep meeting virtually when the pandemic ends because it is “greener” to meet virtually than to travel to conferences.

TV stations amp up public service ads

Axios reports, “The Ad Council, a 75-year-old non-profit, has nearly tripled the amount of media support for public service announcements (PSAs) over the six months that it typically manages in a year.”

By comparison, the Ad Council generated $100 million in contributions after Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 and for the COVID-19 response, the Ad Council’s messages are valued at $370 million.

The Ad Council’s roots go back to the attacks on Pearl Harbor when the nation had to quickly come together. It has been at the center of huge efforts, including educating the public about polio and AIDS.  For sure, the Ad Council will be important to any COVID immunization effort.

CDC calls trick-or-treating a high-risk activity

The CDC updated its guidance on what you should and should not do to stay COVID-safe this fall. And as you might suspect, trick-or-treating is on the high-risk list. The CDC says to make things safer, maybe, line up candy that kids can grab and go. Also on the risky list:

  • Participating in traditional trick-or-treating where treats are handed to children who go door to door
  • Having trunk-or-treat where treats are handed out from trunks of cars lined up in large parking lots
  • Attending crowded costume parties held indoors
  • Going to an indoor haunted houses where people may be crowded together and screaming
  • Going on hayrides or tractor rides with people who are not in your household
  • Using alcohol or drugs, which can cloud judgement and increase risky behaviors
  • Traveling to a rural fall festival that is not in your community if you live in an area with community spread of COVID-19

While we are at it, let me list the risky activities associated with Día de los Muertos festivities. The CDC warns against:

  • Attending large indoor celebrations with singing or chanting
  • Participating in crowded indoor gatherings or events
  • Having a large dinner party with people from different households coming from different geographic locations
  • Using alcohol or drugs, which can cloud judgement and increase risky behaviors

The way we work now

From investigative reporter Phil Williams in Nashville:

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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