How well is local media covering coronavirus?

Plus: Storm knocks out power to 45,000 in Mecklenburg; Shoppers pack into Walmart on Saturday; Novant hires anti-coronavirus rapper; The Easter Bunny does a drive-by in Madison Park

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Expert panel evaluates the work of local journalists; ‘a hell of a job under difficult conditions,’ one former editor says

By Tony Mecia

In a time of crisis, people seek reliable information.

Today, there are many sources: TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, digital publications. National media can give you the sense of how the pandemic is playing out across the country and the world. But for news about Charlotte — unless you want to rely on social media and word-of-mouth — you’re dependent on local media.

How do we assess their performance covering this massive story? What should their role be — and how are they doing? The Ledger put those questions to a handful of folks with backgrounds in local news in North Carolina.

Several were reluctant to criticize an industry that is generally working hard to provide crucial information. Local media is also beset with its own business problems during the pandemic — some of which are longstanding but are exacerbated by the disappearance of crucial advertising revenue.

Here are their assessments:

Stuart Watson, former investigative reporter at WCNC, creator of the podcast Manlistening:

Local media’s role ought to be public service, calm dissemination of information in context while sticking close to home, not mostly repackaging national stuff and commoditizing fear. But it’s hard to turn on a dime.

I sharply limit my consumption, and it makes me a much healthier person. There is an emerging science showing that in the best of times, heavy news consumption is linked to anxiety and depression.

On 9/11, there was far too little simple documentation of what life was like here. My friend and colleague Andy Benton had to fight the constant demand for live coverage to simply take a beat and cut together a piece of tape to show what things were like — people pausing to pray. I suspect in years to come, we’ll want to know that.

There is no law that whenever an elected official speaks — like, oh, say the president — that you have to report what he says with no editing whatsoever.

Ferrel Guillory, journalism professor at UNC Chapel Hill, former News & Observer columnist:

In a moment of crisis, people turn to daily newspapers and local TV as credible sources. Such media function as community glue. My sense is that local media are throwing all the reporting/editing/production resources into the coronavirus story, much as they do post-hurricane/flood. Stories tend to focus on local conditions, government announcements, schools and hospitals, local institutions, people in need, people serving those in need — all in all, the daily, community-focus, nitty gritty.

Unlike the national media, state and local media give minimum attention to the political and policy implications of the crisis. Gov. Roy Cooper holds press conferences, but not much, if any, news analysis of how he’s handling the issues, how his office is performing, how his decisions may play out in 2020 elections — an editorial here and there, but nothing remotely comparable to the national media treatment of Trump.

The Richard Burr story emerged from national media. Dan Forest criticism of Cooper got momentary attention, not much analysis. Similarly, not much on legislative/state budget implications, not much looking ahead to legislative session.

Melanie Sill, former executive editor of the News & Observer:

The pandemic is a global story that is hitting everyone individually and every community collectively. Many important decisions are being made locally and at the state level: Local news is crucial for identifying needs of residents, informing people about everything from policy decisions to impact, and in this digital age, for rumor control, social connection and community networking. It’s also important for providing a way for people in a community to pull together, solve problems and share a collective story.

So far, I think N.C.’s local news outlets are doing a hell of a job under difficult conditions, especially at providing news updates and basic information, and going deeper on angles not covered by national media. Just about every outlet you check is updating more frequently than ever, many are soliciting and answering questions on N.C. and local details, some have started up newsletters or podcasts, and they’re using many channels to get information out to people. All this while journalists experience the same disruption and worries as everyone else, manage family and home life and calibrate their own risks, and with ad revenues depressed and economic impact hitting home. 

I’ve been teaching some press history at Davidson this semester — a reminder that crises such as war and pandemics force and spark transformation in many ways, including for news. What’s more important right now than reliable information? How can local news support communities and deepen support from communities?

