Coronavirus sampler

The front pages of N.C. newspapers are filled with coronavirus stories, as they should be. Rather than showing you the pages – I’m already bored with that, and you can see them yourself here – I’ll point out a few interesting stories.

Greensboro: One of the best writers in the state, Mike Kernels, reflects on the virus: “Greensboro these days is a ghost town, a veritable Dodge City where residents have retreated to the relative security and disease-free environments of their homes. So, here we are. Each of us living in a jail of our own making, one without bars or guards or walls, but a jail nonetheless as we do time on the honor system and wait for all this to pass.”

Hickory: A sweet story about a couple who had to cancel their wedding, and were able to cancel all the vendors except flowers. So they donated them to the local hospice. “Johnson said the biggest takeaway from all of this for her was, ‘it doesn’t take much to brighten someone’s day, even in quarantine. We’re all scared and nervous, but it’s worth taking a few minutes to reach out to loved ones who need to talk or to write a card to someone who can’t have visitors.’”

Burlington: Here’s the lead of a story you don’t want to read: “The COVID-19 pandemic will peak in April, decline dramatically and be virtually gone by mid-July, but not before it’s killed tens of thousands of Americans, including thousands in North Carolina, say projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.”


When it comes to coronavirus, more information is better

On Sunday, the Charlotte Observer published a good story on its front page about the lack of information Mecklenburg County officials were giving the public about COVID-19. (The story was on the paper’s website Friday.)

“As the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, county officials have refused to reveal demographic data about people who have tested positive, locations where they may have contracted the virus or if they engaged in activities that brought them in close contact with the public.”

On Sunday night, the Mecklenburg County public health director released a great deal of information about the spread of the disease, information the Observer published on its website last night and on the front page this morning.

“ZIP code 28277, encompassing Ballantyne, Piper Glen and other south Charlotte areas, has six or more cases. Another dense cluster of six or more cases was reported in east Charlotte in ZIP code 28205, including Plaza Midwood and Central Avenue. Four ZIP codes did not have any cases: 28204, 28214, 28262 and 28036.

“About half of all known cases involve adults ages 20 to 39, officials said. In one case, a resident under age 19 tested positive for the virus, Harris said.”

I don’t know if the county released the detailed information because of the Observer’s story or because they realized that it had vital information that would help the public understand the nature and size of the virus in the county.

Information is power: it helps you understand what you’re facing and how to contextualize it. If the Observer’s coverage help spur the release of more information, then good for them; they are serving the community.

The magic of poetry

“The magic of poetry,” Morrigan McCarthy, a photo editor at the New York Times, said, “is that it jolts your mind into thinking about a subject or theme in an unexpected way.”

I spend one class period on poetry in my Feature Writing course at UNC. After reading the New York Times reflection on how editors on the national desk start their morning meetings with a poem, I can see I don’t talk poetry enough.

I use poetry to talk about images and lyricism and form, about precision and meaning and how every word counts.

“What effect has such beautiful and rhythmical writing had upon us as journalists?” writes Marc Lacey. “I believe we are more pensive every morning. I can tell by the faraway look in my colleagues’ eyes as we hear profound truths communicated sparsely and majestically. That is the goal of our journalism, too.”

I stole the title of the lecture from Elvis Costello: “Poetry is the use of words where music is heard but none is playing.”

We talk “Fog” by Carl Sandburg, a poem I read in high school and one many of my students claim not to have heard of, and “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou, a writer whom all of my students have heard of. In some classes, I’ve included “Constantly Risking Absurdity #15” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and “Tell the Truth but Tell it Slant” by Emily Dickinson. And I use poems the students suggest.

Once upon a time, I started every semester with a line from Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling”: “A word after a word after a word is power.” It is the primary message I like to send writers. Now, I’m going to adapt the Times’ practice and begin classes with a poem and invite students to join in. (I’ll get a few.) It’s certainly both calming and focusing.

Journalism in the time of coronavirus

“That’s what local papers are meant to do,” Ms. Brownstone said. “We’re not built for a lot of other things, but we’re built for this.”

Sydney Brownstone is a reporter with the Seattle Times and she said that to the New York Times in a story about how the paper is handling the epidemic in Seattle. Her description of the Seattle Times newsroom will be familar to every journalist who’s worked in one. Focused, ready to do anything to tell its community’s stories, and willing to put in long hours to do it.

Read it.

Meanwhile, the Nieman Lab pulls together a great list of examples of how news operations are covering the virus, again for the benefit of their communities. Included is the North Carolina News Collaborative, which I’ve mentioned earlier.

“The collaborative is a fairly new group comprised of more than 20 newspapers across the state. Robyn Tomlin, executive editor of The (Raleigh) News & Observer and The (Durham) Herald-Sun, said the group is also working on a large, statewide reporting effort. That project is likely to publish in the next week.”

Good news for newspaper readers in N.C.

The world is different now for all of us. Journalism is slowly changing, too. More collaboration (although Dan Gillmor is correct when he says there’s not enough). More focus on digital with paywalls lowered. But serving the community by getting people the information they need to navigate this public crisis remains as the core of every good journalist’s value system.


