Our news system is designed for daily content production, not public understanding. In our current crisis we cannot afford that. Here are five ways of improving coronavirus coverage – though these methods can be used for covering any major structural development.

(1) End duplication, work together, and publish at the same time 

This idea comes from my friend Dan Gillmor His complaint is about the division of labour 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 organisations,” 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: a selection of news stories right after the pandemic reached the US. 

Politico, 7 March:

NBC News, 14 March:

The Guardian, 28 March:

The Washington Post, 4 April:

Associated Press, 6 April:

The New York Times, 11 April:

Rolling Stone, 12 April:

USA Today, 13 April:

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 we are with vaccine development, 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 organisations 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. Now we need it to find another gear and achieve a larger scale in coronavirus coverage. 

(2) 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, 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. 

The system as it stands tells us what’s new today. But we also need to know what’s true today

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 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 10 list that is updated and republished daily. Like a Google Form where you fill in these fields: 

Headline: How is the vaccine development going? 

Current rank:

Rank a week ago:

Description: No one who knows the subject says we can get out of this without a safe and effective vaccine. Pressure is growing to speed up the development process, but that could cause serious health risks.  

The latest:

Catch me up:

Do that 10 times, rank the items on your list, add design touches to make it attractive and easy to use, and republish 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. Created for consumers of the news, the index will also have uses for the producers.

(3) Treat confusion as a governing style

“Trump’s steroid Covid treatment adds to confusion over health” in The Guardian on 4 October.

“Trump’s Orders on Coronavirus Relief Create Confusion” The New York Times on 9 August.  

“Commander of confusion,” in The Washington Post on 2 April. “Trump sows uncertainty and seeks to cast blame in coronavirus crisis.”

Instead of reporting it as news each time it becomes too obvious to ignore, the press could begin to treat the manufacture of confusion as basic to the Trump government’s style of governance. Instead of a surprising or dismaying discovery, a consistent pattern. Rather than a sad sack whose bumbling leads to confusion, confusion as a political method.

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible – by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence.

Students of propaganda this as an emerging method among authoritarian governments. Journalists need to get better at pattern recognition.

(4) Dislodge Trump from his position as ‘protagonist’ of the coronavirus story 

It would greatly improve things if news producers actively decentred the president in accordance “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: 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 decentre him. 

To summarise: he is not the central character, the White House is not the “nerve centre” 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. 

(5) 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. 

This article was originally published on Jay Rosen’s blog, PressThink.

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