N.C. is a competitive news environment and home to some of the most committed journalists you’ll ever meet. It’s encouraging to see more pooling of efforts focused on the public interest, which can make better use of scarce reporting resources and lift the impact of good reporting. Also, it’s great to see news organizations pushing to keep the public in the loop as government agencies try to backtrack on public access to meetings and record — this is such an important area for media coalitions.

Ryan Tuck, media consultant and writer of the NC Local newsletter about local news for the NC Local News Lab and Democracy Fund:

The role of local media is many things, but to quote [News & Observer editor] Robyn Tomlin, it’s about urgency, utility and accountability. I’d go further and say with utility, it’s about impact. Giving people the credible, accurate information they can use in a real, direct way in their lives and to orient their lives. Most of all, it should be what it is any day of the year: to balance people’s need to know something urgently and to know what they really need to know (so as to avoid being overly reactionary).

I see a lot of “business as usual,” unfortunately, which isn't a good thing. I also see a lot of folks emphasizing numbers over substance. And when you look at more-national providers, especially on broadcast, you see a lot of fear-mongering and not a lot of solutions journalism.

But that’s the bad. There's so much good going on right now, especially here in NC (which I’ve been spotlighting in NC Local). I don't see enough collaboration yet, or as much as there should be, with the exception of some folks like Angie Newsome at Carolina Public Press.

But I see a lot of folks doing audience listening and audience engagement (“what are your questions?” and then answering them), and I see a lot of folks trying to break down what is really happening and what you need to know amid all the headlines in front of you — breaking things down and making them more understandable: What does this mean for me? My kids? My business? My school? When might this really be over? We should be framing those answers clearly.

Our approach

Ledger’s take: The Ledger is a business publication at heart, but we have ramped up our general coronavirus coverage in the last month to help address the need for better reliable local information. Some local coverage is shallow, panic-inducing and unhelpful, but there is also a lot of good work. The Ledger’s focus has been to give you the information you need, in context; to reflect the many changes this event has spurred throughout Charlotte; and to ask and try to answer important questions.

As always, we welcome your ideas and feedback.

Programming note: Ledger editor Tony Mecia is a panelist on this week’s episode of “Carolina Business Review.” The topic is the role of the media in a public health crisis. It can be seen on UNC TV on Thursday and Friday and is also available online.

Your turn

How do you think Charlotte media have done in covering the coronavirus? What would you like to see more of? Less of? Drop us a line, and we will share the responses in a future newsletter.

Send email evaluating local media

Huge overnight storm causes damage, knocks out power

Duke Energy said about 45,000 customers in Mecklenburg County were without power as of 7:30 a.m. Monday. Most were in south Charlotte, according to Duke’s outage map:

Reader response

Ledger readers weigh in on the pandemic, the “stay at home” order, the closing of park parking lots, airport rocking chairs and more:

In response to “Is North Carolina’s curve flattening?”:

  • “I’d encourage you to start publishing actual analysis of the numbers rather than the raw numbers themselves (which only go up and scare people). I actually am starting to think N.C. and places like it are going to be past this crisis within the next several weeks and we’ll enter the next phase of how to keep it contained (rather than how to keep it from spreading uncontrolled).”

In response to “BREAKING: Curve flattening, new park restrictions, smaller field hospital”:

  • “Closing park parking lots is highly discriminatory against folks that don’t live close enough to the large parks to get there on foot or bike. We all pay taxes. We should have equal access. The government needs to quit being so heavy-handed at taking away our liberties.”

  • “What a gong show. They need zero extra beds. Peak will be any day now. Folks are going to start getting really agitated after being misled. ‘Ok, I did my part. Now what?’”

  • “I totally understand why they are doing this for the parks and greenways. But I think people should take note that this highlights the inequity in the community, where large chunks of geography are not anywhere within walking distance of someplace green and walkable. I hope that fact will be remembered after this is over and parks and greenway funding is discussed at the city and county level.”

  • “You were right to question that 3,000 number of hospital beds. No one else did that!”

  • “The ‘seemingly contradictory moves’ don’t seem contradictory to me at all. The evidence shows that smaller field hospital is the direct result of the social distancing mandate. Enhancing that order even further is a good idea.”

