Five improvements in the design of coronavirus coverage

Our news system is designed for daily content production, not for public understanding. In our current crisis we cannot afford that.

19 Apr 2020 10:04 pm 16 Comments

One: End duplication, work together, publish at the same time.

This idea comes from my friend Dan Gillmor in his March 8 Medium post. His complaint is about the division of labor in journalism. When each newsroom produces its own story covering essentially the same ground, that is an inefficient and ineffective way to do things.

“If you’re like me, you have no idea where to start given the duplicative work we’re seeing from so many news organizations,” Gillmor writes. “I want the best. I don’t have time to hunt around for every new scrap of information.”

Here’s an example of what we mean:

The point is not that these stories are identical. But they do have the same goal: to look back and describe the “lost month” or months when the federal government could have seen what was coming but failed to act, in large part because of the president’s management failures.

There is massive overlap among them.

Now imagine if instead of eight stories over six weeks, each trying to find its public, a consortium of newsrooms worked on one big story and published it on the same day. Imagine if the consortium included the major newspaper chains like Gannett (publisher of USA Today) and McClatchy (which has a strong Washington bureau), so that on the big day 100+ local newspapers ran with the same revelations that were dominating the national press. Now imagine if it was not just one splashy story — like the “lost month” — that received the consortium treatment, but all the major threads in coronavirus coverage.

Right now we need this kind of consortium to investigate “where are the tests?” because there is no plan for emerging from this crisis that does not depend on exponentially better testing. Gillmor has many concrete suggestions for how such a consortium could work:

Create a “war room” of editors, graphics experts, reporters (especially science journalists, not political ones), data specialists, and others who have the expertise and public-minded spirit for this kind of collaboration. Find someone not from any of the participating media companies to lead the project: a person of unchallenged credentials, who understands journalism, and is an expert in running complex projects in crisis mode.

He also understands that journalism won’t do this itself:

There’s a force in our society big and powerful enough to help jump-start it, however: major philanthropic organizations and wealthy individuals. I’m not just begging journalists to rise above business as usual here. I’m begging the funders, journalism-savvy and otherwise, to see the big picture — they’re often great at that — and come up with emergency resources right now to support what the public so manifestly needs.

I think Dan is right: Journalism has come a long way on cross-newsroom collaboration. (See Covering Climate Now, for one example.) Now we need it to find another gear and achieve a larger scale in coronavirus coverage.

Two: The Urgency Index.

One of the problems with our news system is that it’s designed for daily content production, not for enlarging public understanding over time. Another way to say this: the system as it stands tells us what’s new today. But we also need to know what’s true today, including what’s still true whether or not there was news on that subject over the last 24 hours. On top of that we need some sense of hierarchy: what’s most important, next most important, and so on.

Every time I bring this up to someone with long experience in journalism, they say the old print newspaper model did what I am asking for. The most important stories were given the biggest headlines and placed “above the fold.” The lesser, but still important news appeared further down the front page. The notable, but not essential developments were placed inside the newspaper, etc.

I get their point, but it’s not quite what I mean. The old front page system was a hierarchy of what’s new today, not of what’s true today— or better yet, still true. And so I propose the The Urgency Index. Think of it as an answer to the question, “what in the public realm should I be most worried about?” Or, “what do we need to be monitoring to stay reasonably well informed during this crisis?”

The Urgency Index is just a fancy top-ten list that is updated and re-published daily. Like a Google Form where you fill in these fields:

Headline: Where are the tests?

Current rank: 1

Rank a week ago: 1

Description: No one who knows the subject says we can get out of this without a vast expansion of testing. That’s the only way we can tell how far the virus has spread and who has to stay inside. But governors and public health officials continue to report big problems in ramping up their testing efforts.

The latest: U.S. Not Testing Enough for States to Reopen, Experts Say.

Catch me up: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Testing

Do that ten times, rank the items on your list, add design touches to make it attractive and easy to use, and re-publish every day. That’s your urgency index.

