News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Telling the Story of the Weight of the World

There’s a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and for good reason. Graphics can be a powerful representation, somehow distilling down what is otherwise complex and difficult to process.

This Sunday morning – on the eve of Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen – readers found The New York Times’ front page free of graphics. Yet, the image of 1,000 printed names, a mere fraction of the American lives stolen by a global pandemic, is shockingly graphic.

You may read about the Times’ editorial decision to publish this stark and poignant representation here.

As of this writing moment, an estimated 342,000 people around the world have perished from COVID-19-related illness. Here in the United States, where everything must be politicized nowadays, the figures are undermined. You’ll hear plenty of pundits trying to shirk government’s blame for its slow response, its dragging of feet when mitigation was critical.

They say things like, “If a person has a heart condition or is dying of old age and they contract the virus, are they really dying of COVID-19, or are they dying of those preexisting conditions?” Dr. Deborah Birx was asked to address this at one of the maddening press briefings. She clarified that, in cases of this kind, it is the virus that’s the acute cause of death.

This is not a controversial medical opinion. If a patient is hospitalized for an injury or illness, and while in the hospital contracts an infection and dies, it is the viral infection that kills the person, not the condition that put them there.

But there is good reason to question the figures, which are flawed and fluid, and may, in fact, be conservative estimates at this point. It is unknown how many Americans during these past few months have been sick and died in their residences, in their workplaces, or in the streets, who were never afforded a post-mortem test for COVID-19. The disease is so wildly unpredictable and adept at subterfuge, with symptoms ranging from fever and the obvious respiratory ailments to neurological and vascular breakdowns. Even younger people with no underlying conditions have died of heart failure and massive stroke.

We still have so much to learn and to understand about this virus – known to be exponentially more contagious than flu-like viruses that have proceeded it. We don’t really know how it so effectively spreads. We don’t know why those symptoms vary widely. We can’t even say with certainty that those who have contracted the virus and lived to see the other side of it cannot be re-infected.

This story is not yet written.

Because everything is so politicized and polarized in the nation today, it is not surprising that pundits have stoked the anti-media flames, accusing the Press of somehow manufacturing the story, of inflating it, and causing people to fear for their lives.

I’m of the opinion that a virus that potentially makes you so sick that you feel that you’re drowning – not for minutes, which is what it usually takes for a person to die by drowning – but hours, days, weeks, deserves a perfectly rational level of fear. But if that’s not enough to give all Americans pause, to consider the seriousness and solemnity, certainly the number of deaths should.

97,426.

Our culture relishes comparison.

Those trying to diminish the virus like to compare it to annual flu deaths. Various strains of flu virus are to blame for 24,000 to 62,000 American deaths each year, measured over the course of 12 months. Nearly 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 in fewer than four.

It is true that more than 600,000 people died from cancers in the U.S. last year. But can you imagine if we simply gave up the quest for answers and cures?

An estimated 58,200 American soldiers died fighting the Vietnam War, a gut-wrenching statistic that erupted the country in protest. Can you imagine if the Press never reported on it, or never published the Pentagon Papers?

Nearly 3,000 people were slain on 9/11. Our government used those dead as opportunity to invade two countries. Can you imagine if the Press merely shrugged it off? Can you imagine if politicians and their “fans” told grieving, frightened Americans to “just move along, nothing to see here?”

I’m in the midst of writing a 2,000-word piece for Editor & Publisher magazine about how news organizations are covering the pandemic, for which I’ve spoken to a number of news organizations – from large national newspapers and broadcast companies to small community and non-profit digital publications. It has flipped newsrooms upside down, shaking them like snow globes, with more stories than they can tell falling down all around them.

Every single story today is colored by COVID-19, because the effects are far-reaching and disturbingly influential: Economics, business, labor force and unemployment. Critical public health and safety. Long-term healthcare. Education and schools. Parenting and caretaking. The food chain and food banks. The supply chain. Personal interest stories, and on and on.

And the Press must cover all these angles. To ignore them is a dereliction of duty.

It more than pains me – it makes me irate – when I see and hear people suggest that the Press shouldn’t cover this virus, that we shouldn’t even tell the stories of the individuals who died – people who lived and loved and contributed to the society in some way.

How completely selfish and vulgar it is to look at Press coverage and find it to be inconvenient and uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit into a preconceived, politically crafted narrative.

It’s insensitive, to put it mildly, to suggest that we shouldn’t tell the stories about the aftermath for their families, of grieving from afar and then alone. It’s foolish to ignore the challenges and burdens it has placed upon us, not just on commerce and businesses, but literally on every single one of us – here and around the world.

Pandemic is profound.

I think of what yet has to be told, what will be written in the weeks, months, years, and decades to come.

This morning, I look at the image of that Times’ front page, and I feel the weight of it all.

That image – the picture of a thousand words. A thousand names x 100.

NYT-front-page-05-24-20-superJumbo-v2

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

On the Bias: Puritanical Headline Outrage and considering sources

By Gretchen A. Peck

Criticism of the Press is sometimes warranted. Let’s begin this observation about news with that fundamental agreement. Bias is “a thing” – inherent in language’s DNA, in every single word choice – and it is the publisher’s, editor’s and journalist’s job to choose: Manage bias, or give it free rein?

There’s a niche phenomenon in news criticism that feels fledgling this year: Puritanical headline outrage, I’ll call it.

While it has been the legacy of newspapers to incorporate quotations into headlines, today’s arm-chair news critics declare war with titles over quotations or paraphrases without context – for example, when The New York Times ran this outrage-stoking headline: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.”

