COVID Diary #8: Plans for the fall semester could be upended by another surge

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

One of the best parts of moving back to West Medford five years ago was that we were able to reduce our dependence on driving. When one of our cars died, we decided not to replace it. Now my wife drives literally 10 minutes through residential streets to get to her job, and I rely on public transportation, supplemented by Lyft and an occasional Zipcar.

COVID has upended that. As all of us at Northeastern ponder how we’re going to return to campus this fall, I’m wondering how I’m going to get there. Will I feel safe on the commuter rail and subway? What about possible virus left behind by previous Lyft riders? I’ve thought about riding my bike, but that’s not a comprehensive solution — I’m not going to do it when it’s raining or dark, and I don’t want to wrestle with cars and trucks on a regular basis, either.

As for what Northeastern is going to look like this fall, that still feels a bit up in the air, even though plans are being made to open on time in September. I’ll be teaching one class entirely online. The other will be taught using what’s being referred to as the hyflex model — or, in Northeastern-speak, “NUflex.”

With hyflex, you’re dealing with three separate groups of students. Some of them are in the classroom with you. Another group — maybe they had visa problems, maybe they’re on quarantine — joins the class via video conferencing. And a third group watches a recording of the class at a later time, possibly because of illness or time-zone differences. It sounds like quite a challenge. Our student newspaper, The Huntington News, has the details.

Some faculty members at Boston University are up in arms over the idea of returning to campus at all, according to The Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine. I haven’t heard any similar dissension at Northeastern, but maybe I’m not listening in the right places.

What I do know is that COVID is surging nationally once again — and the numbers in Massachusetts don’t inspire a lot of confidence, either. People make plans, but the virus makes its own, abetted by human folly. We’ll see whether anyone is actually back on campus this fall. I hope we are, but it’s hardly a given.

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Northeastern’s School of Journalism denounces police attacks against the press

Statement by the Faculty of the Northeastern University School of Journalism Denouncing Police Attacks on Journalists:

The recent attacks on journalists by police in American cities, including on Northeastern University alumni, are unacceptable and do great damage to our democracy. They also jeopardize the ability of citizens to inform themselves about not just the current wave of protests but also our nation’s history of racism, bigotry and police brutality. Our society thrives on the free flow of information and the check on governmental authority provided by a free press. The vital work of the free press must be allowed to go on without the threat of harm and arrest. We stand with all journalists documenting this difficult chapter in American history, especially those from communities of color. We call upon all levels of government to end attacks by police on journalists and the institution of journalism,  and to protect the First Amendment rights of protesters.

SIGNED BY:

Prof. Jonathan Kaufman, Director
Aleszu Bajak
Prof. Rahul Bhargava
Prof. Matt Carroll
Prof. Myojung Chung
Prof. Charles Fountain
John Guilfoil
Prof. Meg Heckman
Scott Helman
Prof. Carlene Hempel
Prof. Jeff Howe
Prof. Dan Kennedy
Prof. Laurel Leff
Prof. Dan Lothian
Peter Mancusi
Catherine McGloin
Meredith O’Brien
Prof. James Ross
Jody Santos
Prof. John Wihbey
Prof. Dan Zedek

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How the right-wing media weaponize unvetted science

Santa Clara, circa 1910. Photo via Wikipedia.

My Northeastern colleagues Aleszu Bajak and Jeff Howe have written a commentary for The New York Times about how the right-wing media weaponized a Stanford study that suggested COVID-19 infections in Santa Clara, California, might be far more widespread than had been previously thought.

The study showed the infection rate might be 85 times higher than the official estimate. What excited the right about this was that it would mean a much lower death rate — possibly as low as 0.12%. So, gee, let’s open up, shall we?

The larger point Bajak and Howe make in their commentary, complete with data visualizations, is the danger of unvetted science ripping through the media so that it can be exploited for partisan purposes. The Stanford study, a so-called preprint that had not yet been peer-reviewed, turned out to be flawed. That’s not to say there isn’t some valuable data in it. But, as Bajak and Howe write:

The instant sharing of valuable data has accelerated our race for vaccines, antivirals and better tests. But this welter of information, much of it conflicting, has sown confusion and discord with a general public not accustomed to the high level of uncertainty inherent in science.