Here, I think, diverse approaches are called for, rather than collaboration on a single product. Each newsroom should make its own Urgency Index because priorities will — and should — differ by region and editorial point-of-view. The Wall Street Journal’s urgency index will not be the same as the Seattle Times. That’s a good thing. Created for consumers of the news, the index will also have uses for the producers. It tells the editors what to keep focusing on. It tells reporters what to ask the office holders about. (Update, April 24. This idea has now been put into practice by The Verge, a technology news site in the Vox Media family. Skip to the second item on this page. Testing, isolation and contact tracing are the first three items on their list. April 28: the Urgency Index gets traction in the newsletter world.)

Three: How much closer are we to normal? 

This one comes from one of my colleagues in press criticism, Dan Froomkin, author of Press Watch. Listen to what he says here:

Donald Trump’s fixation on setting a deadline for “reopening” the country – first it was Easter Sunday, now it appears to be May 1 – is currently the leading indicator of his complete lack of understanding of what is required from a government during a pandemic.

If the goal is to get society back to normal, you don’t announce a date and then try to justify it.

You set conditions that must be met, and then try to meet them.

Again, one of the problems with the news system we have is that “it’s one damn thing after another.” This is the logic of content production, not of public service journalism. When journalism is at its best, it helps us get our bearings in a confusing world of conflicting reports. It tells us where we are in public time.

Governor Gavin Newsom has given residents of his state a list of what it will take to “re-open” or re-start the economy. (See: California lists 6 tests for gradually easing virus limits.) Don’t like Gavin Newsom? There are other resources that do the same thing. Far better than “one damn thing after another” is “how much closer are we to resuming normal life?” I wish the news could give me a clearer sense of that.

Content production: what we have that is new today.

Public service journalism: here’s where we are today.

Four: Dislodge Trump from his position as “protagonist” of the coronavirus story.

It would greatly improve things if the producers of our national news flows actively de-centered the president in accordance with his recent statement to 50 state governors: “You’re gonna call your own shots.” This is a telling admission and a fateful decision. The press has to find the courage and wit to treat it that way.

Here I agree with Ben Smith, now the media columnist at the New York Times: The coronavirus story isn’t “about” the president. Of course, he wants it to be about him, and in order to make that so he will continue to say outrageous, embarrassing, contradictory and chaotic things to bait the press into covering him, despite his clear statement that he is out of ideas and will turn things over to the governors.

Journalists are aware of this tactic, but still they fall for it. (I am guilty of that myself sometimes.) The answer is not to ignore him, but to de-center him.

To summarize: He is not the central character, the White House is not the “nerve center” for the national response, and his daily briefing is not a good way to update us on where we are. He said the governors are now calling the shots. Rather than try to see through it, journalists have to look squarely at that confession, and adapt to what it says.

Five: Track what you are doing.

None of this can work unless the producers of news know what they are spending scarce resources upon. How much space, how much time are you giving to Trump compared to other key actors— like the governors, or public health experts, or victims of his decision-making? How much attention is going to what he’s doing as against what he’s saying?

More questions: Who are you quoting most often? What are the triggers for the reports your newsroom is producing? Who are the implied protagonists? From whose point of view are your stories told? Who is visible in the frame— and who is invisible? Whose knowledge is considered authoritative?

Unless you are tracking these things you have no means for improving them.


Greg Chandler says:

I’m a reporter for a small weekly newspaper in Michigan. I have been a reporter for 30 years. I absolutely love this analysis. It drives me crazy that we have all these variations of the same story, such as what you describe. I also think a collaborative effort would have done wonders for increasing our understanding of this issue and just how complex it really is.

Thanks for testifying, Greg.

name required says:

Greg C says (commenting on the “5 improvements” post), “It drives me crazy that we have all these variations of the same story”

All these variations of the same story, that don’t make an effort to consider likely outcomes.

If eliminating the USPS eliminates the only physical comm channel where viewing or altering what’s inside the ‘envelope’ is considered a felony, what happens to the security and integrity of communication? And what does that break?

Maria Evans says:

So right! Thank you. When will news outlets do this?

That I cannot answer, sorry.

Monica Hynes Oayack says:

This is a great idea. I’m feeling overwhelmed with so much news on the same topic repeated over and again but I don’t want to tune out either.

Exactly. “I’m feeling overwhelmed but I don’t want to tune out.” Thanks, Monica.

