Journalists brave danger to report on coronavirus

Barbie Zelizer, director of the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication, says there are four types of dangers journalists are facing while reporting on COVID-19.

A reporter and a cameraman wear protective clothing and masks while reporting on the coronavirus from the field.
History will remember the coronavirus through reports filed by journalists across the globe, many of whom are putting their health and, for some, their lives at risk in order to cover the pandemic from the front lines.

Barbie Zelizer, the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication, associate dean for research, and director of the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication, says on top of the dire economic straits, there are four types of risks that journalists are facing while covering COVID-19: health, political, technological, and occupational.

She spoke with Penn Today about these risks, how journalists should mitigate them, the criticism the media has faced, and how reporting in the current environment is similar to a war zone.

Barbie Zelizer, the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication, associate dean for research, and director of the Center for Media at Risk.
Barbie Zelizer, the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication and director of the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication.

The answer is very obvious, but how are journalists putting their health in danger by covering the coronavirus?

You can’t really cover a story very well from isolation or self-quarantine. The health risks are primary because journalists are experiencing what everybody else is experiencing in terms of social distancing, self-isolating, quarantining. But it’s particularly intense for journalists because they have to put those risks aside in order to do their job. This gets resolved at certain levels by drawing up definitive action plans around what journalists need to do, and that often involves the adjustment of reportorial conventions and routines. I saw one picture of a journalist holding up a sign as she walked down a line of people who I think were waiting to get into Costco, and the sign laid out the question that she was asking, if anybody had anything that they could share information-wise. Similarly, journalists are no longer using clip microphones. They’re trying to use microphones that can pick up sound from a greater distance. Both of these adjustments are small ways for journalists to minimize health risks while doing the work required of them.

But the primacy of physical and mental health risks is not going to get better and is not going to go away. So I think that we’re going to see lots more modification of conventions that are putting journalists at risk. And, of course, one has to mention that freelancers are experiencing the biggest health risks because they’re going out and getting the story, and then trying to find some enterprise to pick it up afterwards. It’s not like they have any organization that’s behind them or that’s giving them health insurance, so the health risks remain particularly large for them.

A lot of journalism these days is done by reporting from a computer, i.e. aggregation, and not necessarily out in the field. Why can’t you cover a story like this from self-quarantine?

There are only certain kinds of stories you can get from a remote location, the same way there are only certain kinds of teaching that you can engage in from a remote location. What being at home does is it reduces the full spread of information that’s out there, it constrains the kinds of stories that one might produce, and it minimizes the information writ large that the public will have regarding a story. So, there’s no question that there is still value to getting on the scene, wherever the scene might be.

Is there a point when it becomes too risky for journalists to report from locations and they should stop putting themselves in danger?

I don’t think there’s a point at which all journalism shouldn’t be doing its job. I do think there are multiple points at which particular journalists should decide not to be covering something. Clearly, if doing your job entails such risk, don’t do it: For instance, if you are a journalist with a preexisting condition or if you’re over 60, I don’t think you should be out covering a story. Stay at home to do instead the kind of work that does not put you at risk. Journalists need to be asking themselves all the time, ‘Is this worth endangering my health, life, livelihood, future?’

What political risks are journalists facing?

This is a perfect storm for autocrats and authoritarians to control the news, and to use what is happening right now as an opportunity to push back on civil liberties. This takes all kinds of forms. We saw that China expelled reporters from three different U.S. news organizations, The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Expulsions are, I think, going to become more central than they may have been otherwise. But censorship, monitoring coverage, and otherwise pushing back on information dissemination are other forms of political risks. We’re seeing these actions now not only in China, but in Russia, in Venezuela, in Turkey, in Egypt, Hungary, Azerbaijan. Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists this week said that the pandemic is spawning a crackdown on press freedom around the globe. And then of course in the U.S., where we have Trump offering a particular narrative about this particular virus that isn’t backed up by science. That kind of misinformation means that the science of the story is being infused with the politics of the story, and that’s a very dangerous place for us to be.

What risks are there regarding technology?

How to keep information safe. What we’re seeing already is an increase in trolling and scamming and hacking of journalists that is only going to increase. This is a risk that changes as we use it: We’re now hearing that ZOOM meetings—a possible place to conduct a journalistic interview—aren’t end-to-end encrypted. So, any story that a reporter is doing that has to do with COVID-19 sets up itself and the journalist writing it as a target. This is exacerbated by the fact that the unfolding nature of the story means that we don’t have enough stable knowledge about COVID-19. Thus, journalists are increasingly going to unfamiliar sites to try and carve out new aspects of what we know, but unfamiliar sites, of course, often bring with them technological risks.

And the fourth risk is occupational risks?

