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April 24, 2020

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Should news organizations cover protests demanding that the country reopen?

We’re not just talking about a couple of protests here and there. They have been all across the nation — Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and on and on. And they have been splashed all over the media.

With thousands of people losing their jobs every day and the economy in a free fall, there absolutely is a discussion to be had about when the country can start to get back to normal, or whatever normal is going to look like.

The protests, with very few exceptions, have been peaceful, and peaceful protests are part of the fabric of this country. It doesn’t matter what the protests are about — reopening the country, fighting for looser or stricter gun laws, for or against abortion, for or against immigration restrictions  — every American should strongly advocate for the right to protest, even if you vehemently oppose the protesters or their cause.

But the right to protest doesn’t guarantee you a spot on the 6 o’clock news or the front page of the newspaper.

News outlets are obligated to be at these events in case of violence or if something new is addressed. But just because journalists attend doesn’t necessarily mean they should report on it.

A new poll by CBS News shows that protesters and those who agree with them are in the vast minority. Check out some of these numbers:

  • 63% of Americans are more worried about lifting restrictions too soon due to health concerns than lifting restrictions too slowly and worsening the economy.
  • Only 13% said they would definitely return to public places in the next few weeks if restrictions were lifted right now.
  • Only 13% said they would be comfortable going to a large sporting or entertainment event.
  • Only 15% said they would be comfortable getting on a plane.
  • Only 29% said they would be comfortable going to a restaurant or bar.

These numbers suggest that covering protests presents a warped sense of reality. When you see the striking scenes of protesters marching down the street, yelling and carrying signs, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that the number of protesters and who they are speaking for are much greater than they really are. To give those protests significant coverage, news outlets would be passing along that misconception to its audience.

By this point, the protests have been covered. The message has been heard. The protesters have been given a voice — perhaps a more prominent one than they deserve.

News outlets should resist the urge to cover the protests further for the time being. It’s lazy coverage because it rarely puts the protests into context or perspective. Frankly, covering such protests is easy. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean new organizations should do it. Especially because the news at these protests doesn’t appear to be news at all.

TV’s biggest voice

ABC News anchor David Muir. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Who’s the biggest star on TV right now? You could make an argument that it’s ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir. “World News Tonight” has been the most-watched show (not just news show, but most-watched SHOW) over the past few weeks, drawing more than 12 million viewers some evenings. Those numbers are up from pre-coronavirus viewership, showing how much people are relying on the news.

“The answer to the anxiety people are feeling isn’t to deliver a portrait that is rosier than reality,” Muir told Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

That’s an interesting description by Muir, whose newscast typically airs while President Donald Trump often is painting a rosier-than-reality portrait during his daily White House coronavirus press conferences.

What makes Muir a respected voice in these times? ABC News president James Goldston told Sullivan, “He brings tremendous empathy.”

It also should be noted that the other two network anchors — NBC’s Lester Holt and CBS’s Norah O’Donnell — also are leading reinvigorated newscasts, and the result is bigger-than-normal ratings for those network news broadcasts, too.

Good work

Atlantic Media announced the four finalists for the 17th annual Michael Kelly Award. The award is named after journalist Michael Kelly, who was killed covering the war in Iraq in 2003. The award is given to the work that displays the courage, determination and passion exemplified by Kelly, who worked at The Atlantic, as well as outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, the National Journal and The New Republic.

All of this year’s finalists are worthy. Selecting a winner seems impossible. The finalists are:

  • Azam Ahmed of The New York Times for “Kill, or Be Killed: Latin America’s Homicide Crisis,” a five-part series that looks at violence in Latin America.
  • Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica for “Lawless,” an investigation into local policing in Alaska, where some areas have no police or even have criminals working as law enforcement.
  • Tom Warren and Katie J.M. Baker of BuzzFeed News for “WWF’s Secret War,” which looks at the World Wide Fund for Nature’s war on poaching.
  • Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post for “The Afghanistan Papers,” the explosive five-part series on the U.S. government’s controversial role in America’s longest armed conflict.

The winner will be announced later this summer and will receive $25,000. The other three finalists will receive $3,000 each.

Gates looks to the future

NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie, left, interviewed Bill Gates on Thursday. (Courtesy: NBC News)

NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie interviewed Bill Gates on Thursday afternoon. Some of the interview aired Thursday night on “MSNBC Special Report: Testing & The Road to Reopening” and additional clips will air this morning on the “Today” show.

Gates gave what he thought was the most likely solution for the coronavirus crisis and the timeline for that solution.

