March 13, 2020

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In praise of vital coverage

Whenever we have a major news story, it’s easy to fall victim to hyperbole. But it’s not an overstatement to say the coronavirus has been the biggest news story since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

People are getting sick. People are dying. The stock market is fluctuating wildly. Schools are shutting down. Businesses are telling employees to work from home. And even those things in our lives considered entertaining yet dependable distractions — sports, concerts, theaters, museums — are being postponed and/or closed.

The story is everywhere.

And, yet, despite early claims that the media was overblowing this story, creating a narrative where there was none and fueling unnecessary panic, this week has turned out to be one of journalism’s finest hours.

The journalism on display this week during an ever-shifting and rapidly-moving story has been nothing short of spectacular.

Not everyone, of course. I’m not including the irresponsible rhetoric spewed by certain TV pundits and radio hosts — you know who I’m talking about — who are more concerned with political optics and wishful thinking than reporting facts based on medicine and science.

I’m talking about the so-called mainstream media: national broadcast networks, cable networks, local TV stations, national and local newspapers, websites, public radio and podcasts.

Over the past week, we’ve seen responsible journalists turn to the experts to talk about things that only experts are qualified to talk about. Stories have been based on facts, not opinions; science, not speculation.

Throughout the week, here in the Poynter Report and in the pop-up “Covering COVID-19” newsletter by my colleague Al Tompkins, we’ve directed you to outstanding and authoritative coverage. We will continue to do so. But, as this incredibly eventful week comes to a close, today is a good day to review. I could list news outlet after news outlet as examples of good work, but I wanted to mention a handful by name.

First, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Times has taken down its paywall for all coronavirus coverage. Their coronavirus homepage not only includes up-to-the-minute breaking news, but maps, market updates and a standing “How to Prepare for Coronavirus” section.

The Post has a coronavirus newsletter that links to stories — and all stories linked from the newsletter are free to read. Not only does the Post have the latest news, but an impressive package of videos to go along with their stories.

Each of the major networks, as well as CNN, has been outstanding and I hesitate to single out any one network. But NBC’s coverage, which includes regular cut-ins to programming and excellent work on both the “Today” show and the “NBC Nightly News” has been exemplary. Again, to be clear, CBS and ABC also are going above and beyond. The Sunday morning shows on all networks have been superb.

I mentioned Thursday that every time I hit refresh on Twitter, I see a story that, a week ago, I didn’t think was possible. Things such as Broadway shutting down and Disneyland closing and, especially, the suspension of the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, as well as the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament. With such grim news adding to the anxiety, it’s understandable to want to escape a news cycle that has been relentless with depressing news.

But it has also been heartening to see just how good the journalism has been at a time when all of us are craving smart, responsible and critical information.

Do the right thing

As important as it is to seek out good information, it’s just as important to avoid bad information. Of course, the most optimistic solution is that those recklessly putting out bad information just stop doing that.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy has a piece that notes “How Fox News Misled Viewers About the Coronavirus.” Darcy did point out the good work by some at Fox News, but added, “… a significant part of Fox News’ coverage had been aimed toward framing the response to coronavirus as unwarranted hysteria. The often-dismissive messaging from Fox News hosts was particularly notable, given that, like most cable news channels, the viewers who make up the network’s audience skew older and are, thus, the most vulnerable to the disease.”

In her latest column, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan calls out Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of News Corp and co-chairman of the Fox Corporation. Sullivan notes the talking points that seem to be a straight line from Fox News to President Donald Trump and vice versa.

“So imagine if the word flowed down from on high that Fox News should communicate to Trump that he needs to take an entirely new tack on the virus,” Sullivan writes. “Imagine if Murdoch ordered the network to end its habit of praising him as if he were the Dear Leader of an authoritarian regime and to instead use its influence to drive home the seriousness of the moment.”

They broke news of a sportsless place

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

We’ve known for quite some time now that the coronavirus was a huge story. But, for many, the seriousness didn’t really hit us until two things happened on Wednesday night. One was learning that actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for coronavirus. The other was the NBA becoming the first major sports league to suspend its season.

Within moments of the announcement, ESPN went into high gear and provided hours of outstanding coverage. A special nod needs to go out to “SportsCenter” anchor Scott Van Pelt, whose work interviewing various ESPN reporters on the fly on a story that no one was prepared for was elite.

