My obsession with pandemics began in the 1900s, in Tampa, Florida of all places, at WFLA. That’s where an Ebola scare caused my scientific mind to latch on to what I would argue is the single greatest threat to the world and the single hardest story to cover: a pandemic. I wanted to be ready for what an easily transmitted, dangerous disease could do. I became a student, reading research and talking to experts. Ebola. SARS. Bird flu. Pandemic planning grids were assembled wherever I worked and that included local stations as well as international networks (see grid experts Jeff Gygax and Elisa Berkowitz). I am no Dr. Fauci, but when it comes to news and pandemics, I get it.
A pandemic planning grid is one thing. Going above and beyond the stats of this unprecedented and terrifying event is another. That’s where understanding the community you serve comes in. News often inspires helplessness and even hopelessness. Our consumers turn to us for information. If we convey fear and uncertainty in a way that overwhelms them, research has shown they may turn away from us. As journalists, we can try to overcome this tuning out by offering purpose. Purpose gives people a way to help, to contribute, even to control. When they do something purposeful, it fills them with endorphins. As a result, many people want to do it again and they return to the source that gave them that feeling.
I would invite you to consider how you can use your journalism to offer purpose. One of the largest purposeful events taking place right now involves people sitting in their homes sewing masks for health care workers. Many of you have done quick stories on this. You make your journalism purposeful when you cover that story with greater intent as Action News did in Jacksonville, Florida. It is telling viewers about the people making masks, what institutions are getting the masks and, most importantly, how viewers can join the effort. In Jacksonville, there’s even a tented area where people can take their completed masks for distribution to health care workers. As journalists, you could enlarge this effort on air or online by creating daily or weekly tallies of masks made and donated. Highlight success stories. Keep people updated on the process, the need, even on the changing designs. Perhaps masks could be offered to anyone who needs them.
It’s not just masks. Communities are coming together to support health care workers and first responders. The Courier Journal out of Kentucky told people how to donate their unneeded gloves. The Daily Tar Heel covered a citizen-formed group that began making meals. Eater NYC did a deep dive into all the restaurants that are sending food. KOIN-TV offers a list of businesses offering support of all kinds. Here in Tampa, YMCAs are providing free day care for their children. Your opportunity as journalists is to find these efforts and raise them up in a way that allows your audiences to participate; to feel and be part of something purposeful and to be commended for it. Health care workers are the front line defending us against COVID. If we can help save them, they can continue saving us.
Purposeful journalism can go far beyond support for the front lines. I am a mother to two little girls and like millions of other parents, I am now trying to educate them at home. E-learning is overwhelming and an opportunity for purposeful journalism. Seeing local businesses struggling, KSAT-TV created an interactive guide that connects struggling local restaurants with potential customers. Don’t forget family finances, unemployment, remote work, proper COVID protection and sanitization. People are helping people and journalists can, too.
How do you do this when you feel overwhelmed by a story that doesn’t stop and threatens your very life? The simplest way is to seize upon the efforts within your community like the mother who used Facebook to organize Jacksonville’s mask effort. Get behind these people and in an organized, determined way help other people get involved. Partner with organizations, businesses, sponsors that can support and even take over. That’s the simple way, and there are many more forms of purposeful journalism.
I applaud the concept of “facts, not fear,” a position taken by TEGNA (my spouse’s company). It radiates Winston Churchill’s heroic “keep calm and carry on” sensibility during World War II. We are fighting a war - a global one - with an immune and mutating enemy. Purposeful journalism is simply journalism created with intention. Let’s do more than report the stats and share quick stories. Let’s help our communities win this war.