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By Thomas Baekdal - March 2020

Is climate change coverage worth it? And the problem with covering COVID-19

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to another edition of the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, I have a few 'random' things for you. Two questions and topics that I have been asked about, and that are worth responding to more.

We will start with this:

It's spring (well almost), and it's a new world out there

It's almost spring. Yay! ... But here in Denmark, we never actually had a winter. We went directly from windy and wet autumn, to spring. And during this transition, we got a lot of rain, so much that many areas in the country flooded.

It happened back in October, where the houses where I live looked like the picture below, and it happened again in February (although, the second time, the city was more prepared for it, so the flooding was much more contained).

My home sits about half a meter higher than all the other buildings, so I was fine, but most of the other houses and their basements got a lot of water damage.

More interesting, here in Denmark, we have a national insurance council called the Storm Council. Its role is to identify when something could be classified as an unexpected national disaster, in which case the Danish government will pay the insurance costs (instead of people's own insurance companies, which usually don't cover things like this).

And up until now, this Storm Council has classified these floods as such. But they are now likely to change that because, as it is argued, climate change is no longer an "unexpected" event.

It's here to stay, and people's normal insurance and actions should take that into account.

So... why am I telling you this? And what does this have to do with the media?

Well, I have had multiple discussions around climate change coverage and the focus of that in the media. It started back in February, when I was asked to comment on the new Bloomberg Green site.

I was asked:

There's such a tension around funding important service journalisms like, the economics are quite tough. Is there data or research or interesting examples you have come across about the economics of this type of coverage? Presumably, this is like service journalisms that will always be funded by other parts of the business? Who is making big bets in this?

The journalist who asked me this is a person that I admire a lot, and a brilliant journalist. And this question is a rather good question. In fact, in the context it was asked, it was also a very relevant question.

However, I also found it to be a somewhat weird question. Because why is climate change seen as a special type of coverage that has to be quantified economically by itself?

I mean, if I go to the Guardian (or any other newspaper), there is a story on the front page about a truck that has crashed into a statue on Easter Island.

A journalist was spending time writing this, but did you ever ask "what are the economics of this type of coverage?"

See what I mean? Why do we have to quantify whether climate change coverage is economically profitable, when newspapers spend an endless amount of time writing about random things that are never quantified?

Note: The Guardian is a poor example because it actually has pretty good climate coverage, but you get the point.

Also think about relevance.

How many people in the UK would find a story about a statue on Easter Island relevant? The answer is nobody. It has no relevance, no usefulness, and no real interest. In fact, tomorrow, everyone will have forgotten that it even happened.

In comparison, how many people will be affected by climate change, either directly or indirectly? The answer is ***everyone***!!

So, you are not 'making a bet' on climate change, and it's not a special type of 'service journalism'. This is one of the most important topics affecting your audience right now.

It should be made a part of your main editorial focus.

Also remember what I said in the beginning, about how here in Denmark, climate change might no longer be classified as an unexpected natural disaster.

What this means is that climate change is no longer an 'event'. It's an ongoing topic.

This is also important for publishers. Obviously, if a city is flooded, you should write about that. But you shouldn't just forget about it once it's over, and then go back to whatever else you cover every day.

Climate change is not a special event. It's a main topic. Just as you have dedicated journalists covering politics and crime, you should have dedicated journalists covering climate change.

More than that, you need to be solution-based (like with entrepreneurial journalism). Since climate change is here to stay, it's not good enough to just cover that "yesterday, parts of the city flooded". You also need to cover (and continue to cover), "well, how do you prevent the same type of damage four months from now when it will happen again?"

And once you do this, then we can talk about the economics of it. And there are so many ways this could work. If you decide to focus on climate change, a highly relevant topic for people, with solutions and the community in mind, just think about how many companies would like to advertise or support that, and how many people would be interested in subscribing.

Climate change is more than capable of being one of the most important driving forces behind your newspaper as a whole.

The math behind the COVID-19 outbreak

Another really important thing to cover (obviously) is the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the media industry, we are doing a really good job covering this, but also making every mistake possible. And as a media analyst, it's both fascinating and incredibly frustrating to look at.

Of the bad things we do, there are four main mistakes that we make.

The first mistake is that so many newspapers seem to be confusing opinions with facts.

I tweeted this the other day:

Journalists, why are you interviewing someone who has no knowledge about COVID19 other than 'their opinion' and then presenting them as an expert?

I know that you are anxious to publish more articles (I mean, you have only published 10+ already today), but seriously.

More important, Maryn McKenna, a journalist and author, wrote this:

Following @jayrosen_nyu and @froomkin's comments earlier, a plea.

