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Briefing: The Journalist’s Job During a Global Pandemic

Max Bell School lecturers Cindy Skrzycki and David Shribman on the role and fate of news outlets during the COVID-19 pandemic

It isn’t only humans who are being ravaged by the current health emergency. It’s news outlets, particularly in the United States, that also are collateral damage to the scourge of the coronavirus.

There have been major tectonic shifts in the American media landscape in the past decade. There have been major shifts in the American media landscape in the past month. The combination has produced a continuing upheaval in how Americans report the news, how Americans receive the news, how Americans pay for the news, how Americans use the news, and how Americans define what news is.

At no other time in recent history have these questions become more urgent as a press strapped for cash tries to keep up with and get ahead of the events of the day: How to deliver devastating news on a minute-by-minute basis; how to cover the world at a time when the ranks of foreign correspondents have been severely diminished; how to avoid bias in coverage of an issue that has been politicized; how to constantly bring a new lens to coverage of a tragedy on multiple fronts; and, most importantly, how to pay for all this when advertisers have nothing to advertise.

The crisis has created have and have-nots in the media world. Giants like the New York Times muster all of their resources to cover the world of the virus, as does The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Other newspapers and smaller digital outlets are contracting rather than expanding, thinning the ranks of reporters to save money. Some are being revived for the moment as people look for news of the virus and how it affects their communities.

Finally, the reporters on the ground. Their job is to work around the clock and go deep into the fibers of this story and outrace the virus, health intact. Some already have been hit because you can’t cover the world’s biggest human-interest story without human contact. Six CBS journalists tested positive last week, one in Italy.

Where would we be if a free press was not there to discover that the coronavirus might never have turned into a pandemic if reporting of cases in Wuhan had been different from the beginning. Who would record the deaths in hospitals? Who would interview the experts to try to get a clearer picture of the pandemic? Who would parse the propaganda and outrageous statements coming out of the White House? Who would put out the call from front-line care workers for help?

The press makes mistakes. Big mistakes. But it also is on the front lines in stories like this one. Death can be one of the outcomes of staying in the trenches with a story that is dangerous and seemingly endless.

As Ernie Pyle, a celebrated World War II correspondent who covered multiple fronts in World War II and died doing it, said:

“At last we are in it up to our necks, and everything is changed, even your outlook on life.”

This briefing note was prepared by David, Shribman and Cindy Skrzycki in response to their webinar delivered on April 6, 2020. You can watch that webinar below.

Cindy Skrzycki

Senior Lecturer, Department of English, University of Pittsburgh and correspondent for GlobalPost

Former staff of the Washington Post

Core Policy Course: Information and Media Literacy for Public Policy

David Shribman

J.W. McConnell Professor of Practice at the Max Bell School of Public Policy

Awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his coverage of U.S. politics

Ten years as the Washington Bureau Chief of The Boston Globe

Core Policy Course: The U.S. Political and Policy Landscape

COVID-19 and Public Policy image of empty streets and airport

Policy Challenges During a Pandemic

Policy Challenges During a Pandemic is a series of webinars and briefing notes addressing policy aspects of the current public health crisis.


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