Tips to ‘reframe’ your COVID-19 stories, from Resolve Philly’s Aubrey Nagle

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists.

In communities across the globe, COVID-19 continues to alter even the most cemented norms and institutions. As journalists work to provide their audiences with accurate information during an unprecedented time, we must adapt our reporting to the shifting realities of the world we cover. In the face of such change, though, Resolve Philly’s Aubrey Nagle reminds us to, “[go] back to the basics.” 

Nagle is the Project Editor of Reframe, an initiative of Resolve Philly that aims to guide journalists in improving the accuracy and authenticity of coverage in underrepresented communities. Recently, Reframe launched the Reporting on Coronavirus guide, a resource that offers crucial guidance on framing your COVID-19 story and writing about the economic impact of the pandemic, as well as a language guide to help you tackle those challenging terms you’ll find during your reporting. 

For this edition of Navigator we spoke with Nagle to delve deeper into the challenges of reporting responsibly and with nuance in the middle of a pandemic. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

GroundTruth: Which questions should reporters ask themselves when writing headlines, to prevent clickbait or misinformation, especially at a time when consumers don’t often read beyond the headline?

Nagle: “How could this be misinterpreted?” is always the main question. Everyone should be asking that when they’re creating any sort of headline or social post because you can almost guarantee a lot of folks will not be reading past the headline. That can get misconstrued as, “Oh, people are lazy” or “They’re not interested in reading it.” That’s not the case. Folks are busy and they also can’t spend all day engaging with things as much as we would like them to. So we need to be providing that context on a really basic level. 

The second question is: “Am I prioritizing creativity in a headline over context?” It can be painful to write boring headlines, but if that is the most informative version of a headline, that is the right thing to do. It might not be the most clickable headline, but this is not the time for worrying about our page views. We need to be giving people information the quickest way possible. 

Related: Check out what Reframe says about writing informative headlines here.

GT: According to the Pew Research Center, 30% of adult Americans think the media has “gotten the risks about right” when it comes to COVID-19 coverage. What mistakes are journalists making, though, that lead to misinformation, particularly when it comes to risk?

Nagle: The clarity of headlines and social posts is one, because they can be easily misconstrued. I don’t think that panic-inducing content has been as much of a problem as it has been made out to be. I’ve actually seen far more people brushing [the pandemic] off as not serious. Largely, I think that comes from general and ongoing distrust in the media, not necessarily around COVID-19. 

The things that I have seen that are very panic-inducing, which I do want to stay away from, are shots of empty store shelves and long lines at gun supply stores. There is lots of research on how taking in the media can actually become a memory in our minds, as if we’ve experienced it ourselves. And if you see a ton of pictures of empty shelves during panic-buying moments, then you’re going to think that there’s no food available. I’ve seen a lot of that imagery when really that’s not indicative of the actual availability of food. In a lot of cases, supply chains are still running and grocery stores are getting restocked. Same with the gun buying. We’re focusing on images of like 30 people in a city of millions going out and buying guns. Keep in mind what the proportionality is of an image that we’re sharing, in relation to the reality of this situation. 

Related: See how photojournalists are finding ways to cover the pandemic, while maintaining social distancing. 

GT: How do news outlets make their content stand out at a time in which most of the press, if not all, is reporting on the same story: COVID-19?

Nagle: The main thing that a lot of news organizations are missing is the explanatory aspect. There are a lot of great journalists doing a lot of great work covering COVID-19 for their communities. And it’s really easy for us as journalists to get really in our newsroom bubble of thinking everybody else is paying as much attention to the news cycle as we are ourselves. Even if people are home quarantining, they’re still probably working, they’re dealing with homeschooling their children, perhaps for the first time and they might only tune into the news once or twice a day. And especially during this time of a lot of scary news. It can be really taxing, and so people are going to be tuning in a little bit less. 

GT: What should reporters keep in mind as the rate of change and the number of cases of COVID-19 varies among communities? Is there opportunity for collaborative journalism between reporters in different regions?

Nagle: It is so important for folks to remember when they are reporting on numbers and new cases that numbers without context are pretty much useless to the average person. I honestly don’t even know the latest number in Philadelphia, where I am. I read it this morning, but it clearly didn’t make an impact on me because I don’t actually understand the proportion of it to our community. We have such little testing in America that those numbers are relatively meaningless in actually examining the spread of this disease across the country. 

