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Why we're doing so much reporting on coronavirus

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Posted at 6:31 PM, Mar 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-11 10:34:06-04

As News 5’s digital director, I spend a lot of time in the comment section of our Facebook page. I know, I know. This can’t be good for my mental health, right?

Wrong!

Our commenters are witty and thoughtful, and they care deeply about Northeast Ohio. I learn a lot from them. The knowledge, discoveries or frustrations they share sometimes lead us towards new stories. Our comment section is pretty great.

Normally.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend. There is a small but vocal group of people who think we’re stoking unnecessary panic with our coronavirus coverage. Which led me to ask, because I am nothing as a journalist if not constantly riddled with doubt: Are we?

I take all criticism pointed at our station to heart, because we are an organization that is run by humans, and humans make mistakes, and when we make a mistake I want us to be able to figure out what happened so we can put systems in place to prevent a repeat of whatever dumb thing we did.

Here’s what I’d like everyone who gets their news from us to know: Balancing our coronavirus coverage in a way that attempts to reflect reality is something we’ve been discussing over here a lot. We’re quite aware that there’s a way to report this story that makes it sound like the world is coming to an end. (It’s not. We will not report that the world is coming to an end until we have it on the record from two sources. You have my word.) Our focus right now is on reporting the overall impact, government management and the human element of this public health threat in a manner that raises public awareness.

Yet that's not how our reporting is perceived by some.

Let me tell you – I get it.

If it was 2002, you might see a coronavirus story on the front page of your newspaper, with a sidebar about washing your hands, and you’d see some public official talking about it at the top of the 6 p.m. news and then maybe a late-night talk show host would make a joke about it, and that would be the totality of your exposure to news about the coronavirus that day. You'd talk about it at work. Your workplace, school or place of worship would also raise awareness. You'd learn, but discoveries would not feel constant.

That looks like trouble, you might say, I better wash my hands and call grandma.

But it’s not 2002. It’s 2020, and you have a cell phone, and that cell phone is linked to web sites and social media accounts that fire-hose news at you whether you want it or not. Which may lead you to wonder, “What’s all the fuss over this illness that a total of three people in Ohio have?”

If I didn’t work in news, I might wonder, too.

So here’s what this story looks like from inside our newsroom.

We have spoken to health experts, and coronavirus poses a threat to those who come into contact with it. While there is not enough data yet to pin down an exact mortality rate, some estimate it may be as high as 3.4%, although that number is likely to come down as health systems report milder cases. Let’s get conservative and assume it’s 1% for everyone, with that percentage rising for the old and infirm. That’s a shockingly high number of potential deaths. Halt its spread and the death count goes down.

From our perspective, we have this slow-moving and possibly preventable tragedy, which our federal, state and city leaders are calling a threat, one that has already ravaged a nursing home in Washington and has killed scores of other Americans. Scientists are racing towards a vaccine. Hospital systems are mobilizing. Citizens are self-quarantining. Businesses are halting unnecessary air travel. Plans are in place for people to telecommute to work. Colleges are suspending in-person classes. Concerts are being canceled. Political leaders are calling for the suspension of large public events such as pro and college sports games. Just now, as I was writing this, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden canceled their appearances in Cleveland tonight.

Against this backdrop, health officials are getting in front of cameras and telling people to wash their hands, and officials are encouraging people to stock up on food in case they need to self-quarantine. They’re telling the elderly to stay home and avoid large crowds.

To not cover this in a manner that is thorough would be negligent, and we’d be subjected to a different line of criticism. What are you hiding? Why won’t you tell people what’s going on? Your cover-ups are getting people killed.

You probably don’t know this – in all fairness, it’s not something you need to think about – but our newsroom is filled with people who care about you. Reporting the news can be a grind, and for any of us to do our jobs well, it can’t just be about a paycheck. You have to care about the work, and the work for us is keeping the people of Northeast Ohio informed and, when we have the opportunity, safe. You go into this business because you love and you care about people.

We’re doing our best to report this story responsibly, and I’m not trying to cop out here, but when it feels like the fire-hose is coming at you, keep this in mind: The many ways in which the news reaches you in 2020 is beyond our control, which is a notion that I covered previously in The Wrong Story Fallacy.

In that piece I wrote:

We post about 40 stories a day on Facebook, but many of our followers rarely see them. Because of the way Facebook surfaces news stories into your feed, if you’re seeing a report from us, odds are that it’s because it’s generating a big reaction. That, or you’re seeing our stories because you’re a super-duper loyal News 5 follower, in which case, thank you.

To which I’ll now add:

On social media, the type of content you interact with in the present is more likely to reappear on your feed in the future. You may see a couple coronavirus stories because they are generating a big reaction among your friends and family on social media, and when you choose to interact with those stories, you’re increasing the likelihood you will see more of them, because social media algorithms adjust to your preferences, and reacting to a piece of information in your feed tells the all-knowing algorithm that this content is valuable to you.

Once a story is published on our site, its destination is beyond our control. An irony of news consumption in 2020 is that a comment about the media spreading panic only increases the visibility of the story to which that individual is objecting.

As this story continues to unfold, please know that it is with great seriousness that we report on this public health threat, and we do so with no agenda in mind, other than the health and well-being of the people of Northeast Ohio.

For more information about coronavirus, you can turn to our site for information and resources, as well as the latest updates.

Joe Donatelli is the digital director at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Facebook @joedonatelli1 and Twitter @joedonatelli. Have a question about how we report the news? Email joe.donatelli (at) wews.com.