The extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic and the widespread isolation we are enduring presents challenges — but more so new opportunities — for journalism and journalism education. We can use this moment to rethink what we do and why.
First, given the challenges, it is vital that journalists cut back to the essential value of reporting. Ask whether what you’re doing actually informs the public. Ask whether what you’re assigning endangers the journalist and the public.
This means that we should, for starters, get rid of the meaningless TV location shot. I saw a poor sod standing in Times Square for 11 hours yesterday, reporting for MSNBC, telling us that, well, there were still people there, just not as many as usual. Why? How did that improve my chances of surviving the pandemic? What information did that add to my decision-making? What did the reporter gather that a static webcam could not have? Nothing. And how much did it endanger him and his crew? We can’t know.
I see print reporters going out to ask people how they feel standing in line for toilet paper. And photographers are sent out to get pictures that tell us there are lines of people waiting for that toilet paper. Same question: Why? What does that tell me that affects my decisions? So stop. The world is not a stage and journalists are not set designers. Stop treating the public as a background. Do only those things that inform. (And if you want those images to tell me what I already know about toilet paper being gone, you can ask nicely of many people on Instagram and use their pictures, perhaps paying them.)
At the same time, I am delighted to report that this weekend, on MSNBC (above), I saw Betsy Woodruff Swan commenting from her living room via Skype. I cheered. There is *no* reason to drag her into the studio and expose her to germs and her germs to others (not that she would have any). She, as always, delivered clear and concise reporting and commentary to a camera and it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference where that camera is.
Many years ago, my children, I helped pioneer cable news use of the remote webcam when a blizzard prevented me from making it into MSNBC’s studios for a blog report. I set up a cam at home. The video was jumpy, but then-network-head Rick Kaplan thought it looked edgy and so webcams were all the vogue for a few months, until they weren’t. Such is TV.
Well, technology has advanced much since then. Skype is good. There are countless experts who can be brought on the air from their homes and offices anywhere in the world to expand the perspectives offered to the public without endangering them. That should be the standard — not the exception. It will substantively improve TV. There is no reason for radio and print reporters to have to be face-to-face with every source to get useful information. For that, we always had the phone. Now we have the net.
Second, this crisis gives journalists the opportunity to learn to listen to the public — to citizens and witnesses, to experts and decision-makers — in new ways. In only a few hours the other day, I found a wealth of experts — doctors, epidemiologists, academics — who are speaking directly with each other and with the public on Twitter and made a list for all to see. I have learned so much from them. We can get more perspectives and more data from more authoritative sources this way. Certainly, journalists have been going to social media to find sources for some time. But now, in the time of disinformation, the need to focus on more ways to find credible sources is only greater; the opportunities only more plentiful. This is no longer about journalists setting the agenda with our questions. Today I was reading tweets from doctors coming straight from having intubated patients, talking with other doctors about why they are skipping from oxygen masks to tubes. I never would have thought to ask them about this. From reading what they share, I am learning so much.
Even more importantly, we have the opportunity to use social media to find people who are in the midst of the story. On social media, I see heartbreaking and heartwarming tales from China and Italy about what people are enduring: witnesses and participants giving us a possible preview of what is in store for the United States. Journalists can also ask the public what they need to know, what they are going through, what information and experience they have to share. That is what the net makes possible. Let us use it.
Third, we in journalism should learn to develop new muscles to convene communities, to bring people together just as they are feeling their most isolated. Our international quarantining will make everyone feel apart and lonely. The job of the social journalist — as we teach at the Newmark J-school — is to recognize how communities define themselves and then to help convene them. We couldn’t do this with our old, mass-media tools — paper and airwaves — but we can with the new tools of social media. So how can we act as community organizers, to help make people feel less lonely, to show them their commonality, to make strangers less strange and fearsome, to answer their shared questions, to help them share answers and support each other, to help them deliberate their desires? These are our opportunities.
So to hell with the macho of old shoe-leather, green-eyeshade journalism. I don’t give a damn how many miles you drove or walked or subwayed to take in the scene. I want to see what valuable information you bring me to help me make decisions in my life and community. Screw the old man-on-the-street. I don’t want to hear from random passers-by; I want to hear from experts and authorities and people who care enough to share what they are experiencing. Screw your need for the clichéd scene-setting image. I’d rather have data that you gather and analyze and explain and present to help me make a decision. Shoe-leather won’t do that. Reporting will. Journalism will.
This pandemic comes at a time when every news organization is stretched thin trying to do what it used to do with fewer people to do it. So stop. Stand back and ask people what they need and find new ways, better ways to get it for them. Judge your value not on how hard you worked or how far you went or how much it cost your bosses to do what you do. Judge your value on how much you inform the public’s decisions.
Our advantage is that a novel coronavirus is novel. It’s new. It’s easier to make new habits in reporting this event than it is to break old habits in the reporting of, say, campaigns — and those are habits that damned well deserve breaking. So let’s use this as an opportunity to learn. The media I follow has been doing a good job with the coronavirus story — a much better job than they do in politics. Maybe there are lessons to be taught to the political press corps here.
On Twitter I saw a fellow journalism teacher from another university brag about his students breaking rules to find new ways to put out their college paper. I joined in and said it’s the rule breaking that is the greatest lesson right now. I hope that years hence, our students can look back and say that during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, they explored and experimented and asked and learned new ways to do journalism. It’s our job as teachers and newsroom veterans to help them learn so they can teach each other — and us. It’s also our responsibility to see that in this crisis, they are safe and able to do their important work.