There’s a lot of room for collaboration across regions, whether that’s with data sharing about these cases or just with content sharing. Resolve Philly is a convener of two dozen or so news organizations in Philly through our Broke in Philly initiative, which focuses the efforts of those newsrooms on economic mobility and solutions to poverty. Right now, everyone is focused on COVID-19 reporting, and we are actively trying to make sure those folks are working smarter, not harder. As economic impact hits everyone, including newsrooms, being really efficient with our resources is going to be key to making sure we’re still giving the public the information that they need. If two outlets are running the same story and covering the same beat, then one person’s entire capacity for writing a story is essentially wasted for the public when they could be sharing information. It is not the time for competition. It is definitely the time for collaboration. We’re all stronger together across the industry. 

Related: Check the NPPA’s list of state-by-state orders of journalists as “essential” here.

GT: What should journalists consider when creating visuals for COVID-19 statistics, whether that’s current data or projected numbers?

Nagle: This is really tough when there’s not a great understanding of the numbers to begin with. It seems simple, but making sure that axes on any graph are proportional, and that we’re not fudging with that Y axis. I’ve seen a lot of charts trying to explain exponential growth where the Y axis goes from like 50 cases, to 200 cases, to 600 cases to 1000 or something, and they’re all kind of equally spread. And that doesn’t actually make sense to anybody, let alone the average person experiencing these numbers for the first time. There is no such thing as over-explaining.

Related: Need a scientific question on COVID-19 answered for an upcoming story? SciLine may be able to help. 

GT: President Trump has been using the fact that the virus originated in China to call it things like the “Chinese Virus,” contributing to xenophobic attacks on Asian Americans. How can reporters balance accurately quoting leaders who use xenophobic language about COVID-19 without endorsing his or her message?

Nagle: There are very few ways to quote somebody saying something xenophobic or racist without perpetuating it. By reprinting it, you are perpetuating it, just on its face. The more lies repeated, the more people are willing to believe it, not because they think it’s true; it’s a cognitive bias in our brains that the first time we hear some information that is a lie or is misleading, we’re just more likely to think that it is accurate. It is really hard to get past that initial point of contact with a bit of information. 

Obviously it is important to report on the wrongdoing of public officials and to put bad behavior like that on display so people can understand the personality and the perspective of people in charge. But to avoid looking like we’re spreading it unnecessarily, absolutely not letting those quotes hang as headlines themselves. It does nothing for a reader besides reinforce what that person has said. By not putting it in context and not explaining why it should not and is not medically accurate to call it the Chinese or Foreign Virus, for example, is just perpetuating it. 

Writing about somebody saying something racist or xenophobic just as a news item itself: not helpful to anybody. Explaining why it isn’t appropriate and using it to make a broader point about xenophobia: useful.

Related: Check out the Associated Press’ Coronavirus Topical Guide for accurate spelling and common term definitions. 

GT: In what circumstances would you advise local reporters to take a more narrative or feature approach to COVID-19 coverage? What are the benefits or pitfalls of this?

Nagle: Narratives can be compelling to audiences to really drive points home and understand the personal experiences. I’ve found those to be effective when I’ve seen examples of what it’s like to have COVID-19 or to have a loved one who is hospitalized because of COVID-19. That really paints a picture for somebody and kind of boils something down from abstraction. I think that’s key, especially on a local level for local businesses to explain how owners and workers are experiencing this. Those kinds of narratives really help us empathize with other people. 

I think there can be [pitfalls] when narratives are used as the lede to a more informative story. If you’re trying to explain that there’s a stimulus package coming for your city for small business owners, the small business owner is going to click on the article. Starting out with a narrative about why somebody needs it is kind of distracting at that point. But generally, if it’s employed under the right circumstances, we really do score audiences.

GT: How can newsrooms ensure that important stories unrelated to COVID-19 are not being missed?

Nagle: That’s gonna be really tough right now. We’re seeing that across newsrooms. It feels like the world has stopped, but it hasn’t really. And COVID-19 seems to be all on everyone’s mind. I think there needs to be some understanding when we’re pushing out stories of balancing more evergreen feature-y content that can maybe be held back. I know it’s important to a lot of publications to have that mix there and hit their audiences on a couple of different levels, but it’s kind of an unprecedented time for thinking about this mix we’re pushing out. I honestly don’t really know the answer to getting that information in front of people besides packaging it as “what else is going on in the world that’s important,” because everything right now seems to be going back to coronavirus.