As it turns out, I spent three hours watching Fox News’ prime-time lineup on April 20, a day when yet another not-ready-for-prime-time study was making the rounds. This one was from the University of Southern California, which suggested — according to a press release (!) — that “infections from the new coronavirus are far more widespread — and the fatality rate much lower — in L.A. County than previously thought.” The release went on to note that the data showed the infection rate might be 28 to 55 times higher than experts had estimated several weeks earlier.

Tucker Carlson touted it. So did Laura Ingraham. “They were predicting doom and gloom,” she asserted, claiming that the response to COVID-19 would have been completely different if officials knew the fatality rate was so low.

Healthline, a respected source of health-related information, analyzed both studies in some depth and took a measured approach in assessing their importance: “There are disagreements about one study’s validity, and experts point out the statistical models and manner that participants were chosen might have biased the results. Although there’s agreement that the findings are plausible.”

What isn’t changed by any of this is that more than 80,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 in just a few months. And that toll would have been much higher if not for the extraordinary actions taken by state and local governments.

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COVID Diary #4: At the end of the second month, thinking about a new normal

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

As we near the end of the second month of the shutdown, we are all wondering when it might be safe to start inching our way toward a new normal. I’m not talking about opening everything up — that would lead to disaster. But some cautious steps to reopen the economy would be good for all of us as long as they’re accompanied by appropriate social-distancing and other common-sense measures.

At Northeastern, we got a bit of good news Friday in the form of a message from the university president, Joseph Aoun, who wrote that we are going to try to reopen this fall. As he envisions it, we’ll still be a long way from back to normal:

While we continue to believe that classroom instruction should be the norm, we will offer many large lectures in both live and recorded formats, while some of our other classes will allow for both live and remote participation. We will need to expand student housing into new buildings and communities to reduce residential density. This may include setting aside residential space to accommodate those who will need to safely self-isolate.

I should add that all of this has to be seen as subject to change. If there’s a spike this summer, I can’t imagine we’ll reopen in person in the fall. And let’s face it — we’re still in the midst of a spike. But it would be great to see our students again.

I’ve already been asked to teach my undergraduate ethics class entirely online this fall. Given the nature of the course — lectures, reading, discussion, a research paper and the like — it seems doable. But I’m hoping I can teach intermediate reporting in person. I suppose a hands-on skills course could be taught remotely, but it wouldn’t be the same.

This is also a time for me to be thankful that I work for a large university. The Boston Globe reports today that 25 smaller colleges and universities in New England are in danger of closing over the next six years — up from 13 before COVID-19. Large institutions are simply in a better position to weather the storm.

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COVID Diary #3: Life turns upside-down as the pandemic comes to campus

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

We landed at Logan on Friday night, March 6. The airport was noticeably underpopulated, just as it had been in San Francisco. At that point, though, I still didn’t think the coronavirus was going to cause too much havoc. I was happy when we turned the clocks ahead that Sunday, looking forward to another hour of daylight as a sign that the long (if mild) winter was almost over.

By Monday, my concerns were growing. Harvard, MIT and other schools had announced they were shifting to online-only classes. On Tuesday, my first day back at Northeastern, I attended a college assembly. We took one minor precaution — the buffet was canceled, and we were served boxed lunches instead. Our dean said she expected some sort of announcement from the president’s office. But we all sat cheek-by-jowl; we were worried about what was coming, but at the same time the term “social distancing” had not yet entered our vocabulary.

Previously I wrote that the pandemic came at me gradually, then all at once. The all-at-once arrived the next day, on Wednesday, March 11. During our faculty meeting, an email arrived letting us know that Northeastern, too, was going online-only. That evening I taught my graduate ethics seminar in person for the last time. Along with the campus shutdown, two more events occurred in rapid succession that divided my psychological timeline into “before COVID” and “after COVID.”

Weifeng Xu and me. Used with permission.

First, my students and I watched President Trump’s unnerving Oval Office address — the one that sparked a 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Futures even as he was talking. It was clear to all of us that things were about to get very bad, and that Trump — no surprise — wasn’t even remotely up to the job.

