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How to Report About the Pandemic Now
We need more journalism about the forest of societal change, perhaps less on the trees of case counts and incremental subvariants
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
Sometimes a story can get so big we, paradoxically, almost lose track of it. The pandemic seems to me to be becoming to be such a story.
Sure, there are still daily trackers, and we are bombarded with pieces about new variants and incremental developments of all sorts. But the pandemic was such a transformative occurrence that we have, I think, started to see the trees more clearly than the forest. It should be a key job of journalism to do the opposite.
What we’re missing
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean:
· Yes, the American people are “over” most pandemic restrictions, but it’s also true that more vaccine doses are being administered every day, even now, than there are new cases being officially recorded. That translates into more than three hundred people getting shots every day right now for every death from COVID. For all of the talk about vaccine hesitancy (and because of important work to address it), more than 83% of those over age five and more than 78% of all Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine. In a country where it has now been almost 40 years since we had a landslide presidential election, there are actually very few things of consequence on which Americans agree more than on whether getting vaccinated makes sense. In fact, fewer American adults say they believe in God than have gotten vaccinated.
· More darkly, rage, violence and despair clearly also became epidemic along with the virus. You have probably heard that gun deaths reached a record in 2020, (although not a record rate when you factor in population growth). The headlines have focused less on the fact that most gun deaths in this country are suicides. (This big story in Sunday’s Washington Post didn’t get around to mentioning that fact until the 21st paragraph.) And too few stories, at least in my judgment, have drawn the connection between the pandemic and an epidemic of reckless driving—I see it every week on the roads, and it’s reflected in a spike in traffic deaths in 2020 and 2021.
What’s still unfolding
Then there are the pandemic stories that are closer to their beginning than end.
We are getting a better fix on the extent of learning loss during the last three school years. Tracking both the permanent consequences and the failure or success of efforts to catch up will almost certainly be one of the most consequential stories of the decade ahead.
A lot is being written about return to offices (or not), and the rise of permanent hybrid or remote work, but comparatively little about the lasting effects on cities, suburbs and exurbs, all of which are likely to be transformed. Again, we need journalists not to miss the macro effects while busily charting the micro. It is probably already past time to write less about the future of the office and more about the future of housing.
In the field of public health itself, polarization in Washington prevented the convening of a national commission on our response to COVID, and there has been, as yet, no significant reform legislation, despite the need. What lessons is government learning for the inevitable next time? It is not too soon to ask.
To be sure, we need continued coverage that keeps an eye out especially for variants more deadly than any we are currently confronting, and that persistently charts the ways in which the burdens of the pandemic fall disproportionately on those already most vulnerable in our society.
Calling out the blips
We also urgently need stories that recognize that some pandemic phenomena seem to have been more blips than trends. The supply chain woes that received so much coverage have largely (and predictably) resolved—have we adequately informed readers about that? Even more significant would be stories exploring what industries are doing to guard against similar issues in the future. How much is the just-in-time economy being modified to ensure stability of supply? To what extent are both government and industry moving to establish or stockpile domestic sources of strategic materials of all sorts?
As always, context is crucial. It is too soon to say, for instance, whether the rising violence, from guns to cars, is a blip of its own. But it is not at all too soon to point out that rates of violent crime (that is, taking account of population growth), while up, are still down almost 50% from 30 years ago.
In short, even as we (we hope) emerge from the acute phase of the pandemic, journalists increasingly need to break out of covering it as a daily story, and turn more of their attention to the enduring ways in which it transformed our society, and also to the ways it did not.
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