Sunday sampler

The front pages of today’s N.C. newspapers are filled with coronavirus stories. Yesterday, the News & Observer published 15 locally written stories about the virus.  Paywalls have come down so that readers can get the latest news about the pandemic in their towns. (It’s counter-intuitive, and it reflects journalism’s public service committment.) Journalists are doing what they do: running toward the danger so they can tell you about it.

Now, during this public international crisis, you should stay informed. The best way to do that is to subscribe to your local newspaper. It will tell you what you how you should stay safe and how you can help others.

Here are some examples of the front pages today. Images courtesy of the Newseum.







My campus may close and I’m worried

I expect to get word that Chapel Hill’s campus will be closed on Monday for the foreseeable future, and while I think it would be the right thing to do, I am worried about it.

Worried because it isn’t the way I want my students to finish the semester, and, for most of them, their college experience. The final semester of senior year is one to tie off studies, to enjoy the last few months before adulthood, to nail down the mentors you need for future jobs, and to keep your dear friends close.

Instead, they’ll be Zooming in to class from home. They’ll get the lectures and the discussion, but they won’t get the community. They won’t get the creativity and team cohesion and problem solving that they would with in-person meetings. I may miss the clues that they’re drifting during an online class that I wouldn’t miss in person.

Worried because, for many of them, they won’t be able to return to their jobs and work-study programs. They’ll miss those paychecks. They may face food insecurity. They may return to homes with trouble. The may not have great internet access. Will the libraries in their hometowns be able to support research projects? Will the libraries even be open?

Worried that I’ll fail them as a teacher, that I won’t be able to adjust my teaching style, which relies on a physical presence, to digital. Worried that I’ll get confused by the digital tools and not use them to help students. Worried that I’ll lose some students. So, I’m preparing and practicing; I’m rethinking and adjusting my syllabus and style. And I’m confident that, with their help, the instruction will be fine.

I’m sad that this could be the way they have to finish their senior year, but I’m committed to do what I can to make it good.

A message from heaven

My niece Antonia got married Saturday. My wife and I and our two daughters flew to Chicago to celebrate her.

The pastor began the service by saying that the bride and groom wanted to recognize the people important in their lives who were unable to be there. Among those mentioned were my parents, Margy and Walter Robinson, who are both dead.

I’m not a religious person, but at that moment, the hair rose on the back of my neck. I believe I could feel my mother’s presence, shining down on us. Her grandchildren were important to her, more important than her own children because we were adults. In the summer, she held Camp Margy, during which the grandchildren were invited to spend the day — and night, if necessary — with her and my father for a week or two. They both welcomed the kids whenever was convenient for us to leave them.

Antonia is the oldest of the cousins. She was adopted as a child by my brother after her mother and his wife, Bebe, died. I don’t know that Antonia ever came to Camp Margy, but she certainly felt the love. Both he and Antonia’s biological father walked her down the aisle. (My brother, Walter, is on the right, above.) Her biological father told me later that, because Antonia lost her mother so early, family is uber-important to her. My parents were two of many who helped fill that need.

I know they are beaming in heaven right now. I felt it.

Sunshine Day 2020

Sunshine Day 2020, which is Monday at N.C. A&T State University, celebrates open, transparent government, and there is a full slate of activities. I can’t go, but you should.

Consider where we are: A Republican senator and conservative commentators name the whistleblower who started the Ukraine investigation. The White House refuses to participate in the Ukraine investigation. President Trump is suing the Washington Post and the New York Times over opinion articles the papers published. In North Carolina, videos from body and dash cams worn by law enforcement can be released publicly only through a court order.

And of course, politicians starting with President Trump routinely demonize the news media.

The thing about the demonization of the news media — and the news media’s efforts to report on how the government operates in the dark — is that reporters don’t do it for their health. They seek openness and documents to help the public hold government employees accountable. Because President Trump refused all subpoenas during the Ukraine probe, vital information of who said what when was kept underwraps. The purpose of releasing the identity of the whistleblower is not transparency; the purpose is to intimidate others who want to reveal information about what the government is doing.

These are actions that affect the American public, not just journalists.

Before he became an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis wrote: “If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.”

There’s a reason that government wants to keep its actions undercover.


I voted then & now

I was a journalist for 37 years and I covered elections as a reporter — including George Wallace briefly — and later I directed political coverage as an editor. I also voted every chance I got.

I’m proud of it.

This issue comes up because the New York Times published a piece on how its political reporters attempt to remain impartial during election season. Peter Baker, its chief White House correspondent, said: “As reporters, our job is to observe, not participate, and so to that end, I don’t belong to any political party, I don’t belong to any non-journalism organization, I don’t support any candidate, I don’t give money to interest groups and I don’t vote.”

I have always been a Democrat, although once I became editor, the publisher told me to re-register as an Independent. (I didn’t do it.) I didn’t want to give anyone the impression that I was campaigning so I never gave money to an interest group or political candidate. I did not put up any yard signs in support of any candidate or issue.

But I did vote.

I’ve always had opinions, and it would be silly to suggest that I didn’t. I didn’t think that was enough to disqualify me from voting or doing my job, for that matter.

Michael Kinsley addressed this 20 years ago.

Eric Wemple at the Washington Post quoted U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson – referring to a juror that President Trump tweeted as biased – as saying, “Having an opinion about the president and some or even all his policies does not mean that she couldn’t fairly or impartially judge the evidence against Roger Stone.”

That’s the way I feel about voting.