Spotlighting undercovered news: Northeastern students reach beyond the headlines

COVID infections are down both nationally and in Massachusetts. Photo (cc) 2020 by
Daniele Marzocchi.

Previously published at GBH News.

In a time of national crisis — make that crises — there’s plenty of important news that gets overlooked. Vaccine delays, President Joe Biden’s economic-rescue package and, of course, Impeachment: The Sequel have overshadowed other topics to which we ought to be paying attention.

Every semester, I ask my journalism ethics students at Northeastern University to come up with a list of undercovered stories. Their answers are always intriguing. Invariably they find Washington, D.C., politics to be less compelling than what’s going on internationally and locally.

From a farmers’ strike in India to Australia’s crackdown on Google and Facebook, from good news about the coronavirus to still more good news about struggling Massachusetts cities like Chelsea and Brockton, my students have come through with stories we all ought to know more about. Even better, they’ve pretty much written my column for me this week.

Here are some highlights. The ranking is mine, but the ideas are all theirs.

7. Pandemic puppies. The isolation created by COVID-19 has led to an enormous upsurge in pet adoption — which, in turn, has fueled demand for purebred puppies, a problematic development for anyone who cares about animal welfare.

“During lockdown, puppies appealed both to single people facing months without human contact and to desperate parents seeking playmates for their lonely, screen-addicted children,” according to the Robb Report.

But as Robb and The Guardian reported, this demand has kept so-called puppy mills in business and has given rise to dogs that are genetically predisposed to health issues such as epilepsy and immune-system disorders.

6. Chelsea morning. During the pandemic, the news out of low-income cities in the Boston area such as Chelsea and Brockton has usually been bad — people of color working in service jobs and living in cramped quarters have had some of the highest rates of disease in the state.

This challenge, though, has also created an opportunity for activists to improve life in the state’s gateway communities. The Boston Globe’s “On The Street” series has documented some of those efforts. In Chelsea, for instance, Roseann Bongiovanni, the executive director of GreenRoots, told the Globe that the pandemic has led to new levels of cooperation among the city’s social-service providers.

“We’ve really broken down the silos,” Bongiovanni was quoted as saying. “I think post-pandemic you’re going to see a lot of collaboration, and this might give us an opportunity to think about the larger structural issues. Like why are so many people in Chelsea food insecure? Why is it that Chelsea was so sick?”

5. A revolution in sports viewing. In some parts of the mediasphere this is very big news indeed: The New York Times reports that NBCUniversal is shutting down the NBC Sports Network, moving some of its programming to the USA Network and — of more relevance — some of it to Peacock, its internet streaming service.

As more and more viewers are cutting cable and moving to streaming, media companies are attempting to move with them. The result is a dizzying array of options that, when you add them up, start to look like the same high price tag that viewers were paying for cable for so many years.

Media executives in charge of sports programming have been slow to embrace streaming because their viewers tend to be older and more likely to stick with cable. Yet the revolution is coming. GeekWire observes that some NFL games are already being shown exclusively on Amazon Prime.

4. Down under with Big Tech. In a case that ought to be watched closely in the United States, Australian regulators are waging war against the American technology giants Google and Facebook. At issue: The Aussies are insisting that the platforms pay for the news content that they use. Google and Facebook say they’ll delete news from what they publish before they let that happen.

The BBC reported that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government has the right to set its own rules for how the internet is governed within its borders. “Let me be clear: Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia,” Morrison said. “That’s done in our parliament.”

At a time when disgust with Big Tech has led to calls for regulation in the U.S., the standoff in Australia is well worth keeping an eye on. Local news is in crisis. If Google and Facebook can be persuaded — or pressured — into helping to fund community journalism, it could make an enormous difference to news organizations’ bottom lines.

3. The feminization of unemployment. The pandemic-related economic collapse has hit different communities and groups of people in different ways. Some have hardly been affected. Others are really suffering. What few news organizations point out, though, is that the burden of lost jobs has been disproportionately borne by women.

In December, according to the National Women’s Law Center, 156,000 jobs were lost in sectors that traditionally employ women, while male-dominated jobs actually increased by 16,000. Overall, since February of last year, women have lost more than 5.4 million jobs, amounting to 55% of net job losses since the beginning of the pandemic. The situation is even worse among Black and Latina women, the center reports.

This trend, though, has not broken through in media reports. A recent article in The New York Times made little mention of the disproportionate effect of pandemic-related unemployment on women, and a Washington Post story made no mention of it at all.

2. Farmers’ strike in India. One of the biggest stories on the planet right now is getting scant attention from the American media. Tens of thousands of farmers in India, the world’s largest democracy, are on strike, protesting attempts by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to impose new laws that they say will make it harder for them to sell their crops at a fair price.

According to The New York Times, one of the few U.S. outlets to cover the strike in any detail, the farmers’ action represents a significant challenge to Modi. Hartosh Singh Bal of The Caravan, a New Delhi-based magazine, wrote in a Times op-ed: “For the first time in six years, Mr. Modi is encountering opposition that he has not been able to stifle or tar with his extensive propaganda machinery.”

Modi is one of a number of authoritarian-minded rulers who have dominated the international stage in recent years. But now Russia’s Vladimir Putin faces massive protests. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is losing popularity over his handling of the pandemic and corruption. And, of course, former President Donald Trump is gone after encouraging an inept but deadly assault on Congress. Seen in that context, the challenges facing Modi may be further evidence that the autocratic wave has crested.

1. Good news on COVID-19. Despite the shimmering promise of highly effective vaccines that, so far, not nearly enough people have been able to get, the day-to-day news about the pandemic remains grim. Hospitals in some parts of the country are full, dangerous new variants are spreading across the globe and the U.S. death toll will likely hit an unimaginable 500,000 in a few weeks.

Yet the curve of new cases nationwide is trending sharply downward, The New York Times reports. In Massachusetts, too, the most recent surge is easing, from a seven-day average of more than 6,000 new daily cases in mid-January to around 3,400 today, as this Boston Globe chart shows. Maybe it’s because enough people have now been vaccinated to make a difference. Maybe it’s because admonitions about masking and social-distancing are being taken more seriously. Or maybe it’s just a lull before the next storm.

Regardless, fewer cases and fewer deaths are good news for all of us — and a reminder that, just like pandemics of decades past, this one, too, will end.