Second, the NBA canceled that night’s game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder just before tipoff, sending thousands of mystified and angry fans home. It turned out that one player who wasn’t even in the arena that night had tested positive. The idea that the game would be shut down over such a seemingly minor incident served to emphasize the seriousness of what we were facing.

For good measure, the married actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that night that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 while in Australia.

At first, Northeastern tried to take a middle-of-the-road approach, letting students stay in the dorms even as classrooms were closed. Within a few days, though, everyone was ordered to leave. As with many things during this crisis, it seemed like an overreaction at the time but inevitable and necessary just a few days later.

With students leaving for the semester, I decided to spend Monday, March 16, in my office one last time, letting my students know I was on campus if they wanted to see me. By now, reality had sunk in. I drove rather than subject myself to the hazards of public transportation. Walking through Ruggles Station to get from the parking garage to my office, I noticed that it was mostly deserted. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t there. There was plenty of activity on campus, though, as cars with out-of-state plates lined the streets so the students could make their escape.

In the midst of such a frenzy, I shouldn’t have been surprised that just one student came to see me. Weifeng Xu was about to fly home to Hong Kong, and she wanted to check on some assignments and say goodbye. She was graduating, but there would be no commencement. We talked a bit about her plans, she took a selfie of us and that was it.

The rest of the semester was remarkably smooth, and my students deserve all the credit. Workshopping and student presentations were done via Zoom. Weifeng, back in Hong Kong, showed us the electronic wristband she was required to wear while in quarantine. Maria Aguirre checked in from her home in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the scene of one of the world’s worst COVID outbreaks. (She is now working remotely for New Hampshire Public Radio.) Other students beamed in from their apartments in Boston. Despite everything they were going through, my students remained cheerful and calm, doing good work and meeting deadlines.

Now we wonder what’s next. I already know that I’m teaching my undergraduate ethics class online this fall and will spend part of the next few months putting it together. I’m hoping I can teach intermediate reporting in-person.

But no one knows what’s going to happen.

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Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis

Commentary at WGBH News.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a particularly difficult challenge for publishers of community online-only news sites, whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. Over the weekend I emailed editors and publishers of several such news organizations to see how they are getting along. Below are their lightly edited answers in full.

Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic in your community?

Paul Bass, who runs the New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio, which are both nonprofit organizations: We’re working like maniacs. We feel this is the time when the work we do — informing as well as stitching together community — is more important than ever.

Kate Maxwell, publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit that is moving toward a cooperative ownership model: We are covering it in all the ways we can come up with! We do have experience with prolonged breaking emergency coverage through wildfires and power shutdowns, unfortunately. We created a central landing page and are using multiple social media platforms to reach people, including livestreaming press conferences, interviews with public health officials and medical experts, and live tours of preparedness at medical facilities.

We’re writing multiple daily updates, creating several guides to information and resources, increasing our newsletter, live-tweeting important forums, increasing our Spanish translations and Spanish language interviews, and regularly surveying our readers, as well as taking live questions during events and interviews. We’re being careful to make our updates clearly dated, sharing information about state and federal changes, and keeping coverage in digestible and clear formats. We’ve gotten some great ideas from other LION publishers as well. 

We are hiring formerly underemployed but experienced local freelance reporters to expand our coverage.We are working quickly to hire even more reporters and implement ideas we had considered previously and in other sustained emergencies, such as text services. We are reaching out to public officials, business leaders and community groups to discuss how to best fact-check evolving information moving forward. We are also talking with everyone about how we can best support our community to provide a service that also lessens the blow of economic impacts of this pandemic, which will be hard on our already struggling local economy and health-care system. This includes considering what might happen in the case of multiple emergencies as we approach “wildfire season.”

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit in Genesee County, New York: Early on, even before orders were issued, I recognized that I probably wouldn’t be going out of the house much to cover things. I had never done livestreaming before. I had never done a video interview and recorded it or livestreamed it. So I quickly figured out how to do all of that, and we did our first livestream interview on March 15.  We’ve done 15 or so since. Continue reading “Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis”

A professor copes, takes his class online, and wonders: ‘What comes next?’