ESPN’s hustle carried into Thursday morning with more “SportsCenter” and “Get Up.” Aside from in-the-know reporting from NBA insiders such as Adrian Wojnarowski, Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne, ESPN provided excellent analysis and news, including tracking the path of NBA player Rudy Gobert, who tested positive for the virus, over the past five days. It was insightful to show just how many athletes, arenas and fans Gobert might have come in contact with in less than a week. It helped viewers understand why suspending the league is a good idea.

ESPN is at its best during breaking news. It proved it again Wednesday night, and again on Thursday, as more leagues and tournaments shut down.

So what does ESPN do now with no sports? According to the network, the main ESPN channel will run “SportsCenter” pretty much around the clock. Shows such as “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn” are expected to return soon. ESPN News will simulcast ESPN Radio shows. And ESPN2 will simulcast a combination of ESPN and ESPNews. If needed, the network has plenty of “30 for 30” documentaries and a library of old games that could easily fill time until sports return.

CBS goes to Washington

As I wrote Thursday, the CBS Broadcast Center in New York City has been shut down until next week because two employees tested positive for coronavirus. The offices are being disinfected, meaning shows such as “CBS This Morning” and “60 Minutes” were forced to move to the network’s studios in Washington, D.C. Also forced to move was CBS News Radio, which also relocated to offices in Washington, D.C.

Preparing for the very worst

This is incredible. The Washington Post’s Erin Cunningham and Dalton Bennett report that Iranian authorities began digging two trenches for coronavirus victims soon after the government disclosed the initial outbreak. Here’s the incredible part: the pits are so vast they are visible from space. The photos in the Post piece are stunning.

Cunningham and Bennett already have reported just how hard that country has been hit by the virus and Post global opinion writer Jason Rezaian has chronicled how Iran’s response to it has made the situation worse.

Worst tweet

Megyn Kelly. (DVT/STAR MAX/IPx)

In what can best be described as a head-scratching statement, former Fox News and NBC personality Megyn Kelly tweeted, “I’m so frustrated right now … that we can’t trust the media to tell us the truth without inflaming it to hurt Trump … that Trump has misled so many times we no longer know when to trust his word … that even I as a journalist am not sure where to turn for real info on COVID.”

Kelly certainly has the right to defend the president if she wants, but to make a claim that the “media” can’t be trusted was baseless and irresponsible. And just wrong.

Best tweet

OK, to wash away the bad taste of that Megyn Kelly tweet, check out this Twitter thread from Kristin Roberts, vice president of news for McClatchy. Roberts wrote:

“Journalism’s most critical role in a crisis is to provide information people need to make decisions for the safety of family and community. That is our mission.”

She then refers to such important work being done by McClatchy properties, such as The Sacramento Bee, Miami Herald, The (Raleigh) News & Observer and others.

Help is here

Campuses are shutting down and turning to teaching online because of coronavirus concerns. Many are doing it on short notice and might not be totally prepared. Poynter can help you with that.

Today, at noon Eastern, Poynter will offer a free one-hour webinar, “How to Effectively Teach Online.” If you’ve never taught online or are new to it, you can get advice from Shelley Stewart, Ph.D., and Bridget Donovan, M.Ed., who will teach you what you need to know about temporarily moving to an online platform.

There is room for 200 people during the webinar, but it can be rewatched later by anyone.

Media tidbits

People in Flint, Mich. lining up for bottled water. (CBS News)

  • Sunday’s “60 Minutes” follows up on the Flint, Michigan, water story and talks to a pediatrician who said early tests show that of 174 kids exposed to high levels of lead, 80% will require services for language, learning or intellectual disorders. Another study of baby teeth shows Flint children were exposed to lead before birth. Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi will have the disturbing report.
  • PBS will host a special on coronavirus next Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m. Eastern on most PBS stations. “Confronting Coronavirus: A PBS NewsHour Special” will focus on health precautions for the public, as well as the pandemic’s economic impact on the U.S. and world. The special will be anchored by Judy Woodruff.
  • The Atlantic has a page titled, “What You Need to Know About Coronavirus.” You don’t need an Atlantic subscription to read the linked stories.
  • ABC Audio’s “Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris” podcast will post a bonus episode today. Harris will interview experts to help listeners manage stress and anxiety over the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hot type

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