September 30, 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.

While Washington is consumed with Donald Trump’s taxes and a presidential debate, thousands of airline workers will be out of work tomorrow without Congressional help. And it does not look like that help is on the way.

Somewhere around 35,000 (maybe as many as 40,000) pilots, flight attendants and mechanics in every city that has an airport would be affected. Some smaller airports could lose airline service.

Airlines are pleading for Congress to re-up the Payroll Support Program that sent $32 billion to airlines this spring. That payment included a provision that airlines could not lay off workers before Sept. 30. But after today, all bets are off.

U.S. News & World Report calculates the jobs that are on the line:

United Airlines will furlough or lay off nearly 16,400 workers at the start of the month. The furloughs include 2,850 pilots, 6,920 flight attendants, and more than 4,000 operations staff and technicians. Roughly 1,400 employees in management roles will be laid off.

Delta will avoid laying off flight attendants and ground workers through the rest of the year, largely due to the fact that 20% of its workforce took voluntary early retirement or departure packages this year and 40,000 workers signed up for unpaid leaves of absence. The company is warning, however, that it currently plans to furlough 1,721 pilots on Nov. 1, a spokesperson confirmed.

Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, says it has no plans to cut jobs through the end of the year. More than 4,200 employees elected to take voluntary departure packages this summer and will leave the company before the end of September.

There is some reluctance in Congress to do any kind of relief bill specific to airlines when other major segments of the economy, including restaurants and hotels, don’t get such help. Last week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congress that he has no way to tap into the CARES Act or any other fund to bail out the airlines.

Don’t miss the fact that some swing states will feel a lot of pain from these layoffs and furloughs. Hubs in Phoenix, Charlotte, Miami, Houston and Denver may all suffer significant job losses that may come back to haunt candidates hoping to win Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Texas and Colorado.

COVID-19 is canceling spring break 2021

As if airlines needed more bad news, spring break travel may be a shadow of its former self next year. Universities across the country are preemptively canceling spring break 2021, which is a heartbreaker for places like Florida. 

The Points Guy, a blog that tracks travel, reports:

The University of Michigan, several schools in Iowa, a number of Big Ten schools including Purdue and Ohio State University, and the University of Tennessee are amongst dozens of colleges that have preemptively eliminated the popular collegiate respite.

The University of Kentucky has publicly declared that spring break is canceled — and is reinforcing the decision with a trimmed-down academic calendar that’s “designed to discourage student travel outside of town mid-semester,” according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Many other schools have similarly structured their 2020 to 2021 programs so that students who insist on leaving town without approved reason will be considered absent from class attendance.

You can also add Notre Dame, Ohio State, Syracuse University, the University of Rhode Island, Boston University, Northeastern University, Emerson College and the University of Florida to the canceled spring break list. Florida State and Florida A&M are sending signals that they will cancel spring break, too. I could add a bunch more schools here, but you get the message.

A NerdWallet survey from earlier this year points out how big the spring break industry is:

In total, Americans plan to spend $1,817.70 on average on their spring break vacation, with families (planning) to spend a little bit more (but not too much) with an average answer of $1,996.90.

Shockingly, some millennials, about 10%, are planning to spend $5,000 or more on a spring break extravaganza.

Disney to lay off 28,000 workers

Balloon vendors wear face masks on Main Street, U.S.A., in front of Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

It is exactly that kind of news about spring break that Disney sees as the near-term future for its theme parks. Disney announced late Tuesday that it will lay off 28,000 employees at theme parks and other divisions. 67% of the workers are part-time workers, according to the company. Disney has not provided a breakdown of how many layoffs will occur at each of its theme parks in Orlando, Anaheim, Paris, Shanghai, Japan and Hong Kong. Theme parks and consumer products contribute 37% of the company’s income.

Hospital cyberattack may be the biggest ever

A hospital chain with facilities all across America is the victim of one of the biggest medical cyberattacks in U.S. history. Computers at Universal Health Services, a chain that runs 400 hospitals and other health facilities, started failing over the weekend.