  • “The ‘Curve Flattening’ headline is irresponsible for a variety of reasons and poor journalism, as it doesn’t accurately portray what [County Manager Dena] Diorio said or meant. I would not be surprised by this from other news outlets but am saddened to see it from The Ledger.”

In response to “Harris Teeter starts limiting how many shoppers can enter”:

  • “If the grocery stores and big boxes can limit capacity, why can’t this be considered for restaurants, salons, etc.? This might allow some of these businesses to begin to open. I am afraid that a lot of them are not going to make it if restrictions are not eased before long.”

In response to “For two faiths, a week like no other”:

  • “Wanted to let you know that many of the area’s Christians will celebrate Easter NEXT Sunday, April 19. Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate after Passover. I can’t speak for the Coptic (Egyptian) Church, but you will find many Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Serbs, Ethiopians, Eritreans and others celebrating the Resurrection the following week after the Western churches. Our Pascha (Easter) sometimes falls on the same date, but is often a week or more later, depending on the lunar calendar. And we get Easter candy at half price!”

  • “What really got my attention was your meme concerning celebrating Passover by not being killed in a plague. That put a smile on my face.”

In response to “21 doctors out at Holston Medical Group”:

  • “Before the virus, that means 35 doctors were upset enough to leave after about six months? Wonder if they regret leaving Novant in the first place? Or is it just a reality now that all doctors, no matter who manages the practice, have to adapt to patient quotas and other numbers instead of individualized/personalized care?”

In response to “Air travel is now ‘like an apocalypse movie’”:

  • “I was thinking about ways the city/county could take advantage of less traffic and activity due to everyone working from home. After reading this morning’s newsletter, I thought that you could put the airport in there, too. Is it possible for construction and road crews to be more effective or efficient due to less activity? Are there any projects that local or state government could accelerate or initiate that could also help put people to work? I know they’re in crisis mode, but it may be worth considering any potential projects that could be done more quickly. Kind of like how some street work is done at night.”

  • “Those rocking chairs at CLT are one of my favorite airport features in all of USA. It’s so much better than random benches with anti-sleeping bars.”

In response to “Charlotte’s other big pandemic”:

  • “So 100 years later, with a much less deadly virus, we have no better way? Government is not looking out for our safety. They are closing boat ramps, parks, not allowing people to buy seeds. All with absolutely no proof that those edicts will eliminate one case. No proof that allowing businesses to remain open while social distancing would not have produced the same results.”

  • “It’s comforting to know it happened before, and it passed. I have been researching the 1918 flu as well. One thing I noticed is N.C./S.C. papers seemed to place more judgment on the disease than, say, New Jersey or Boston. They almost imply that it’s ‘dirty’ people and behaviors that spread the disease. I wonder if this approach is due to slavery/segregation binary that enables people to place judgement on others as ‘less clean.’” 

Easter Bunny does a drive-by

Essential Easter preparations at Walmart

It looked more like Black Friday than a quarantine Saturday at the Indian Land, S.C., Walmart on the day before Easter, as customers filled their carts with spring essentials — candy, potting soil, plastic eggs and plants — and formed lines that snaked through the store. (Not everyone was following the six-foot social distancing guidelines, as you see here.) Charlotteans also packed parks and greenways on Saturday, as noted by Charlotte Five.

In brief:

  • City housing help: The city of Charlotte plans to spend about $5.7M in emergency federal Covid-19 funding to help with housing needs. A proposal on tonight’s City Council agenda calls for the city to work with the Salvation Army Women’s Shelter and the Men’s Shelter to add 120 extended-stay rooms and help pay rent and mortgages of people in low-income households. The city also plans to help businesses with five or fewer employees that are located in designated neighborhoods close to uptown.