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I knew the Apocalypse was at hand when I walked through the nearly empty Ruggles T station Monday morning — and there were no Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not that I suspected these smiling, well-dressed folks with their posters and pamphlets were afraid of catching COVID-19. They probably just figured there was no point in standing in the cold all by themselves while the city was shutting down around them.

As a journalism professor at Northeastern University, I’m well aware of how fortunate I am. Our paychecks and benefits won’t be threatened unless the worst of the worst-case scenarios become a reality. For us, the pandemic means trying to figure out how to move our classes online so that our students’ education isn’t thrown off track any more than absolutely necessary.

Even so, it’s been a challenging week.

I’d spent the first week of March — spring break at Northeastern — in Mendocino County, California, reporting on The Mendocino Voice, a small news organization moving toward cooperative ownership. While I was out there, I attended a news conference on the coronavirus called by county officials. It was clear that things were about to explode.

Classes actually resumed March 9, but we all had a sense that was likely to change at any moment. And it did. During our faculty meeting on March 11, we got an email from the administration telling us we were moving to online instruction the next day.

It seemed possible that the shift wouldn’t be too disruptive. At least initially, students were not asked to leave university housing — something that would be a logistical nightmare given our large number of international students as well as students living on campus while working at co-op jobs in the Boston area. I taught my final in-person class that night and got ready to go virtual.

My plan for Thursday was a workshopping session with my opinion-journalism class. It seemed like more of a technical challenge than I was comfortable taking on, but a colleague recommended Zoom video-conferencing software, and I gave it a try. I was stunned at how easy it was — for an hour and a half, my 15 students and I had something very close to a normal class. I don’t hear especially well, so I was pleasantly surprised that I could hear them better through my earbuds than I normally do in the classroom.

But if we’ve learned anything in the past week, it’s that what we hope will be the “new normal” only lasts for a few hours. First, one of my international graduate students told me she was flying home to Ecuador. Then, on Saturday, the university reversed course and ordered everyone out of the residence halls by Tuesday, March 17, at 5 p.m. Social-media panic ensured. Within a few hours, the university sent an update — students would be given some leeway on when they moved out, the remainder of the semester’s room and board would be refunded, and students with a demonstrated hardship could stay.

That helped. But it left us wondering how much of the semester we could salvage with nearly everyone scrambling to leave. Ruggles may have been empty on Monday, but cars were lined up all over campus as students got ready to head home. Despite the confusion, I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. What came across as draconian on Saturday seemed like the responsible thing to do by Monday.

So now what? Why was I on campus Monday when I should have been hunkering down at home? Because I’d decided to come in one last time in case any of my students wanted to see me before leaving. As it turned out, most of them found electronic communication sufficient — and safer.

But one of my students, a young woman from Hong Kong, dropped by for some advice on her final project in my ethics class. We kicked around some ideas and talked about what would happen next. She’s a senior. The last few weeks of her classes are gone. Commencement, scheduled for May 1, is almost certainly gone as well. She’ll walk away with an education, but without any of the memories she should have had.

She took a selfie of us and said goodbye.

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Do newspaper endorsements matter? Why a hoary tradition may be near its end

My Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman has written an important thread about political endorsements by news organizations. Her starting point is the Concord Monitor’s unusual decision not to endorse in the New Hampshire primary. (Heckman is a former editor at the Monitor.) Please read it and come back.

The Monitor’s non-endorsement is not the only break with the past that we’ve seen in recent weeks.

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A reinterpretation of Title IX threatens student journalism about sexual assault

Photo (cc) 2016 via Wikimedia Commons

My Northeastern colleagues Laurel Leff and Meg Heckman report on a new, serious threat to freedom of the press on college campuses: a federal reinterpretation of Title IX that puts faculty members at risk if they advise students who are reporting on sexual assault. They write at The Conversation:

At issue are increasingly common policies that require virtually every university employee to alert school officials if they hear even the slightest rumor of sexual misconduct — on or off campus — involving students or employees.

On most campuses, clergy members, mental health counselors and health care providers are exempt from such mandatory reporting requirements. University-affiliated journalists are not despite the fact that they also often need confidentiality to do their jobs effectively.

