March 19, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter morning story meeting about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

People are buying up guns and ammo

As soon as people starting rushing to grocery stores to buy toilet paper, it was easy to predict they would run to the gun stores next.

And now, they have.

Lengthy lines formed outside the Martin B. Retting gun store in Culver City, California, Sunday morning before the store opened, The Los Angeles Times reported. Some people said the line Saturday was so long that it extended around the block, so they decided to come back and try again.

My son, who went target shooting with a pal at a range here in St. Petersburg, Florida, said it was packed with customers picking up gun and ammo orders — way more than he had seen before.

“As frenzied stockpiling stripped gun specialty stores of inventory, more people also went online to order gun supplies in recent weeks,” reported Dalvin Brown, a consumer tech reporter at USA Today. “Online ammunition retailer witnessed an exponential increase in sales since late February, which the company attributes to public worry surrounding coronavirus.” said there has been a 68% increase in sales from mid-February to now.

“Specific data on the size of the sales spike will not be available until next month. But already this year, background checks are up considerably over last year,” Brown continued. “According to data from the FBI, just over 5.5 million background checks were conducted in January and February combined. Gun sales generally rise in an election year, as they did in 2016. But this past January and February have outpaced 2016 by nearly 350,000.”

Look for acts of coronavirus kindness

We are all inspired by athletes like New Orleans Pelicans player Zion Williamson, who said he would pay the salaries of employees who work at the Pelicans’ home arena for the next month, even though the arena will be closed.

But there are so many smaller and just as meaningful ways that people are helping one another.

Somebody sent pizza to the weekend workers at The Seattle Times, where they have been working nonstop covering the coronavirus.

Walt Disney World donated food that it would not be able to keep while its theme parks are closed. The food went to the Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves more than 40 Orlando-area nonprofits. Disney said it donated items like salads and prepared hot food that obviously would not be useful for long.

KOIN-TV in Portland, Oregon, ran a story based on this social media post:

The woman in the car handed Mehra $100 and asked if she would take a grocery list and buy her groceries. Mehra, of course, did exactly that. CNN later picked up the story. Mehra said the lesson is “look out for your neighbors.”

I really think newsrooms should solicit “coronavirus kindness” stories.

When to ‘out’ those who test positive

My Poynter ethics leader and senior vice president Kelly McBride is exploring the question of when/if journalists should name people who test positive for COVID-19.

She wrote:

What is your newsroom’s policy about who you name? Will you require original sourcing (on the record, off the record), or will you repeat the reporting of other journalists? This is first and foremost a medical diagnosis. Will you only quote the individual or a source who represents the individual? Or will you quote people who know second- or third-hand?

It is one thing to name Tom Hanks, who identified himself as positive, but what if the person does not “go public?” One possible exception to your instinct to protect their privacy might be, as Kelly said, a person who has exposed hundreds of others, like a priest or flight attendant.

The guilt, and law, behind spreading the virus

I have been thinking a lot about how I would feel if I found out I had made other people sick. And I am not just thinking about the so-called ”super spreaders” who first appeared in China.

Imagine the shame you would feel if a person who you infected died. There is the Time story of the Missouri man whose family was told to place themselves in quarantine but decided to attend a father-daughter dance anyway. The whole school shut down as a result.

Time also published a particularly enlightened piece about the morality of quarantines. The story points out that during a manmade crisis, like war, people tend to band together, volunteer to pitch in and support each other. But a virus is different. Here is the passage that made me lean in.

Things get a little more complicated when the attack comes not from a human enemy, but from a virus or other pathogen. In this case, moral stress-cracks form in the community because other people are the source of menace. “Diseases do not bring us together,” (said Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business). “They can push us apart because of the nature of contagion.”

Worse than pushing us apart, they can bring out the sublimely ugly. Think of the shaming and shunning of lepers, of the homophobic hatred that was given full voice — and even imagined moral license — during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

Maybe we will see a move to punish people who spread the virus by not following guidelines and rules or, worse, people who intentionally or recklessly endanger others. We have seen this before, with people prosecuted for infecting others with dirty needles and 26 states passing laws making it a crime to knowingly pass along AIDS. There are also federal laws that speak to knowingly donating tainted blood.

There’s rural wireless help for students without it

This coronavirus turmoil is bringing out the best in innovative problem-solving.

Utah public radio station KUER reports that Utah school systems are parking empty school buses in strategic places to give kids wireless access for school assignments. The buses had been outfitted with wireless hotspots some time ago. KUER reported:

“We know we’re in great shape as far as devices,” said David Styler, superintendent of the Millard County School District. “But we also know that a number of our people don’t have internet in their homes.”

Styler said about 14% of homes in his district don’t have internet access, but the district does have 12 buses already equipped with Wi-Fi. The idea came up several years ago, as students were traveling long distances — as much as four hours one way — to get to school or sporting events. Administrators back then wanted them to be able to access school materials while on the bus.

Each bus hotspot will be able to provide Wi-Fi to up to 20 students for a few hours a day.

Spectrum and Comcast stepped up with free internet for students (kindergarten through college) without access to Wi-Fi during the coronavirus pandemic. Comcast’s Xfinity hotspots, which you commonly find in public locations and small businesses, will be free for 60 days. Spectrum said it won’t cut service to residential or small business customers who can’t pay their bills because of issues caused by the coronavirus. Verizon also said it is not charging late fees or cutting off customers who don’t pay. 

USA Today is keeping track of all of these breaks.

Federal lawmakers are also asking the Federal Communications Commission to use emergency powers to free up money to build internet access for 12 million students without internet service in the U.S. The money that senators are targeting is tied up in the E-rate program, which involves $4 billion earmarked for schools and libraries to help them pay for internet connections.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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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