What is the proper role of community newspapers at a time of national crisis?
Stand up for the truth. And for community.
This isn’t about the election, or about the presidential transition, which hopefully will have begun by the time you read this. It’s about the novel coronavirus.
With winter and the holiday season here, the virus is out of control, especially in rural areas, and we’re more at risk than ever – partly because millions of Americans have mistaken beliefs about it.
The most extreme example we’ve seen: A South Dakota emergency-room nurse told CNN that she has seen many covid-19 patients continue to deny that the virus exists, right up until they die from it. (That’s in a story on The Rural Blog at tinyurl.com/y3b98e92.)
Changing strongly held beliefs is not a job for newspapers. But not all beliefs are strongly held, and a lot of people aren’t sure what to believe – partly because social media dominate the debate and amplify the extremes.
News media can still play their traditional filtering and moderating roles as they provide factual information, and community newspapers are in an ideal position to do that because they have a higher level of trust among their audiences than news outlets in larger communities.
However, many community editors are naturally reluctant to get too far into the business of telling people what to do or what to believe, especially on a topic that is so politicized and so divisive – and probably growing more so in places where surges in cases have led to new restrictions.
Editors from Rapid City and Lincoln said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Nov. 22 that they have three kinds of readers, as Lincoln Journal Star Editor Dave Bundy described them: those who say "Just give me the data;" those who say "Tell me what I can and can’t do;" and those who say "Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. . . . There’s covid fatigue, there’s covid conspiracy; there’s a lot of things at work." (See tinyurl.com/y6eza5fk.)
Most pandemic coverage in community newspapers seems to be about data: numbers of coronavirus cases, covid-19 hospitalizations, and so on. In chronological context, that conveys the local magnitude of the pandemic. But there are fewer stories about why the numbers are going up; is it bars, restaurants, social gatherings, or what?
Health officials have some idea of that, through their contact-tracing efforts. Unfortunately, many state and local health agencies haven’t done the best job of explaining the “why” or the specific reasons for emergency orders, such as mask mandates, or the research that supports them. They may make a point once or twice, but even important points need repeating to have impact.
Newspapers can and should do all of that, as well as debunk common misconceptions about the virus and measures to thwart it. Plenty of good information is available, but often it needs to be translated for general audiences. Too often, local newspapers just fill a hole with a medical article that is too dense or too long to get much readership.
Translating such information for the local audience is important. Stat, the medicine-and-science publication of The Boston Globe, says “Retention of health messaging is lower in rural areas,” so “It must be tailored to communities, recognizing cultural norms and engaging local community leaders.” The Rural Blog excerpted that article at tinyurl.com/y497gttq.
Newspapers need to go beyond the data and the science and write the stories of people affected by the virus, and the health-care workers who are fighting it, to bring home how serious it can be. With urban hospitals filling up, they can’t accept covid-19 patients who need to be transferred for a higher level of care, so “People are going to die,” the hospital chief of staff in Canadian, Texas, told The Canadian Record. The Rural Blog excerpted Laurie Ezzell Brown’s story at tinyurl.com/y6kgd3ka.
Laurie put that story on her editorial page, and it’s an example of the leadership that newspapers need to exercise at a time like this. Too many local officials, fearful of controversy, aren’t leading enough on the issue, and in many communities they could use some bucking up. A well-argued editorial can do that. It can also be a voice of reason at a time when people are upset about new state mandates, as Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in very rural eastern Oregon showed in an editorial published on The Rural Blog at https://irjci.blogspot.com/p/dispatches.html.
Les wrote, “Those who doubt the virus is real or serious are deluding themselves and likely putting their families and friends at risk. . . . Too many people are still clinging to the fallacy that is it their right not to wear a mask and to hold large family gatherings. Every credible medical expert, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to our local hospital professionals, say the simple act of wearing a mask is now the single most important step we can all take. . . . We need to react as if a wildfire is burning towards town, threatening every home. We need to act as if we’re being invaded by an enemy – which we are.”
Of course, the people who most need this information are likely those who aren’t newspaper readers, and who are most likely to be misled by other media. So, to reach every household in your county, you should try a sample-copy edition, perhaps subsidized by local governments or health agencies. At least two newspapers in Kentucky have done this, and it’s helped their counties keep infections down.
Some may think wading into this battle is bad for business, at a time when business is already bad. Yes, that may be a risk, and each local publisher and editor has the best sense of that, so they must steer their own course. But what they cannot do, in my opinion, is ignore the fundamental changes in our media landscape. Social media are flooding us with divisive opinion and must be countered with a flood of facts, from trusted sources. Those are you.
By Al Cross
This is a newspaper. It reports facts. To do that, we verify information, or we attribute it to someone else. That is called the discipline of verification, and it is the essence of a craft called journalism, which you find in news media.
There are two other types of information media: social media, which have no discipline, much less verification; and strategic media, which try to sell you something: goods, services, ideas, politicians, causes, beliefs, etc.Newspapers once relied on one form of strategic media, advertising, for most of their income. Today, social media get more of the ad money, so newspapers must get more income from the only other reliable place they can get it: their readers, in the form of subscriptions or single-copy sales. As you might guess, we prefer subscribers, so we hope to earn your respect and loyalty.
How do we do that? By being honest and straightforward about our business.
That means we must separate fact from opinion, reserving our own views for the editorial page. Of course, our views have some influence over what news we choose to cover, so if you think we’re not covering what should be covered, or have failed to separate fact from opinion, or make another mistake, we want you to tell us. You can do that privately, or publicly, in the form of a letter to the editor. If you raise an important issue that we think needs wider perspective, we may invite you to join us in a discussion on social media, and perhaps bring that discussion into the newspaper itself.
We want to hear from you. We are in the business of holding others accountable, so we must be accountable to you.
Accountability journalism is necessary if our democratic republic is to function the way the Founding Fathers intended. That’s why they put the First Amendment in the Constitution. It gives us great freedom, but with that freedom comes a great responsibility. If you think we are not living up to that legacy, please tell us.
That’s fewer than 350 words, about the length of a little-longer-than-usual letter to the editor in most papers. We need more letters from the editor, not just statements of general principle, but explanations of how and why we do certain things. If we demand transparency from officials and institutions, we must practice it ourselves. And build our brand at the same time.