Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Journalistic transparency: A TV station explains its decisions to the public

Joe Donatelli is the digital director of News 5 Cleveland

A year ago, Cleveland’s ABC affiliate Channel 5 pulled back the curtain on its decision-making to tell online readers why it did not run mugshot galleries and stories inspired by mugshots. That peek into newsroom thinking would become an ongoing series.

Led by Digital Director Joe Donatelli, the station offers chatty, candid, blunt insider details about the station’s journalistic choices. Their subjects range from story selection to why the station does not report information from police scanner traffic. On March 10, Donatelli responded to station critics complaining its coronavirus coverage was stoking panic. This week, he explained the station’s policy on when and how to describe crime suspects.

The station calls the series “News Literacy.”

“Now more than ever, news organizations must bridge the gap between themselves and the public,” the station says on its News Literacy page. “In this ongoing series, we share with you how we cover the news, and we work to dispel the misunderstandings people have about journalism.”

We emailed Donatelli to find out how the series has been received and how connecting with the public is affecting its journalistic decisions. 

How long have you been doing ‘News Literacy’ and what prompted the station to do it?

Donatelli: We published our first News Literacy piece in July 2019. At the time, we already had a policy in place about running mugshot stories and galleries, with our policy being that we don’t do them, for the reasons I wrote about. When I saw another news organization not only do such a story but send it out as a push alert, I realized that sharing our policy was an opportunity to offer up transparency about our news judgment while also differentiating ourselves by highlighting our standards.

Your Facebook page passed 500,000 followers, a clear sign of success. What has been the reaction to the explanations you have been offering about how you cover the news?

Donatelli: The emails and phone calls are mostly positive. The comments on Facebook and Twitter tend to be more negative. That said, I take the rapid growth of our Facebook page over the last two years as a sign that our overall approach to news is resonating with folks in Northeast Ohio.

Has the response prompted you to make any changes about how you present the news?

Donatelli: We’ve examined and changed the way we cover the news as a direct response to feedback we receive on social media. The biggest example of this is how we report the state’s coronavirus stats every day. Like the other stations in town, we used to blast the raw numbers at our readers as soon as they came out every day at 2, and that was a frustrating experience for readers who were craving more nuance and depth. Now we plug those numbers into a series of charts and graphs, and we layer in context provided by the data as well as comments from health officials.

One takeaway from your explainers is that even in this age of instant information, speed is not always the best way to inform. Can you describe how that approach affects how you at Channel 5 report the news?

Donatelli: No one remembers who got the story first, although, yeah, we love getting it first. What they will remember is you getting it wrong. We’ve slowed our roll, as a newsroom, many times because we’d rather be second and right than first and wrong.

How has the confluence of news events — pandemic, unemployment, racial justice -— been reflected in the questions your audience raises with you? What interests or concerns them most about the news coverage?

Donatelli: There’s a rising sense of frustration mixed with a genuine desire to know more. Some readers have very real concerns, for example, about whether the stories we’re doing on coronavirus accurately reflect reality as they attempt to navigate a new and sometimes scary world. We discuss those concerns and try to factor them in. Sometimes they become stories.

What has been the reaction/response inside the newsroom to your outreach to the audience?

Donatelli: A lot of support. In fact, I’m now getting requests. The suggestion to do suspect descriptions came from inside our newsroom.

You ended that piece on suspect descriptions with a message: If you really need to know if a suspect was white or Black, and the crime has no effect on you, “please stop and consider why you need to know at all.” What was the audience response to that explainer?

Donatelli: The usual mix of positive and negative, with an exception. This was a new one. I got a call from a woman. She went to our website, found my phone number, called it and left this message: “I wanted to tell you that your piece today on why you guys don’t give descriptions of suspects is wonderful. I scan your website pretty regularly, but I don’t watch you guys on TV. Today you gave me an entirely new respect for channel 5. This was a great piece. A great explanation. And I really respect you guys for what you do. Have a great day.” That was awesome to hear.

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