“Well the vaccine is the most likely solution, and so great scientists are rushing to get that done,” Gates said. “I’ve been surprised how quickly they’re moving. There’s a number that have even begun that human testing, that’s key there. So it could be that in a year we have lots of a vaccine.”

He also said, “Once you get it out to lots of people then you have enough community immunity, then you won’t see this widespread problem again. So we have this first peak in the U.S. With the right policies, we’ll have small, some areas that go back and have infections, but we shouldn’t see countrywide anything like this. If we’re careful over 60% of the total deaths will be in the first peak, and much modestly later on. The economic effects have been unbelievable. We’ll be dealing with that literally for years to come, but a miracle therapeutic or the vaccine are the only thing to say OK, we’re back to normal.”

Getting help

The U.S. government gave out $350 billion in stimulus loans to help businesses survive during the coronavirus crisis. How did news organizations fare in all this?

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds delved into the topic and found that a small number of independent news outlets were approved for the Payroll Protection Plan stimulus loans, but the chain-owned newspapers and local broadcast stations mostly did not because they had too many employees.

The Poynter Institute received a stimulus loan of $737,400. Poynter president Neil Brown said, “Poynter sprang into action as the coronavirus spread, with an all-hands effort to help journalists better serve their communities with vital news coverage during this crisis. This loan buys us time to find new revenue sources while still offering online training and expertise, battling disinformation and chronicling the journalism industry’s hard and heroic efforts.”

Brown said the loan will help Poynter avert furloughs, layoffs or pay reductions and will help with utility costs, plus rent at the Poynter-owned PolitiFact offices in Washington, D.C.

Notable news organizations that have received the stimulus loans include The Seattle Times, the Tampa Bay Times and Axios.

Feeling at home

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

All of us are spending more time at home than ever. So, The New York Times is introducing a new section in its print editions starting this Sunday called, appropriately enough, “At Home.” It’s just as it sounds — it helps guide readers on their lives at home, including suggestions on what to watch, listen to, read, cook, make and play.

In a note to staff, executive editor Dean Baquet said, “The extraordinary nature of this moment has driven remarkable changes in our journalism. It has also caused us to rethink the way we produce traditional elements of the news report and, in particular, the structure of the print newspaper.”

The new section will run at least through the coronavirus pandemic. It will replace the Travel section. But the Times will continue producing travel stories that will run in other sections of the Times, including the At Home section. In addition, the Sunday separate sports section will be incorporated into the front section for now.

Media tidbits

  • ESPN NFL draft expert Todd McShay is unable to cover this year’s draft, which began Thursday night and continues tonight and Saturday. The reason: McShay tweeted Thursday that he has the coronavirus. He assured that he will be back “thanks to the tireless work of healthcare workers and first responders. You are truly our nation’s heroes.”
  • HBO’s “Real Sports” with Bryant Gumbel returns next Tuesday. Two new features include “The March of COVID-19,” about the role sports leagues played in the spread of coronavirus; and “Game Change,” about how sports organizations, companies and leagues are coming together to face the pandemic.
  • What’s more important: what a network news guest says or what the background in their homes or apartments look like? Well, of course, it’s what they say. But just barely. In a fun piece for Vanity Fair, Kenzie Bryant looks at how one critic decides what’s cool and what’s not. And go here for that critic’s wickedly funny Twitter feed.

Hot type

  • A man says goodbye to his family after he died of complications from the coronavirus. You’ll have a hard time getting through this heartbreaking BuzzFeed story by Julia Reinstein without crying, but you need to read it.
  • The latest episode of WNYC Studio’s podcast “Trump Inc” is “He Went to Jared,” which looks at the role Jared Kushner (the president’s son-in-law) is playing in the United States’ response to COVID-19.
  • What’s it like to have lived through other major viral outbreaks like SARS and Ebola and even the 1918 flu pandemic? Slate’s Ruth Graham with the words of those who lived those experiences in “How I Knew It Was Over.”
  • Finally, a little good stuff to send you into the weekend. If you’re like me, you love NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series. They are mini-concerts performed in the intimate setting of the desk of “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen. Watching the concerts online is fun any time, but it’s a particularly welcome escape during these stressful times. My Poynter colleague, Ren LaForme (who loves Tiny Desk as much as anyone), reached out to Boilen about the concerts in a really good Q&A. Read the interview and then go listen to a few Tiny Desk concerts. Start with my latest favorite band: Mandolin Orange.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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