Yet, journalism professors routinely learn of possible sexual misconduct in their roles as advisors to student newspapers, or in critiquing students’ classroom work. (It’s also increasingly common for journalism educators to serve as editors in charge of school-sponsored news organizations designed to fill gaps in the local media ecosystem.)

I heard about this for the first time last week. I immediately went through a mental checklist as I tried to remember whether any of my students was working on a story about sexual misconduct. They weren’t. But I’ve dealt with such stories in the past, and apparently I will not be dealing with them in the future.

This is an outrageous attack on the First Amendment. It even pertains to NPR affiliates associated with colleges and universities, which is to say most of them. What’s needed, as Leff and Heckman write, is a state law “exempting university-affiliated journalists and journalism educators from mandatory reporting requirements when they are advising student journalists.”

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A Northeastern study takes the measure of our controversy-driven political coverage

Illustration by Emily Judem for WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For observers of the media, there are few spectacles more dispiriting than the way the press covers presidential campaigns. Rather than digging into what really matters, such as the candidates’ experience, leadership ability and positions on important issues, reporters focus on controversies, attacks on one another, gotcha moments and, of course, polls, polls and more polls.

Now a study conducted by the School of Journalism at Northeastern University has quantified just how bad things are. Looking at about 10,000 news articles from 28 ideologically diverse news outlets published between March and October, my colleagues and I found that coverage of the Democratic candidates “tracks with the ebbs and flows of scandals, viral moments and news items.”

Our findings were posted last week at Storybench, a vertical published by the School of Journalism that covers media innovation. The data analysis was performed by Aleszu Bajak with an assist from John Wihbey. Among the key points in our report:

• The televised debates have driven some of the issues-based coverage. For instance, mentions of the candidates’ positions on immigration and health care increased during and immediately after the debates but then quickly subsided.

• Kirsten Gillibrand made reproductive choice one of her signature issues — and after she dropped out of the race, that issue faded from media coverage. Similarly, coverage of gun control was tied mainly to Beto O’Rourke’s now-defunct campaign. LGBTQ rights and climate change have been virtually ignored.

• The Ukraine story has dominated recently coverage of the Democratic candidates, with much of it focused on President Trump’s false accusations that Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden acted corruptly.

Of course, to some extent the media can’t help but be reactive. It would be irresponsible not to cover what the candidates are saying about themselves and each other. But the press’ urge to chase controversies at the expense of more substantive matters shows that little has been learned since its disastrous performance four years ago.

As Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy wrote in an analysis of the 2016 campaign, coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was unrelentingly negative, creating the impression that the controversy over Clinton’s emails was somehow equivalent to massive corruption at Trump’s charitable foundation, his racist remarks and his boasting about sexual assault as revealed on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.

“The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal,” Patterson wrote. “Its bias is a decided preference for the negative.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Earlier this year, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen proposed campaign coverage built around a “citizens agenda.” Rosen proposed that news organizations should identify their audience, listen to what they believe the candidates should be focusing on, and cover the race accordingly.

“Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda,” Rosen wrote on his influential blog, Press Think. “And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm.”

Some coverage of presidential politics has been quite good. Quality news organizations such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have published in-depth articles on challenges the candidates have overcome and how that helps shape their approach to governing. The Boston Globe has been running a series called “Back to the Battleground” in which it has reported on four key states that unexpectedly went with Trump in 2016. Reports aimed at making sense of the Ukraine story, explaining Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan and the like are worthy examples of campaign journalism aimed at informing the public. But such efforts tend to be overshadowed by day-to-day horse-race coverage.

The latest poll-driven narrative is the rise of Pete Buttigieg, who’s emerged as the clear frontrunner in Iowa, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey. You can be sure that he’ll be watched closely at this week’s televised debate. Will his rivals attack him? Will he fight back? Can he take the heat?

Little of it will have much to do with what kind of president Buttigieg or any of the other candidates would be. The horse race is paramount. Who’s up, who’s down and the latest controversies are what matter to the political press.

The data my Northeastern colleagues have compiled provides a measurement of how badly political coverage has run off the rails. What’s needed is a commitment on the part of the media to do a better job of serving the public interest.

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