Yes. I feel the occupational risks connected to covering COVID-19 are particularly dire. I have long been saying this pre-COVID-19, but journalism is way overdue for an occupational reset. There should be no more both sides to a story, no more news from nowhere, no more play to balance and impartiality, no more deference, moderation, and euphemism. In that regard, the circumstances surrounding this pandemic could be used as an occupational opportunity to change some of the outdated and ineffective practices in journalism. I don’t know if that’s actually going to occur, but we are experiencing a real need to let go of many of the occupational conventions and routines that journalists have long tended to rely on. This is a science story, not a political story, and so we really have to change the orientation by which journalists are reporting it.

In what ways do you think the orientation should be changed?

All reporters are in a way becoming health reporters. And what that means is that we have to change the narrative. This is about informing, not dramatizing, frightening, offering clickbait, or drawing eyes to a particular story. It’s about providing information in a clear and even-keeled manner. There are all kinds of ways that journalists could be doing this more effectively. For instance, they could be selecting and presenting more careful pictures. I know that there was one picture, I think it was in January in Wuhan, that showed a dead body lying in the street, and it wasn’t clear whether that person had died from COVID-19. But it was used as a stand-in for the many deaths of local Wuhan individuals. That kind of utilization of images doesn’t help anyone. Additionally, journalists could be more focused on using numbers than anecdotes, or on highlighting the preventative dimensions of the story alongside the reports of death and devastation. Journalists could be letting go of the horse-race narrative, which is where politics begin to rear its head. They could be doing more reporting and less analysis, and they could be exhibiting more careful engagement with a larger number of sources, because most experts don’t really know very much about this pandemic. It is evolving as we’re experiencing it, so journalists need to know that experts may not be able to provide the information that they need. That obligates them to find other modes of sourcing that better fit the story.

Journalists also need to know how to tamp down drama, which in its present form is not helping the public understand what is happening. They could be using less dramatic adjectives and other words of choice. Just this week, the Philadelphia Inquirer online labeled the number of COVID-19 cases ‘a tsunami’ rather than a surge, increase, or intensification. Not only is the term ‘tsunami’ metaphorical rather than precise, but it also connotes danger and cultivates emotions of intense fear and panic. Similarly, speaking of drama, we should be cutting out all live coverage of Trump’s press conferences. It’s really important to recognize that Trump is a source of misinformation, but that some information is embedded in the lies, exaggerations, and falsehoods that he uses to deliver his message. That information needs to be covered, but the lies need to be edited out and context needs to be provided around what he is suggesting or the rules that he’s setting in place. You can’t do that when you’re doing live coverage of a newscast. Live coverage of Trump’s pressers needs to absolutely go, and edited recaps need to take its place.

Do you think that is something U.S. news organizations would consider?

I think that it’s something that a number of news organizations have already adopted or are considering. I’m not the only person suggesting this: NYU’s Jay Rosen of has been proposing it repeatedly, while conservative figure Bill Kristol called the press briefings ‘praise briefings.’ This is not about not covering Trump; it’s about not covering the president live in order to figure out what needs to actually be covered. The only way to really bleep out the misinformation and the lies is to have control over the broadcast, and you don’t have that control when you simply have a camera trained on the president, ready to capture and disseminate whatever he says.

Some people have criticized the media and accused it of exaggerating the severity of the coronavirus and spreading mass hysteria. What do you think about the criticism?

The Pew Research Center came out with a study a few days ago that said that most Americans think the media has been doing a pretty good job on the story. It also said that more Republicans than Democrats think that the media has been somewhat exaggerating risks.

Much of this has to do with what I’ve already laid out, with old ways of gathering and presenting the news that need to be retired in covering COVID-19. If journalists can adjust their coverage to the contours of an informative science story, the tendency to exaggerate and dramatize may go by the wayside. If you change the orientation, if you change the genre, if you change the language, if you change the visuals, you may be able to offer a different kind of journalism that doesn’t overexaggerate risks. And that’s what we need right now.

These are unique times. Is there anything in the past that you can compare the current journalism environment to? It almost seems like reporting from a war zone.

The obvious comparison is to war zones or natural disasters. These are time periods in which everything in the news organization or platform kind of stops in order to focus on one new, evolving bigger story. This is what sociologist and journalism scholar Gaye Tuchman long ago called the ‘what-a-story’; where the allocation of resources and other dimensions of newsmaking are adjusted to accommodate the reportage of one common story. It’s the story that pushes all other coverage to the side and takes over as the kind of guiding content for how a news organization’s provision of information will be shaped. So when you have a ‘what-a-story,’ you get sports journalists and education journalists all of a sudden doing health coverage. The ‘what-a-story’ often happens in wartime and natural disaster, indeed, in any kind of national emergency.

So yes, the comparison is real. But the two are also a bit different. Right now, the risks are so fluid and so unstable that it’s hard to know even how to shape the bigger story. In covering war and natural disasters, we have a template that news organizations tend to adopt, where one war’s coverage might look very similar to that of another war. And though reporting other health crises and epidemics also has its own template, earlier ones didn’t have the kind of global attention that we see now with this pandemic. There’s not really a clear template here because much of the story is being made as we go through it, and because making the story puts journalists so much at risk. And the risks themselves are changing.