Grady College asked news managers with experience in local and national media how outlets should cover the coronavirus pandemic.
Bob Furnad is 50-year veteran in broadcast news production and management with ABC and CNN among others on his resume. He served as president of CNN Headline News before retiring He also was a visiting associate professor at Grady College in the early 2000s.
Grady: In a global pandemic, how should a local/national news organization prioritize what to cover?
Caitlyn Stroh-Page: Every community is going to be different in this answer, but we mirrored our population’s needs. The most pertinent issues in Athens were related to local businesses, food insecurity, the university and local government reaction. The ripple effect from the pandemic hits everyone and everything but, given our resources, we covered breaking news and tried to pick the things that would help our neighbors and inform Athenians best.
Bob Furnad: Whenever the news is provided, print, online or broadcast, the latest news which advances the story editorially leads your reporting with a recap of earlier developments. If it’s appropriate to freshen the story because of real or self-imposed deadline and there is no new development, create a bullet list of the known developments since last reported in the order they occurred.
Grady: What does an audience need and demand from news sources in tragic times?
Bob Furnad: A non-threatening presentation in either the written word or the spoken word. Indicate the lead as either “just in” or recap. A steady approach informs without creating panic. Include reporting the newest and if nothing new, the most significant. As much as possible, attribute observations rather than creating the appearance of acting as an expert observer. A seldom used approach if there is no outside observer could use an approach like, “some might say the fire seemed to…”.
Caitlyn Stroh-Page: Tragic times is a broad term, but there is one thing readers always need: transparent, credible information. Local news should act as your fact checkers, your resource megaphone and your hero highlighter in times of need.
We, in line with a greater trend in local media, elected to drop our paywall on coronavirus related coverage. This allowed readers to be informed and continue to use us as a resource, even if they were facing financial hardship.
Grady: How should news decision makers balance the medical aspects of the story and the economic ramifications?
Bob Furnad: Lead with the greater of the two. If the medical is threatening or otherwise alarming to one or few, use the words of an appropriate “expert” or someone well versed in the medical aspect. In print that’s obvious. In broadcast use a full-screen graphic of the quote. Then dive into the financial aspect.
The economic impact to an individual or to a body of individuals should be presented with how much impact there is positively or negatively for clarification. Again attribute. If the economic is greater than the medical, then lead as described as above
Grady: What can current Grady students learn from how news organizations cover coronavirus?
Caitlyn Stroh-Page: There is much to learn from this pandemic, but my two biggest points would be: 1) always push for government transparency and 2) be adaptable. Just like everyone, we had to figure out how to keep doing our jobs, while abiding by government and safety guidelines. Our sports writers are covering news, as needed. We are covering an evolving news event and trying to keep up, in order to keep our readers updated. It’s a test of journalistic agility.
Bob Furnad: Learn from an absence of any editorial self-discipline. The media are making the same mistakes in a lack of balance between the individuals contesting the election 2016 presidential campaign. This, even though the current situation being reported, is coverage of the C-19 epidemic and not a campaign event as such. The president is also a candidate.
Grady: Is there an aspect of local or national coverage that you think deserves more audience attention?
Caitlyn Stroh-Page: Many people could be getting fatigued by the day-to-day, minute-by-minute coverage at this point. It’s no less important now than it was weeks ago, but some want to know when we will return to normal. So, with that in mind, I think there are a lot of nuances of coronavirus that go under-noticed by readers. The biggest one I will highlight is the discrepancy between confirmed, reported cases and prevalence of COVID-19 in our community. We know that testing isn’t as available as it should be, and only those who pass a pre-screen will be tested. There are cases that are presumptive positives in the community that will never be recorded in statistics. On top of that, the numbers DPH reports twice daily only include the tests that have been confirmed positive, not negatives or what is still processing. Tests can take 7-10-plus days to process and return results. The Banner-Herald includes this information in its daily updates, but it’s hard to ensure readers understand how disparate the reported versus actual numbers could be.
Selfishly, I want people to know local newspapers are among businesses hardest hit by the economic downturn. While our readership numbers are up as people consume more news, our advertising and new subscription revenue has taken a nosedive. Businesses in our community have been forced to make difficult decisions, including suspending or significantly decreasing marketing budgets. Furloughs, layoffs, pay reductions and other cost-cutting measures have unfortunately been the response of the news industry to cover for lost revenue. The bottom line: it is increasingly more difficult to sustain the flow of vital local news to our readers.