The coronavirus pandemic has raised some difficult journalistic questions for which there are not easy answers.
Journalists are facing conflicts between stressing good health practices while, at the same time, holding public officials accountable for their actions and, sometimes, inaction. Another conflict involves protecting one’s own health by staying home which can restrict accessing news sources.
The personal health concerns were amplified when we learned a state representative tested positive for the virus just a few days after he had been in the House chamber.
Ironically, the House had been acting on a hefty appropriation to deal with coronavirus in the final three months of the budget year.
An infected person in the building is a serious cause for concern because of how crowded the hallways and the chambers become when the legislature is in session.
The positive test caused the Capitol to be closed for several days to disinfect the place. Ten days earlier, legislative leaders had asked schools to not bring groups of students to visit the seat of Missouri state government.
I understood their request. I had begun feeling uneasy entering the building when it was packed with legislators, lobbyists and school groups. Like some other reporters, I’ve been covering state government from my home by listening to live streams of legislative sessions and the governor’s daily briefings.
But not being in the building has restricted coverage. I have not been there to ask follow-up questions of the governor or to easily query legislators and lobbyists about issues like the potential loss of state revenues from the economic impact of the virus that likely will severely cripple state services.
So, I have a nagging sense of guilt that I am not fulfilling my journalistic responsibilities. Like many reporters, I occasionally have risked my own safety in pursuit of a story or to assist journalism in emerging democracies.
Why not this time?
To be honest, I am unsure how much of my decision to stay at home and limit my coverage has been motivated by personal health concerns versus a sense of responsibility to comply with the advice from health officials on how to slow the spread of this disease so as not to overwhelm health facilities and medical staff.
Has maturity made me more cautious, maybe less reckless, than I had been in my younger years? Or has it made me more responsible?
Another question I’m facing involves how to balance coverage between politics and policy disagreements with public safety.
That conflict was demonstrated when Gov. Mike Parson announced he was instructing the Health Department director to issue an order prohibiting groups larger than 10, with exceptions.
Violation of that order is a misdemeanor crime.
Over the decades, I’ve covered the debates as the legislature extensively expanded the emergency powers of state agencies and the governor including even the power to seize private property. So, I fully understand the public-policy disagreements about those powers.
Balancing public safety and health with constitutional freedoms has been a continuing issue for as long as our country has existed.
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment provision establishes “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
Yet, health experts across the world tell us that avoiding large crowds is a key step to avoid spreading coronavirus.
So, what aspect do I emphasize in my stories? Do I focus on explaining the public-health benefits for people to comply with the Health Department’s order?
Or, do I focus on the public-policy questions, even if such an emphasis could undermine efforts to obtain public compliance with an order critical to managing this disease as best as possible?
That conundrum reminds me of questions about coverage of the Vietnam War debate. Some attacked extensive coverage of protests opposing the war as undermining the nation’s war effort. There is one huge difference from today. There was a legitimate dispute about as to whether the Vietnam War even should be pursued.
But in the battle with coronavirus, there’s no debate about the objective.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).