The Johnson & Johnson vaccine announcement and the limits of journalism

The suspension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over concerns about a vanishingly small number of blood-clotting issues is a perfect illustration of the limits of journalism.

My Twitter feed is filled with admonitions to the media saying that we should remind our audience of how rare this side effect has been — six total cases out of nearly 7 million vaccines. That’s much lower than the risk women face using birth control pills or, for that matter, much rarer than the risk of dying or becoming seriously ill from COVID. Just one example:

Fair enough. We should always strive to be responsible. But it was the government, not the media, that made this announcement. And if people become unnecessarily frightened into rejecting the J&J vaccine, or any vaccine, that’s on the government, not the media.

We get many things wrong. But we’re actually pretty good at passing along frightening announcements from official sources.

The ‘60 Minutes’ report on DeSantis is an unusually clear case of liberal media bias

It’s a rare day when we encounter as blatant an example of liberal media bias as in the “60 Minutes” report last Sunday on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s not that the mainstream media aren’t broadly liberal — they are. But such bias normally affects things like story selection and tone, and does not interfere with a fair presentation of the facts. Unfortunately, the botched story on DeSantis, a Republican, will be cited by conservatives for a long time as evidence that you just can’t trust the media.

So what happened? “60 Minutes” reported that DeSantis awarded a contract to the supermarket chain Publix to distribute COVID vaccines after Publix had made a $100,000 campaign donation to the governor’s political action committee. The governor refused to give “60 Minutes” an interview. But in a confrontation at a DeSantis news conference, “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi asserted that the vaccine contract was a “reward” and asked him: “How is that not pay to play?”

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There are two problems here. First, the story accurately describes the quid but never manages to nail down the quo. It would be strange indeed if Publix did not make campaign contributions to DeSantis, as he is a major political figure. Large businesses do what they have to do to get along. Moreover, Publix stores would be obvious, logical places for administering vaccines.

The system was far from perfect. The report points out that, in some cases, Publix markets are far from communities of color, requiring two bus rides in one example. But that doesn’t prove DeSantis acted as he did because Publix had given him money. As media ethics expert Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute puts it:

In the story, there was a direct line between the campaign contribution and the rewarding. And they never proved that. I think they owe it to everybody — they owe it to the governor, they owe it to Publix, they owe it to the public — to explain to us how they came to that conclusion.

Second, having watched the news conference confrontation as edited for broadcast and compared it to the full, unedited version (above), I think it’s clear that DeSantis’ remarks were edited to cast him in the worst possible light. Journalists are free to use as little or as much as they like of an interview or, in this case, remarks at a news conference. But they are not free to edit those remarks in a way that changes their meaning or leaves out important context.

Among the people who have come to DeSantis’ defense, according to The Palm Beach Post, is Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat. “They are hellbent on dividing us for cheap views and clicks,” Kerner said in a written statement. “‘60 Minutes’ should be ashamed.” (Not every elected Democrat agrees with Kerner, including County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.)

I doubt the problems with this story were the result of liberal bias in the sense of deliberately making things up in order to make DeSantis look bad. Nor do I think it was the only form of bias at work. There is the bias for confrontation and controversy, which is the most pervasive type of media bias that there is. There is the bias in favor of producing a “gotcha” story.

As for how liberal bias figures into this, I would say — and this is only guesswork, of course — that “60 Minutes” decided DeSantis had done a bad job of managing the COVID pandemic in Florida, and that he had been getting undeserved praise for reopening the state at a time when numbers are continuing to rise. So when Alfonsi confronted DeSantis with the revelation about Publix’s campaign contribution, she and her crew had already come to a conclusion and were simply looking for some good video to go with it.

Which brings us to another form of bias. As one of my graduate students said, the story also looks like an example of confirmation bias. “60 Minutes” didn’t take the necessary steps to verify its story because no one could see any problems with it. And that may be the most pernicious effect of all when it comes to having a newsroom that is populated almost exclusively by liberals.

Trust in the media is scraping the bottom, especially among Republicans. The “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis certainly doesn’t help.

The day classes were canceled, the NBA shut down and Trump freaked us out

Office building in Minneapolis. Photo (cc) 2020 by Chad Davis.

When was the first day you realized that COVID-19 was going to disrupt our lives — even though we didn’t know until later how long and hard that disruption would be?

In its anniversary package, GBH News decided on March 10, 2020, the day that Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. I wrote about covering a COVID news conference in Mendocino County, California, on March 5.

For me, though, the real anniversary is today. On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, we learned at a faculty meeting that classes would go remote the following day. That evening, the NBA shut down and Tom Hanks announced that he had COVID.

And in what would prove to be our final in-person meeting, my graduate ethics students and I watched Donald Trump deliver an Oval Office address that night about the coronavirus that was so unnerving it sent the Dow futures tumbling.

How independent local news survived the COVID pandemic

I hope you’ll take some time with GBH News’ special coverage of the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Called “A Year Apart: How COVID Changed Us,” the package comprises stories, commentaries and conversations, including an audio documentary called “How the Disaster Unfolded.”

I’ve got two pieces in the package — a reminiscence about experiencing the earliest phases of the pandemic while I was on a reporting trip in Mendocino County, California, and a conversation with GBH’s Arun Rath on how the pandemic has affected local news.

Short answer: Although it’s been a bad year for community journalism, especially in places served by newspapers owned by corporate chains and hedge funds, it hasn’t been quite as bad as many of us thought it would be. After a sickening plunge last spring, some newspapers — especially those that are independently owned, such as The Boston Globe and the Dorchester Reporter — stabilized, and early cuts were partially reversed.

Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News), Publishers, even told me that some of the organizations members did better in 2020 than they did in 2019, partly as a result of government assistance, partly because their audiences developed a new appreciation for what they do.

An ominous week in California — followed by a year of unimaginable loss

Previously published at GBH News.

Sometime in the evening on Thursday, March 5, 2020, I settled in at the bar of the Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah, California. I’d had a long day of interviews, driving out to the Pacific coast and back through the redwood forests of Mendocino County, and I wanted dessert, a glass of wine and a chance to decompress.

Throughout the week, the news about the novel coronavirus had been getting more ominous. Flights were being canceled, and I told my wife I was concerned about making it home. But at that early stage of what would become a worldwide pandemic, I wasn’t worried about getting sick — not even when a half-dozen laughing, inebriated young women pressed up behind me.

I’d begun my day at the county offices in Ukiah, where officials held their first coronavirus news conference. The World Health Organization had named the illness “COVID-19” several weeks earlier, but my memory is that no one was calling it that yet. I was there to catch up with Kate Maxwell and Adrian Fernandez Baumann, the founders of The Mendocino Voice, a community website in the process of transforming itself into a news co-op. I was reporting on the Voice as part of a book project, and this was a chance to see them in action.

The county generally held its news events outside, I was told — not out of health concerns but just because the weather was usually nice. It was quite nice on this particular morning, but for some reason about 50 of us were crowded into a brightly lit, windowless conference room.

“We have been working 24/7 since January,” said Dr. Noemi Doohan, the interim public health officer. Up to that point, no coronavirus cases had been reported in Mendocino County. There were no masks and no thought of masks. But still, she urged “no more handshaking for a while.” She displayed a poster recommending fist bumps — which would soon look hopelessly naive — along with stocking up on nonperishable food, getting to know your neighbors and staying six feet away from each other.

I made it back to Boston on a half-empty flight, just before the entire country shut down during those early, terrifying days of the pandemic. And I’m grateful that I have been far less affected than many people.

I’m on the journalism faculty at Northeastern University. I’ve been teaching partly in person since last September, getting tested twice a week and, so far, remaining healthy. My wife teaches in the public schools and is in person four days a week. She, too, is healthy. I’m 64 and she’s 63, so we haven’t been able to get vaccinated yet. Soon, though, we hope.

But what a strange, lost year we’ve all lived through. Even though the end is in sight, we’ve got months to go — and we still don’t really know what the new normal will look like. It’s been an especially difficult experience for our students. Hers are elementary-age kids who have been in school half-time while trying to keep up on Zoom the rest of the week. Mine are undergrads and grads. In one of my classes, they have the option of attending in person, but often just one or two show up, the rest coming in on a big screen over — yes — Zoom. (After this is over, I never want to Zoom again.)

We know we’ve been relatively lucky, even though a member of our family died of COVID-19 last year. So many people have suffered even worse losses, such as the deaths of multiple family members and lingering illness. So many people are unemployed and hungry. We’ve donated to food programs, and we drive around our community restocking pop-up food pantries. It’s not enough. I just hope President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package will carry us all through until most of the pandemic restrictions have ended.

Spring break at Northeastern is usually the first week of March. That’s why I was in California last year. I’ve taken advantage of spring break over the years to schedule reporting trips, preferably in warm places (I wholeheartedly recommend Orange County, California), although I’ve also spent the week in New Haven after a historic snowstorm and in northern Vermont, where a friend’s mother had lent me the use of her cottage so I could finish writing the last two chapters of a book.

This year there was no spring break, as school started a week later in January to avoid the post-holiday coronavirus surge. So that’s one more experience my students will miss out on. Last year, a dozen of them went on a reporting trip to Panama. This year they got ready for midterms.

The Mendo Voice, fortunately, seems to be going strong. The site now has a Report for America fellow and is chock full of stories about the pandemic, the pot industry and the seemingly never-ending wildfire season.

As for my book project, well, that got put off a year. My research partner and I had planned out an ambitious travel schedule, all of which had to be delayed. I hope we can resume this summer, at least with a couple of places that are within driving distance.

But Zoom looms, too.

A year of unimaginable loss

Click here to watch video at WSJ.com

A year ago at this time I was recovering from the worst cold I’d had in years. Later, I thought maybe I’d had COVID-19 without realizing it. But it was impossible. I was with a lot of people. I would have become my very own super-spreader event.

And here we are at 500,000 deaths. On Monday I watched a video of President Biden, Vice President Harris and their spouses paying their respects while a military band played “Amazing Grace.” And, just as I had during the inauguration, I briefly got choked up.

At some point, I’m sure we’ll become accustomed to simple human decency at the White House once again and will start asking questions about Biden’s actual management of the pandemic. But I’m not there yet.

Dueling takes on the state’s companion vaccine program

From today’s New York Times:
And today’s Boston Globe:

Northeastern journalism project to provide COVID news by text

The Scope, a social-justice website published by our School of Journalism, has unveiled a news-by-text pilot program so that Boston residents can receive information about testing sites, food pantries and other news related to the pandemic. The project is being led by Lex Weaver, one of our graduate students.

The initiative got a mention today from the American Press Institute.

Northeastern encourages students to attend class in person. I’m fine with that.

The Boston Globe reports on Northeastern’s efforts to encourage students to attend class in person during the COVID pandemic.

I spoke with The Huntington News, the student newspaper, about why I think that’s OK — as long as there’s no pressure. (Link now fixed.)

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.