Some Thoughts on How We and I Will Cover the COVID-19 Story

US President Donald Trump (L), flanked by US Vice President Mike Pence, listens as Secretary of Health Alex Azar (R) speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House on February 26, 2020. -... US President Donald Trump (L), flanked by US Vice President Mike Pence, listens as Secretary of Health Alex Azar (R) speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House on February 26, 2020. - US President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his administration's response to the novel coronavirus, lashing the media for spreading panic as he conducts an evening news conference on the epidemic. (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP) (Photo by ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
February 28, 2020 1:25 p.m.
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TPM is basically a political news and investigations website. We cover a range of topics. We cover the big stories of the day even when they are not inherently political. Where we can we do it with an emphasis on their political and policy dimensions. But political news is the core of what we do.

We are all now in position in which the key big story of the day is the COVID-19 virus outbreak. It is fundamentally a public health story. But in addition to having major economic impacts, the COVID-19 is now impacting almost every question tied to politics, policy and governance.

So I wanted to share a few thoughts about how I and we will cover it.

None of us are epidemiologists or public health experts. Reporters cover many issues about which they lack professional expertise. But in reporting on a still-unfolding public health story the stakes and equities are unique. So I will put an especial focus on using my experience as a journalist on finding and focusing your attention on highly reliable sources of information. I will focus on information that is informative and illuminating but also practical and actionable – information that helps you make good decisions for yourself and your loved ones but also be civically responsible and informed.

I don’t need to tell you that if COVID-19 becomes an active public health issue in your area you should of course be consulting federal and local public health websites and a range of news sources. But all journalists are part of the information ecosystem. So this is simply an explanation of how I seem my and our role.

From own experience as a journalist and my memories of the first decade of the AIDS crisis, one of the most important things in a situation like we are in is numeracy – the simple ability to understand the meaning of numbers and statistics. There’s a lot we simply don’t know now. Nor does it mean that understanding numbers and statistics is always reassuring. But again, many of us simply have a hard time understanding what statistical information does and does not mean, especially in a climate where fear is involved. So that’s something I have in mind.

One things I think about a lot is the balance between disease impact and economic disruption. When we hear about people getting gravely ill or dying from a new disease that is very frightening. There is a reflexive human response to close borders, get distance from the sick and all the rest. And each of those things can and do play a proper role in infectious disease management. But one of the most interesting and important developing stories is the balance between disease control and disruptions of manufacturing supply chains.

Clearly there are going to be disruptions in supplies of iPhones and other gadgets that are produced in China or exist in supply chains dependent on China and other parts of the world. It seems inevitable that the global response to COVID-19 will have a significant short-term effect on the economy. But there are more specific things.

Pharmaceutical supply chains have significant dependence on China and many other places outside the US. This is a situation the FDA is already monitoring. There are myriad drugs many of us take which have an important, though usually incremental and longterm impact on health. If supply chains or import/export streams are significantly disrupted by clampdowns that can have health impacts that are significant or even greater than the effect of COVID-19 itself. They’re just less visible and we’re less focused on them.

My aim here is not to alarm anyone. I’ve read a good deal about this and I do not think there is cause for alarm now. My point is just to illustrate the complexities and balancing that public officials must now grapple with and the potentially distorting prism of myopia, innumeracy and fear.

We also need to hold government accountable. That is a central function of journalism. But public health stories are complicated. It’s not always clear what’s a screw up or not, what really matters and is a big deal and what’s more secondary. There’s a lot of reporting right now about how relatively little actual testing has been done in the US and how that testing has been highly centralized at the CDC. That doesn’t sound great. And it may not be great. The CDC has already started expanding the parameters of who gets tested. But is it a big deal? Is there reason to think it’s had a big practical impact? The US has a sophisticated influenza surveillance system. If there were significant spread of COVID-19 in the US it likely would be showing up as an uptick in acute respiratory illness in hospitals.

My point here isn’t to say everything’s fine. It does seem like at least a bit of problem. I genuinely don’t know yet. But while being skeptical and being focused on holding public officials accountable, we also need to remember that public health officials have a lot of knowledge that we who are now parachuting into the story don’t. So there’s an important level of skepticism we should have about our own quickness to decide something is a stupid or shocking error.

Of course, there’s the other side of the coin.

Almost two decades later I still think about those public officials who went down to Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan and confidently announced the air was fine and there was nothing to worry about. We now know that was definitely not true and that the officials in question really had no basis for expressing such confidence. Those statements had real and in many cases fatal impacts for hundreds or thousands of people.

So it cuts both ways. We should be appropriately skeptical of public officials but also skeptical of ourselves.

Our job at TPM is to be a trusted source of news for our readership. That’s our core mission and I plan to pursue it in the ways I described above. One way that I think our team is particularly resourced is in our existing knowledge of the federal government, bureaucracy, programs, the law and how these are playing into the story. Of course, also politics … The CDC, Congress, President Trump, even the presidential candidates – these are all going to play a big role in the response to this outbreak, for good or ill. That is a facet of this where we have real experience and knowledge and it’s a place to focus our efforts.

As always we are dependent on you: for insights, for tips, financially and really in every way. So I encourage you to share your thoughts with us, your perspectives and your guidance on how we’re doing what we do.

Key Coronavirus Crisis Links

Josh Marshall’s Twitter List of Trusted Experts (Epidemiologists, Researchers, Clinicians, Journalists, Government Agencies) providing reliable real-time information on the COVID-19 Crisis.

COVID-19 Tracking Project (updated data on testing and infections in the U.S.).

IHME Projections Site (COVID-19 epidemic model which has become the canonical model for many states and hospitals.)

Johns Hopkins Global COVID-19 Survey (most up to date numbers globally and for countries around the world). (extensive source of information and data visualizations on COVID-19 Crisis — discussion of data here).

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