Well, this is interesting for sure. I’ve known Dan for years, his office was across from me at ASU so I paid particular attention to that part which to me is the hardest. A long time ago I took pride in beating the other guys/gals. Now you are asking that we no longer worry about that. Fair enough but a huge change in what we do and how we do it. The other thing I worry about- and I’ll probably screw this up, but I have a theory of storytelling. How is the piece most powerful at getting my message across. ( ok, was it has been a while.) Others work differently. How do we settle on “The Way” Ok, I’m done

Barbara Malmet says:

All your points are well taken. Especially the one about Trump not being the center of the pandemic story, as hard as he works to be every day. Thanks, Jay.

I think this analysis is spot-on. I would add that to accomplish this, the news media needs to do what everyone else is having to do during this crisis–and I don’t just mean work from home and wear a mask. I mean, everyone is being asked to do their jobs differently, to sacrifice their comfort zones for the common good, to change their business models.

Tenants and landlords must negotiate. Homeowners and banks. City-state-federal governments must work across partisan lines and geographical borders. Healthcare workers must figure out how to manage multiple times the patient load without benefit of all the diagnostic tests and experience or vital equipment. Businesses need to provide essential products without worrying about charging the highest prices. Everyone needs to park their egos at the door, not think about prizes or beating the competition, but work together for the physical and psychological and economic well being

Andrew Dabrowski says:

One: Don’t you think there’s been enough consolidation of businesses, including in journalism, already? Do we really want a single consortium making decisions for multiple news outlets?

Two: There’s some tension here with One: If you keep telling us, day after day, what’s still true, there will be a lot duplication of effort.

Suggestion: Forget about One. The presence of multiple outlets telling the same story preserves independent views and keeps the Still True in view.

Cooperation in a business that relishes scoops and being first to report is a tough hill to climb and leads us to an even tougher and problematic solution: non-profit press consortia.

Newspapers also must be free and widely delivered to doorsteps nationwide to combat people’s reliance on the free cable news programs and the still popular but worthless nightly news programs, both of which have many inherent problems–fomenting of conflict, reliance on visuals, opinions, time constraints (90-sec. stories and 4-min segments with the standard 30-sec. window each talking head must conform to on cable shows), and “analysis” instead of news you can use.

Repeating the same info., though updated, requires relinquishing valuable video or print real estate that might be better used (in the minds of publishers) to capture eyeballs. I recently suggested to The Wash. Post to keep a box on its home page with daily reporting of Trump’s lies, flip-flops and misinformation.

Good idea, Jay, but getting there will be tough absent, as you suggest, a massive investment by rich do-gooders.

I’m an ordinary person, old, (74) with children and grandchildren, retired from a useful life. I celebrate this article. Phew – at last the youngies are becoming empowered and making it their world. Please, please do this. Cooperate. Make your world. Kill the monster – figuratively of course.

Serena ~ Texas says:

I love this idea too! It is so discouraging to see: one thing after another and yet ~ the same thing over and over about how we STILL DON’T have the testing we need and the latest outlandish thing Trump has said or done AGAIN everyday.

I feel beat down. The additional stress lowers our immunity. We can’t afford this! I beg of you ~ journalists, please help us Americans. And by helping us ~ you help you and your loved ones as well as helping the world.

We need you! Step up to the plate. Our lives, our loved ones lives and all of our futures are at stake. Please put people first ~ above profit and above who gets which story first. Scientists are having to work together to come up with a vaccine and any other information that will help us during this time. And scientists are notoriously competitive.

Healthcare workers, First Responders, people working in transportation, along with those that work in grocery stores and many others are putting their lives at risk to save ours and to be able to put food on the table for their families and to have a roof over their heads.

So, what do you say ~ ladies and gentlemen ~ will you get together and give us the information we need to get through our day-to-day lives during this tragic and oh-so scary time? Will you help us in our present day ~ so as many of us as possible may have a future?

With much hope,

A lot of news on the same topic, I am for everyone to do their own thing.

Interesting thoughts.

End duplication, work together, publish at the same time.

Isn’t that what press agencies, such as AP, are for? (And Climate Now, as you already mention.)