NEWSROOMS: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, CENTER YOUR HEALTH AND SCIENCE WRITERS ON #COVID19. If they're too busy to do all the stories, at least run your copy by them.

Your mistakes are misleading the public.

Just in the past few days, I've seen: A features writer claim that the coronavirus accomplishes airborne transmission (evidence does not support). A GA writer claim US cases are "pouring in" (terrible phrasing, and confuses rising case count and increased test results).

This is not even to mention the DC/politics corps who (as @jayrosen_nyu and @froomkin outpointed) insist on construing #COVID19 response as a political-horse race narrative, or the cable networks deliberately choosing inflammatory talkers because they bring the clicks.

The health and science writers in your newsroom (or your network, if you rely on freelancers) have the training, the beat knowledge and the sources to help you get #COVID19 right, and help you to communicate the appropriate level of concern to your readers/viewers. Use them.

The second problem is with the focus. In the media industry today, we focus on the total number of cases. But this is not useful.

Don't get me wrong, in the beginning of a news cycle, the total number of cases is relevant to cover. But once the epidemic gets going, the total number of cases is meaningless and can even be misleading.

The reason is because of math. When measuring how an epidemic is going, the total is defined as the average number of people exposed to it per day, multiplied by the probability of being infected.

These are the two very specific numbers that governments around the world are now trying to keep as low as possible.

And the result of these gives you the 'growth rate per day', which is currently around 1.15 (meaning the total is exponentially going up, which is pretty bad).

Of course, if we can get it to 1, it means that we have stopped the growth, even though the total number of cases keeps going up, and if it's below one, it means we have finally solved it, in which case we are theoretically likely to see a doubling of cases, but no more.

It is this number we need to focus on. If the growth rate is 1.15, we are looking at 100 million infected people in 2 months, but if we can reduce that rate to only 1.05, the number of infected people will 'only' be about 400,000.

All of these numbers come from Grant Sanderson, a brilliant mathematician and educator, and you can see a video where he explains it all here on his YouTube channel (I highly recommend you watch this).


The third problem is how we in the media are undermining public health efforts.

Over the past week, I have seen many articles where publishers are directly questioning whether all those things we do to stop COVID-19 are really necessary. Some even publish that it is just an overreaction.

Again, remember what I just said. The current growth rate of COVID-19 is 1.15, meaning it is exponentially growing. And if we don't do anything, in theory, it means that 100 million will be infected in two months. And if the current death rates stay the same, that means about 2 million people will die from this.

But to change this, we need to stop the factors that cause this growth rate to be so high. And the way to do that is by limiting the number of people who are exposed and the likelihood that they can be infected. In other words, limit social gatherings, limit travel to infected areas, quarantine people who we know may be carriers, step up hygiene (like washing your hands), and so forth.

This is the only way we can fix this.

So, as newspapers, you need to stop questioning whether "all of this is really necessary", or interviewing people who, in their opinion, think this way. The data very clearly tells us that this is necessary. As long as the growth rate is 1.15, we need to do absolutely everything to stop this.

What many newspapers are doing right now is a direct danger to the public. Look at the data. Don't look at the total, because that will mislead you. Look at the actual data behind it.

The fourth problem we are faced with is news fatigue or news confusion.

First of all, it's important to remember that the purpose of misinformation isn't to tell you a lie, but to flood you with so much conflicting information that you no longer know what to believe.

This is actually what we are doing in the news industry right now. By completely inundating people with news stories about COVID-19, and bringing people every possible 'angle' or opinion we can find. We are directly causing the public to stop believing in anything. We are misinforming the public, not because any specific article isn't true, but because of the sheer volume of it.

This is a critical mistake that we make all the time in the media. We saw exactly the same thing around Brexit and the political situation in the US.

And once people get to the point where they no longer trust anything, news fatigue sets in, and suddenly we lose our ability as publishers to influence and/or inform people.

Even if we tell people something that is 100% true and really important, people will respond with "oh whatever, we can probably not trust it".

Don't make this mistake again!

As I tweeted last week:

We need to talk more about 'news stress', where our coverage becomes so intense that people start to feel stressed about the news. Because, when that happens, we get news fatigue and later news avoidance, and we lose our ability to make journalism valuable.

This is happening right now around the coverage of COVID-19. It's an incredibly important topic, but by totally inundating people with our coverage, we are burning people out.

"The result is that people will stop listening to us, which will make future progress harder.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't cover it because, obviously, we should. But make every single article count, get rid of the opinions and the noise, figure out what the data means, and focus on that!

And as I said, these are just some of the problems I see. There is a lot of really good coverage out there too. But we should not mix the good with the bad.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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