Tuesday, April 7, 2020
April 7, 2020

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Press Talk: The bite of coronavirus

The Columbian
Published:

After being sent out to find a good story, a rookie reporter breathlessly came back to the newsroom.

“I just saw a dog bite a man!” he told his editor.

“Here’s a quarter,” the editor told him. “Call somebody who cares.” She sent him back out to do better.

An hour later he returned, cautious but hopeful.

“I just saw a man bite a dog.”

“Stop the presses,” the editor bellowed. “We need to remake the front page!”

Welcome to COVID-19 news.

• • •

Look, no one knows for sure yet just how terrible this killer is. But when you’re looking for answers as to why this story is getting so much play you must look beyond the idea that it’s extremely important. It is also unusual. It is also different.

It’s not a “Dog bites man” story. It’s a “Man bites dog” story. Along, with the who, what, where, when and why, this aphorism was one of the first things you learned in journalism school:

Unusual sells.

So when decision-makers in newsrooms and TV stations are deciding which story will lead, they’re often looking for unusual. And this is particularly true of TV stations. Newspapers have traditionally been better rounded, more cautious and more thorough with their reporting.

Now let me be clear. I’m retired. I don’t make coverage decisions anymore. My view is Columbian Editor Craig Brown is doing an excellent job as he navigates the turbulent waters of shrinking revenues, staff cuts and coverage decisions.

But when I was the editor, I often struggled with how to play attention-grabbing stories. How to try to be fair to both sides of a story.

Here’s an example that came up often. We would be covering a speech that a thousand people attended. Outside, there were four protesters carrying colorful signs. Our photographer would come back with a great shot of a guy waving his message on a large piece of cardboard. Our photographer would also bring back the perfunctory shot of the speaker behind a podium. Four protesters vs. 1,000 attendees.

What photo leads the page? Would it even be fair to play both photos side by side?

With all that in mind, you begin to better appreciate how TV and newspapers are playing this killer disease.

Look, no one is questioning the coronavirus must be covered. But how it’s covered becomes critical to not only the credibility of news sources but to the well-being of our society.

• • •

With all that in mind I did a highly unscientific survey on Facebook this week asking a couple of questions on this topic. The first one asked how concerned you all might be about this virus. If you gave it a 1, you weren’t concerned at all. If you gave it a 10, you were heading for your bunker. I received more than 70 answers. Some gave it a 1. Others gave it a 10. But it all averaged about 3.1. In other words, some concern, for sure, but not out of hand.

There were lots of enlightening comments as well.

Lisa Abrahamsson had a good perspective with her response: “Coughing gives you a personal check-out lane at the store!”

Chuck Green was recently traveling the world and gave it a 3. “This from someone who just spent three weeks in Southeast Asia and came back through South Korea.” South Korea — along with Washington — is a hot spot for this virus.

The second question I asked had to do with what this column is directly about: The news coverage of this emerging virus. I asked if the media was overplaying it. A score of 1 would mean the media isn’t doing enough coverage. A score of 5 meant it was just about right. And a 10 would mean there’s been way too much coverage and that it was way out of line.

I had more than 60 responses. Again, lots of 10s. But there were quite a few low numbers as well. In the end, it averaged out to about a 6. In other words, the coverage was on target but a little overboard.

Former Columbian journalist John Hill gave it a 4. “I think it’s just about right but I’d like to hear more about testing kits. Also, the nursing home cases in Washington should be a wake-up call. Is enough being done to help the most at-risk?”

Bonnie Thorpe Howell gave it 1. “I would rather have more information to consider. I think we are all capable of filtering out frenzied speculation or slanted views but it makes me angry when those in a position to report actual facts are effectively censored or blocked.”

Fellow journalist Heidi Knapp Rinella made a more-than-fair point: “We have no idea. Nobody does at this point.”

What to make of it all? We clearly should have some concern. For now– as Rinella notes — we’re not certain how much concern we should have. But for me more information is almost always better than less information.

Stick to the sources you trust for your information. Yes, media, especially television — will hype news. We all have an obligation to put information into perspective and print media usually does a better job with perspective.

One last thought about perspective. There are those who have tried to compare this to the 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu. One article, written by Jeremy Brown for The Atlantic, says no way. And it makes sense.

Brown argues the huge difference between the two is — well, 100 years. Back then medicine was in its infancy– bloodletting was still considered a cure for disease. Back then it was speculated the alignment of the planets influenced diseases. (The word “influenza” came from the Italian word that meant “influence.”)

Today we have so many more medical weapons. Yes, we still have no cure for viruses, but we understand how to contain their spread and mitigate their symptoms.

Coronavirus is — for sure — a big deal. So be vigilant, be safe and stay informed. Let’s get through this.

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