By:
August 3, 2021

I received plenty of reaction from Monday’s newsletter, which looked at how the media is covering the latest COVID-19 news. It wasn’t necessarily negative or positive, just folks commenting on what is a difficult moment in time for our country and for the media.

In other words, people are just trying to make sense of it all.

Just as life for many Americans was returning to some semblance of normalcy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended all of us, even the vaccinated, start wearing masks again in parts of the country where COVID-19 is surging.

As we all try to figure out exactly what is happening, we turn to media coverage for information. But media coverage has been a bit wonky because of a lack of context.

The responsible media is trying to inform without creating unnecessary panic. Yet it also doesn’t want to be dismissive. And so we, the audience, see the various figures — the number of new cases, hospitalizations, deaths, breakthrough cases, number of vaccinated, number of unvaccinated — and wonder how we’re supposed to live our lives.

The science seems to be settling on these facts: If you’re vaccinated, you’re extremely likely to be protected from serious illness or death from COVID-19. It also seems more prudent to look at the number of hospitalizations as opposed to positive cases. And mask-wearing and social distancing still remain effective ways to limit the spread.

And yet people still are confused because of scary headlines and stories that lack context.

But it’s not all the media’s fault. Some of this is on the audience, too.

On Monday, I traded emails with a veteran reporter from a major American newspaper who has covered COVID-19 since the beginning. She was working on a story with another reporter about kids returning to school.

Using trusted sources and data, the reporters wrote a story that talked about the expected percentage of children who might get COVID-19 if they wore a mask, and the expected percentage if they didn’t wear a mask. The story quoted health experts talking about all the other preventative measures, such as regular testing, quarantines, good air filtration and so forth. It talked about the importance of kids attending school in person and all the measures to keep them safe. It looked at whether or not the kids came from families whose parents and grandparents were vaccinated and what that meant. It pointed out that, for the most part, children with COVID-19 don’t get as sick as adults.

And yet, this reporter told me, the reaction she received from readers overwhelmingly centered on one number: the percentage of kids who might get infected even if they did wear a mask.

The reporter told me, “There was a whole lot of context in there saying ‘don’t panic,’ but also a number to latch on to that to some readers indicated PANIC, and that’s apparently what they took away from the story.”

So, the reporter asks a question that I will now ask as well: Is that on the media or the reader?

In this case, it’s on the reader. All the information was there, and it was put in excellent context. The reporters did their jobs, and did them well.

But if there’s a lesson to be learned from this anecdote, it’s this: People are worried and they tend to gravitate toward negative news out of concern for themselves and their loved ones.

The best the media can do is to keep hammering away at the science, keep putting all numbers into context and being as plain and straightforward as possible in headlines and stories. Then hope the audience takes in the information without going into a tailspin.

Rubio is right … and wrong

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio weighed in on media coverage of COVID-19 and blasted the media. Rubio tweeted, “We have media hysteria over Covid ‘cases’ because ‘bad news’ sells. But what matters isn’t how many people have COVID, what matters is how many people are seriously ill. The real story here is how for the fully vaccinated the risk of serious illness appears to be near zero.”

Again, with all COVID-19 coverage, context is needed. This isn’t black or white, 100% right or 100% wrong.

For starters, as I wrote in Monday’s newsletter, it is important to emphasize hospitalizations as compared to positive cases. And that’s partly what Rubio is saying. Rubio also is correct when he talks about how the risk of vaccinated people getting seriously ill is extremely rare.

But Rubio’s tweet lacks context. Yes, hospitalizations matter more than cases, but what Rubio doesn’t mention is that hospitalizations are way up in Florida, too. So that is a sign of what Rubio calls “serious illness.” Also, it’s not that the total number of cases doesn’t matter at all. It is helpful seeing how quickly and deeply COVID-19 spreads, particularly among children who can’t get vaccinated yet.

Florida remains one of the hottest spots in the country for COVID-19. And while the media needs to be responsible in its coverage, Rubio’s finger-pointing at the media seems to be an attempt to distract those from what can be called “bad news” — that Florida continues to have a major problem with COVID-19.

Later, Rubio tweeted, “If at this time last year someone had told us there was a medicine that made Covid no worse than the flu we would have been very happy. Well now we do. Use it.”

NewsGuild breaks organizing record

For this item, I turn it over to my Poynter colleague Angela Fu.

More than 1,500 workers across 29 workplaces have joined the NewsGuild so far this year, setting a record for the organization, which is the largest union representing journalists.

Since 2015, the NewsGuild has been on an organizing spree, unionizing local papers and national publications alike, as part of a larger labor movement within journalism. In 2019, a record 1,499 workers joined the NewsGuild. The union broke that record last week when Forbes editorial staff voted 67-7 to unionize. Over the past three years, the union has added on average more than 1,400 new workers each year.

Those numbers also include non-media workers. The NewsGuild represents several nonprofits like the Institute for Policy Studies and ACLU of Missouri in addition to newsrooms.