A graphic that shows Universal Health Services’ acute care hospitals, free-standing emergency rooms and ambulatory centers. (Universal Health Services)

It is still unclear whether the problems with the company’s computers are a ransomware attack, which demand hospitals pay for code to unlock their computer data.

At one point, Universal Health employees say, they were tracking patient information by pen and paper. Employees shared their stories in a Reddit post. The company says no patient information was compromised.

How debates affect votes

A member of the production team walks toward the stage ahead of the first presidential debate between Republican candidate President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Now that the post-debate spinners are busy spinning, I thought it might be useful to see if there’s any evidence that debates sway voters.

Monmouth University polling reported Tuesday that, although just 3% of people surveyed say that they are very likely to hear something that will impact their eventual vote choice, another 10% say it is somewhat likely to happen and 87% say it is not likely. It was about the same in 2016.

Generally, debates do not sway voters.

Harvard Business School research goes against everything you have heard hyped over the last day or two. Data through history shows debates really do not determine election outcomes. Take, for example, a debate from almost exactly four years ago when Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump out for his treatment of women and Trump didn’t have much of a comeback. That debate set viewership records. But, Harvard Business School says:

Every major polling outfit declared Clinton the debate’s victor the next day. But it didn’t make a difference: Trump went on to win the election. That’s because debates have only a negligible effect on voters’ candidate choice, according to new research from Harvard Business School. In fact, 72% of voters make up their minds more than two months before the election, often before candidates square off. And those who shift to a different candidate closer to the election don’t do it following TV debates.

Pew research pegs the number of voters who make up their minds based on debates at about 10%.

(Pew Research Center)

This is not to say debates are worthless. In fact, Pew surveys going back to 1988 show voters find debates “useful” in making their decisions, but not pivotal.

It is not just an American thing. Harvard Business School research mined voter surveys from 61 elections in nine countries — including the U.S., Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom — which included 172,000 respondents, 80% of whom had watched a debate. The study found that about 15% of people decide who they will vote for in the two months before an election. But voters who change their minds about a candidate do not do so because of debates, but instead might change their minds based on new information about a candidate or his/her position on important issues.

The debate itself may not change minds much, but media coverage of the debate can change minds. The media obsession with who “won” and who “lost” has had a measured effect, according to researchers who looked at the 2004 debate between John Kerry and George Bush. Over the years, researchers have also found that journalists tend to award the “winner” title to whoever gets in the best punches, one-liners and snipes, not who explains policy and positions with the greatest depth and clarity.

FiveThirtyEight explains why debates may have an effect in thinning out fields of primary election candidates but don’t change general election outcomes much:

Political science tends to be skeptical of general election debates. The people who are most likely to tune into debates tend to be highly informed and already engaged in politics — and thus already likely to have formed an opinion. This has become especially true in recent years as partisanship has grown stronger.

Washington Monthly took a historical perspective on debates over the decades.

The small or nonexistent movement in voters’ preferences is evident when comparing the polls before and after each debate or during the debate season as a whole. Political lore often glosses over or even ignores the polling data. Even those who do pay attention to polls often fail to separate real changes from random blips due to sampling error.

A more careful study by political scientist James Stimson finds little evidence of game changers in the presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000. Stimson writes, “There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” At best, debates provide a “nudge” in very close elections like 1960, 1980, or 2000.

An even more comprehensive study, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, which includes every publicly available poll from the presidential elections between 1952 and 2008, comes to a similar conclusion: excluding the 1976 election, which saw Carter’s lead drop steadily throughout the fall, “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” In other words, in the average election year, you can accurately predict where the race will stand after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates.

Vice presidential debates have even less of an effect on voter decisions. In fact, viewership for the VP debates usually drops way off. The exception was the 2008 debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

(Pew Research Center)

If debates do not change votes, what does? Researchers found that a personal conversation with another person, even a short conversation with a person who knocks on doors seeking supporters, can make a big difference.

The way we work now

Ah, the glamorous life of a TV reporter. My friend Melanie Michael from WFLA Tampa was covering the NHL finals. Give these reporters a power outlet, a wireless connection and a marginally quiet corner to work and they are all good.

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

Correction: It’s Emerson College, not Emerson University. 

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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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