  • What’s up with the field hospital? A week and a half after Atrium and Novant said they needed a field hospital to accommodate an overflow of coronavirus patients, there’s still no plan — and county leaders are balking at paying for it. Some commissioners think the hospital systems should pay for the temporary hospital. Atrium and Novant refused to answer questions from The Observer, as did city and county administrators. (Observer)

  • Who is Gibbie Harris? The Observer profiled Mecklenburg County’s 67-year-old health director. She’s a former nurse who started a hospice center in Lenoir and served as health director in Raleigh and Asheville before coming to Charlotte in 2017, where she has stumbled into a few minor controversies. Harris also enjoys reading science fiction and fantasy novels: “Witches, warlocks and dragons are a pretty good escape,” she says. (Observer)

  • Time to release inmates? Because of fears about the spread of coronavirus in jails, protestors on Saturday demanded that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police stop arresting people for misdemeanors and low-level felonies and that the jail release inmates with less than six months remaining on their sentences and those who cannot afford bail. “Around 25 relentlessly honking cars drove in a single-file loop in Uptown Charlotte that passed the county detention center, the county courthouse and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters. Signs taped on the cars read, ‘Misdemeanor should not be a death sentence’ and ‘Let my people go.’” (Observer)

  • Affordable housing: A developer is proposing a 150-unit apartment complex with affordable housing off Ashley Road in west Charlotte. The 6-acre site is between Bullard and Joy streets, north of Wilkinson Boulevard. Elmington Capital Group is seeking a rezoning for the property. The company is represented by Alexander Ricks.

  • Century-old cover-up: Charlotte officials concealed from the public the number of deaths from the 1918-19 flu pandemic. “At the height of the epidemic, when citizens were dying at the rate of more than 10 a week, they under-reported the scope of the crisis by two-thirds.” (Observer)

  • Alternative business plan: Queen City Nerve, Charlotte’s free alternative newspaper, has started offering a paid-subscription plan that mails the biweekly issues to your house. Advertising has disappeared and its traditional circulation model no longer works because everybody is staying home. “We still believe wholeheartedly in a ‘free press’ in both of its meanings, but we’re going to need your help in keeping this mission going by helping with our production and shipping costs,” the paper wrote to supporters in an email on Friday. The cost is $9.15/month or $102.82/year. Details here.

  • Charlotte live-streaming round-up: With more activities moving to Zoom and other platforms, a new website is working to become a clearinghouse for local online classes, performances and social events. The site, Turn On Charlotte, wants to be a “central list like a TV Guide for all the live-streams by Charlotte creatives and businesses,” founder Dion Beary tells The Ledger.

  • More grants: Foundation for the Carolinas and United Way of Central Carolinas awarded more than $3M to 51 local nonprofits in the second round of funding from the Covid-19 Response Fund. In the last month, the fund has raised more than $16M from from corporations, foundations, individuals and local government. (WBTV, with list of recipients)

  • Extension of “stay at home” order coming? County commissioner Mark Jarrell said county commissioners have not been very involved in the county’s response to Covid-19, but he thinks that will soon change. He says he can’t envision not extending the “stay at home” order into May. “We’d look really crazy if we lift that ‘stay at home’ order too early, and then you see a spike. How will people gauge our judgment?” (WFAE Inside Politics newsletter)

Novant hires rapper to fight coronavirus

Novant Health announced last week that it has “partnered with beatboxing legend Doug E. Fresh to give an important reminder about staying home.”

In case you’re not up to speed on your hip-hop artists, Fresh is a 53-year-old a “Barbadian-American rapper, record producer and beatboxer, also known as the ‘Human Beat Box,’” according to Wikipedia. He’s able to “accurately imitate drum machines and various special effects using only his mouth, lips, gums, throat, tongue and a microphone.”

Novant emailed out the 36-second spot to customers and promoted it on social media.

Lyrics include: “Everybody, keep your face mask on / Don’t take it off cuz corona’s strong / And wash your hands for 20 seconds long / 6 feet keep / 6 feet keep / social distance is on.” — TM

Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through last week’s close), and year to date:

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire; Reporting intern: David Griffith