In fact, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, the President gave a statement in which he did just that. Of course, anyone who hasn’t lived the hermit life for the past three decades of Trump – the man and the brand – knows that this message is counter to what the President has “advocated for” in the past and present.

A segment of readers seethed over the headline, suggesting that it was biased, and that it provided the President with a megaphone to perpetuate a disingenuous message, by way of the big-font top-of-the-fold headline. Even members of the media said that headline – on top of other such grievances with the newspaper – inspired them to cancel their subscriptions and call for others to do the same.

Today’s (self-appointed) Headline Editors, working from their homes and phone displays, expect news publishers to give broad context in headlines, to tell the full story to readers, in order to remove any ambiguity about the content from the outset.

Could The New York Times’ headline writer have chosen any number of other headline options with 30 characters or fewer?

Certainly.

But when nearing the witching hour of an on-press deadline, sometimes we choose what is expeditious and relevant. Sometimes the moment – the horror of a mass shooting, arguably – calls for an aspirational approach, the common denominator, the sliver of hope, a message that transcends the politics and the politician.

Critics decried that this particular headline was by design, that it was an editorial choice to somehow show favoritism to the President of the United States. This is a theory fundamentally at odds with the very mission of news people and newspapers.

I have to believe that some of this “headline outrage” has more to do with the way people read and process information they read online today. We are a nation of headline surfers. We’ve studied this data.

Today, we viscerally react to headlines and often comment about the content before ever reading beyond it. Naturally, readers who rely so heavily – even entirely – on headlines would want them to tell the whole story. It’s a lofty expectation fueled by illiterate laziness.

To its credit, The New York Times took the criticism to heart and even offered an explanation and apology to readers. It showed that the newspaper was listening, at least.

Let’s use this example – of a newspaper “managing” bias – in contrast to what occurred on FOX News on the morning of Friday, November 22, 2019.

For 53 minutes during a call-in to the live broadcast, the President of the United States led viewers on a rhetorical rollercoaster, a verbal tirade that included a litany of bullshit that would keep fact checkers tasked for the next two days to sort through. The New York TimesLinda Qiu did it, same day: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/us/politics/trump-fox-and-friends-fact-check.html

It is true that the FOX & Friends hosts tried to haplessly interject, but the President steamrolled, and the producers were AWOL.

But they had to see it coming at FOX News, right? This Tasmanian Devil of an interview couldn’t have taken anyone by surprise in the planning meetings or during the live broadcast. They had to expect that the President would behave in this manner. His rally riffs are notorious, and he has a pattern of doing this on past call-ins to the network.

Still, the producers – and to a certain extent those talking heads who had to endure it through gritted teeth and earnest expressions – collectively made an “editorial” decision to give bias “free reign.”

One of the foundational tenets of journalism: Consider your source.

 

News & Publishing

Headlines always fall short

The New York Times published a bad headline.

In the newspaper’s defense, headline writing is sometimes problematic. At the 12th hour, before the presses roll, when you’re tasked with finite space, painfully few characters and a need to quote a President’s national address, this stuff happens.

The headline was misleading as it read, but there was a lack of space to lay out the “backgrounder” context that puritanical media critics wanted. They wanted a headline that called the President a “racist.”

They wanted the headline to scream: He said this stuff, but of course he doesn’t really mean it. 

They wanted the headline to tell the full story. Headlines never do.

And, of course, this particular headline was never going to meet that expectation. It was never going to say, “Today, the President spoke insincerely about racism and gun culture.”

It was never going to say that a.) Because that’s a full sentence. b.) It’s editorializing in what is intended to be a straight news piece.

Critics, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, “The media is biased!” And then, at the same time, expect us to be biased, to make a qualification or judgment — and blatantly, on the front page, above the fold.

Certain members of the media (looking at you, Joan Walsh) piled on and stoked the embers of a digital subscription revolt against the Times. Never mind that 2,000 newspapers have shuttered in just a few years. Never mind that 95% of the time, The New York Times masthead somehow, incredibly, produces important deep-diving work that smaller papers cannot, because they lack the resources.

Never mind all the other good work by staff not tasked with political coverage. Never mind that many of them are trying to decide tonight whether they should pay their rent or buy groceries this month.

Never mind that every day is a mental, physical and spiritual succubus on journalists trying to cover this Administration.

This anger against The New York Times is misplaced. It’s bubbling up because of a President, who is never held to account for his words, his policies, his opacity and gaslighting, his indecency, and his criminal conduct. Of course, the President was insincere when he read his scripted statement. His uncomfortable body language. The sniffing. The stumbling over the words. The legacy of racist, violent rhetoric, archived and freely searchable on the Internet. The predictable 180-degree spin on Twitter the very next day.

Does The New York Times need to spell it all out for the American people in a pithy 15-character headline?

Are we that daft? ~ G.A. Peck

Here’s what The New York Times had to say about it:

News & Publishing

Getting readers is one thing; keeping them is another

From Behavioral Data to Exclusive Content, Newspapers are Creating Valuable Strategies to Retain Readers

By: Gretchen A. Peck
The “Trump Bump” phenomenon experienced by national and larger regional newspapers in the wake of the presidential election brought a sea of new subscribers to their print and digital titles. Whether that was a direct response to the anti-press rhetoric that’s been pervasive in national politics, or whether people just finally realized that news has value, is still up for speculation and study. But the phenomenon was real for those larger titles, which now must make concerted efforts and campaigns to appeal to these new readers, and to keep their interest and retain their subscriptions.
Photo courtesy of The New York Times