March 12, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is Poynter’s new daily briefing about journalism and coronavirus. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every morning, Monday through Friday.

The coronavirus brings shock after shock

On Wednesday night, the NBA suspended the rest of its season, the NCAA announced it would play March Madness games without live audiences and President Donald Trump banned travel from Europe to the U.S. starting Friday night for 30 days.

The breath and depth of the disruptions ahead for the economy, travel and even entertainment are all coming into focus. Or at least some focus.

Moments after President Trump spoke on live TV Wednesday night, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement clarifying that, in fact, not everyone will be banned from flying to the U.S. from Europe.

Homeland Security officials said that the ban on flights to the U.S. from Europe does not apply to travelers from the United Kingdom, that it only applies to foreign nationals, and that U.S. legal permanent residents will be allowed to fly home. The question Thursday will be whether Americans abroad will be able to find flights to board.

The stunning announcement will send shockwaves through travel, airline and shipping industries. How many flights are we talking about?

As soon as he uttered the announcement, I snapped an image of transcontinental flights in the air that won’t be there Saturday night.

(Screenshot via Flightaware)

In rough figures, about 15 million Europeans travel to the U.S. each year. Airlines also move cargo. The president said that will be interrupted, too.

COVID-19 spread fast across Europe in recent days, now reaching 22,000 cases. That number will certainly be higher by the time you read this. President Trump targeted Europe as France, Germany and Spain all marked increases of more than 500 cases since Tuesday, while Nordic countries including Denmark and Norway still have fewer than 500 cases.

The stock market reacted overnight with another premature plunge.

It would be worth looking to see whether the NCAA and now NBA’s decisions wash over to every other part of our leisure lives, from youth hockey to dance classes.

It is still unknown how the ban on in-person fans will spill over to who gets press credentials. Organizers are trying to keep down crowd size. There is also no agreement on how the tournaments define “family,” who under various exclusions will be allowed to watch games in person.

How will college basketball fans build connections to cheer on teams virtually in real time? I predict an explosion in this area in the next week as fans find new ways to connect and rally somehow. Will virtual reality finally find an audience from fans who want to be as live as possible at the games?

And how big a financial hit will colleges swallow from the residuals generated by massive game crowds? Think of the team apparel and concessions that will not be sold when fans stay home.

Every massive story takes on an iconic face

Wednesday night we learned actor Tom Hanks and his wife, actor Rita Wilson, tested positive for the coronavirus.

At the same time that story unfolded, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the latest update on how many coronavirus tests the CDC and private labs conducted each day in the U.S. for the last month.

One daily number was eight … as in E-I-G-H-T. The busiest day so far was barely two thousand tests in one day.

It’s likely that the U.S. has done more tests than the CDC’s reported figure suggests, since the agency hasn’t been tallying tests performed at state and private labs over the past week. But the point is, we do not have an accurate count of testing.

How to reach younger audiences with reliable COVID-19 info

A teacher walks along a hallway of an empty public school in small Spanish Basque village of Labastida, Wednesday, March 11. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

MediaWise’s Teen Fact-Checking Network has produced a ton of fact checks that you can link to, embed, whatever. We have a team of 40 teens from about a dozen states and many of them are publishing fact-checks related to the coronavirus.

Here are a few.

One lesson you can take from these is that they do not talk down to younger audiences. They answer real questions about online rumors and they teach young people how to fact-check and how to become better consumers of news. I love it.

MediaWise is a Poynter project that aims to empower people of all ages to be more critical consumers of content online.

The connection between COVID-19 and oil prices

This is a story I wanted somebody to do. Clark Merrefield at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy wrote a story for Journalist’s Resource about how the drop in oil prices this week is connected to the new coronavirus.

For starters, this is important because oil drives the global economy. When oil prices drop in half, as they did this week, the stock markets around the world react, and they did.

The experts that Merrefield talked with said a global economic slowdown means we all use less oil. People fly less and travel by car less. Factories use less energy. And, when people are staying home, we need less energy to light up, heat and cool workplaces.

That means there is less demand. Prices drop when there is too much oil on hand, just like any other commodity.

You would think that low oil prices might be good news for most of us. After all, it probably means gas prices will drop. But if the virus means we are all sticking closer to home for a while, that might not make a lot of difference.

On the other hand, if people start driving more to avoid crowded mass transit, we could see gasoline demand rise.

What about the hotels?

There is a big story waiting to be told about how the cancellations of events big and small affect hotels and the people who work there. Let me give you a personal example of the friction involved.

When Poynter plans a workshop or seminar we usually work with a hotel to block a certain number of rooms. We sign an agreement that puts us on the hook for that block. What happens when an event gets canceled?

One convention chain, Ryman Hospitality Properties, which owns the Gaylord Hotels group, said it has already lost “77,000 canceled room nights that are attributable to COVID-19.” That is $40 million in lost revenue just in March and April. I point to this hotel group because so much of its business (70%) is convention and group related.

Here is something that caught my eye in the company’s revised guidance to Wall Street: Ryman expects to recover $19 million in cancellation fees, nearly half of what it lost to cancellations. I noticed that SXSW said its insurance policies did not cover cancellations caused by a virus outbreak. Hotels have a rolling policy on cancellation fees. Marriott, for example, is waiving cancellation fees in Asia and Europe. Wyndham has a similarly evolving cancellation fee policy.

But third-party bookings may leave the customer with little recourse. announced Tuesday that if your cancellation is because of a “forced circumstance” such as a travel ban or quarantine, you should be able to get your money back with no booking fees. That does not mean you can decide not to travel to a less infected destination and expect a refund.

Facts, not fear

You know, if you just keep running these facts, not fear tips on your front page, as a PSA/promo or on social, eventually people will get the message.

Build trust with your coronavirus coverage

My buddy Joy Mayer at Trusting News is pushing the idea that one big key for building trust for your coverage on this story is to make it clear to the public what you are trying to accomplish. She points to a good example of just how simple that kind of statement could and should be.

A couple of journalism-related workshops delayed

The NPPA News Video workshop is being delayed and a new date has not been set. The good news is you will have a new opportunity to sign up. And you should.

The Investigative Reporters & Editors Watchdog Workshops coming up in Miami and Salt Lake City are being postponed. Darn it, I was supposed to teach in Miami. The IRE national conference in June is still on. IRE is essential.

My colleague, local news reporter Kristen Hare, is keeping a running list of journalism and media cancellations.

A running splash page is a great idea

A reader sent me this simple and effective work that they are doing at Journalist Aaron D’Andrea said the website has a single constantly updated page that provides a one-line description of every COVID-19-related story and a hotlink. Simple as that.

It sounds so 2002, but I find it to be exactly the kind of thing I can skim and find interesting coverage that answers everyday questions. Sometimes journalists forget that the time the public gets interested in a story is about the time you get sick of it. By then you tend to have a ton of stories that your online content management system has already chewed up and tossed in the archives, never to be seen again.

Be like Aaron D’Andrea and send me your best coverage that other reporters can benefit from.

We’ll be back tomorrow morning 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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