More than 1,100 workers, including over 650 tech workers at The New York Times, are currently organizing with the NewsGuild and could join the union in the coming months. The NewsGuild has not lost a single election since 2012. That means the union could potentially double its record by the end of the year.

In a newsletter to members, the NewsGuild acknowledged that the recent organizing victories have created a “bargaining challenge.” To help newly unionized newsrooms negotiate for their first contracts, the union has approved supporting four additional staffers in four of its local chapters.

YouTube temporarily bans Murdoch’s news outlet

The United States isn’t the only country where Rupert Murdoch’s misinformation is causing problems. His Sky News Australia — nicknamed by some as “Fox News Australia” — has been banned from posting news videos and hosting livestreams on YouTube for a week because it violated YouTube’s policy about spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.

The Washington Post’s Rachel Pannett reports that YouTube has not disclosed which videos violated its policy, but a YouTube spokesperson told Pannett, “We apply our policies equally for everyone regardless of uploader, and in accordance with these policies and our long-standing strikes system, removed videos from and issued a strike to Sky News Australia’s channel.”

Twitter’s new deal

Here’s a paragraph straight from an Associated Press story:

“Twitter has signed a deal with The Associated Press and Reuters to help elevate accurate information on its platform. Twitter said Monday that the program will expand its existing work to help explain why certain subjects are trending on the site, to show information and news from trusted resources and to debunk misinformation.”

Twitter says this deal will help get credible information up in real time. The AP wrote, “That will be especially important where ‘facts are in dispute’ or when the company’s own curation team doesn’t have the necessary expertise or access to enough reputable reporting on the subject, Twitter said.”

In a statement, Twitter said, “Rather than waiting until something goes viral, Twitter will contextualize developing discourse at pace with or in anticipation of the public conversation.”

Tom Januszewski, the AP’s vice president of global business development, said in a statement, “This work is core to our mission. AP has a long history of working closely with Twitter, along with other platforms, to expand the reach of factual journalism.”

Napolitano out at Fox News

Fox News has parted ways with contributor Judge Andrew Napolitano, who is being sued by a production assistant for sexual harassment. According to the suit, John Fawcett alleges that Napolitano “sexually harassed numerous young male employees during his tenure at Fox News,” including Fawcett during a 2019 interaction in an elevator at Fox News. Napolitano had been with Fox News since 1998. The suit alleges Fox News did not investigate Fawcett’s claims.

The complaint also alleges that Fox Business Network host Larry Kudlow, a former economic adviser to Donald Trump, made sexually lewd comments about women in front of coworkers, that he used ethnic slurs and blocked certain guests of color from appearing on his show.

Fox News Media put out the following statement: “Upon first learning of John Fawcett’s allegations against Judge Andrew Napolitano, FOX News Media immediately investigated the claims and addressed the matter with both parties. The network and Judge Napolitano have since parted ways. We take all allegations of misconduct seriously, are committed to providing a safe, transparent, and collaborative workplace environment for all our employees and took immediate, appropriate action. Furthermore, the additional allegations laid out in this claim are completely baseless and nothing more than a desperate attempt at a payday by trying the case in the court of public opinion as the complaint does not meet the standards of the law. We will defend the matter vigorously in court.”

Powerful piece

Kathy Griffin in 2019. (Matt Licari/Invision/AP)

Comedian Kathy Griffin was featured on Monday night’s “Nightline” on ABC and revealed that she is battling lung cancer. Griffin told ABC News’ Juju Chang that her life began a downward spiral after the 2017 photoshoot in which she held up a bloodied mask that looked like then-President Donald Trump. She said that by 2020 she was addicted to painkillers and had attempted suicide.

Griffin said, “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t even drink. … Big deal, I take a couple pills now and again, who doesn’t? Also, my age was a big part of it. I mean, who bottoms out and tries to take their life at 59? It’s almost a joke, right? And by the way, someday this will all be comedy. Trust me … I was laughing to stay alive. And what I found is I felt like if I can’t make others laugh, then there’s no purpose for me to live. There’s no reason for me to live.”

When she made the decision to keep living, she learned she had lung cancer.

“The irony is not lost on me that, a little over a year ago, all I wanted to do was die,” Griffin said. “And now, all I wanna do is live.”

Griffin posted on Instagram that she has never been a smoker, but that she is having surgery to remove half of her left lung. She said doctors are “very optimistic” that her cancer is stage one and confined to her left lung.

The return of The Ocho

Yesssss! ESPN announced that it is bringing back The Ocho.

What is The Ocho? The 2004 film “Dodgeball” spoofed ESPN with its fake channel, The Ocho, that aired obscure sports. Well, smartly, in 2017, ESPN turned The Ocho into a real thing. So, this Friday, ESPN2 will turn into ESPN8 — aka The Ocho.

The 24 hours of offbeat sports will include table shuffleboard, extreme pogo, cow chip throwing, Corgi racing, air guitar and tag. Yeah, tag. Like the game we played as kids.

Here’s the complete schedule for The Ocho.

Media tidbits

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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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