By Shereen Siewert, Editor and Publisher, Wausau Pilot and Review
Happy Monday, readers. I hope you’re all coping well.
As the national health emergency declared by President Trump continues, we — like you — are going through a range of changes and challenges. We’re still adjusting to our “new normal” and hoping that it all ends sooner, rather than later. I’m guessing most of you share that sentiment.
Typically, we focus our efforts on what’s happening at City Hall; public safety issues like fires, crashes and crime; court cases that are winding their way through the system; school news; election coverage. But with schools closed, in-person court appearances canceled, non-essential meetings canceled, more people staying at home, and election results postponed, there isn’t a lot of that to report right now.
Right now, readers are eager for news about the virus and its impact, more than anything else, it seems. I say that because we can tell by looking at analytic tools that tell us definitively which of our stories readers are responding to most. We can tell how many people read each story, how long they stay engaged in it and how many new readers we’re seeing. That data helps shape our coverage, as we seek to give you more of what you’re interested in. We have a lot of new readers, too; in fact, our audience has doubled. We also saw a sharp rise in donations, and we are so grateful for the support!
But our coverage has not been without its critics, and I’d like to address some of that here today.
Every day, we post the latest data from the state about the number of COVID-19 infections, negative tests, deaths and hospitalizations, which we generally receive just before 2 p.m. from the Department of Health Services, or during a 1:30 p.m. press briefing from Gov. Tony Evers and key members of his staff. And, pretty much every day, we see a comment on Facebook that asks why we don’t post any good news, like the number of people who have recovered from the virus.
I get that. Sometimes people want something good to hang onto. Other times, they want to make sure we’re asking the right questions. And sometimes, too, the question is meant to insinuate the media is playing up death for ratings.
It’s a valid observation.
Here’s the thing, though, about recovery statistics. Marathon County has told us that one person who tested positive has since recovered. But the state doesn’t release the number of people who have so far recovered from the virus, in part because little data is yet available. One reason is that there is no automated reporting system for hospitals to provide that kind of information. Another is because many people infected with COVID-19 are recovering at home. It’s data we have been asking for, though, and reporters around the state have asked for it repeatedly in press briefings.
Johns Hopkins University does post the number of recoveries, but doesn’t break the data down into state or county information. One of my reporter friends said, when we were discussing this issue on Saturday, “it’s kind of like trying to report on the number of car crash deaths that don’t happen.”
Also playing into the “recovery” issue: there are not enough tests in the U.S. Additionally, people who have tested positive aren’t consistently being tested again to see if they’re free from the virus (also in part because of a lack of tests and test medium, which we hope will even out in the coming days and weeks.)
In all probability, the number of recoveries is much higher than what’s been reported by Johns Hopkins.
But then, so are the probable number of infections.
There is something to be said for positive news right now, though. In Saturday’s virus brief, for example, we shared some potentially good news about a decade-old blood treatment that is showing some promise in treating the virus. We also published a guest column on some fantastic ways the community is coming together right now to help neighbors, businesses and friends cope. We’ll do our best to seek more of that out. I think we could all use it.
One reader wrote in to ask about our reliance on the Associated Press for coverage these days. You are absolutely seeing way more Associated Press stories, which we pay for, posted to our site right now. The reason? Because right now, more than ever before, what’s happening around the state is having a direct impact on you. Decisions on election issues, decisions on state and federal aid, orders from the governor — these are all having serious consequences for you, and we’re sharing those stories to help keep you as informed as possible. AP doesn’t, and won’t ever, drive our reporting. It is a supplement to it. Once this is over, we expect our ratio of local vs. state stories will go back to normal, too.
While we wait to see what the next few weeks bring, we’re doing our best to bring you the most comprehensive coverage we can of all the issues we’re facing locally, not just the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. If you have a question you’d like us to find the answer to, drop us a line at email@example.com and we’ll do our best to find out. If we can’t get the answer, we’ll tell you why.
We’re also continuing to increase monitoring of comments on Facebook posts. Despite our warnings, some commenters continue to spew hatred and vitriol at an astonishing pace. To those people I say: Knock it off. Seriously. I will never understand how cruel people can be when hiding behind a screen and keyboard. We’re doing our best to remove comments and ban habitual rule-breakers, but it’s a gargantuan task to sift through hundreds (or more) comments each day. (P.S., just because someone is irritating doesn’t mean they’re breaking the rules.)
We’d rather spend our time reporting the news. You can help keep commenting on Facebook alive by reminding others to be courteous and reporting hate speech or bullying directly to Facebook. Read more about the rules and how to report violations here.
Emotions are high right now. People are stressed. I know, because we’re going through the same thing. I got into a heated online argument with a friend (and reader) on Saturday, and we’ve not talked since, and I’m sorry about that, too.
Maybe we just all need to cut each other a little slack right now.
Before I close, a note about election coverage. This year, more than any time in my career, it was difficult to compile meaningful Q&As and other features for the upcoming election. In every race, we held off publishing because at least one (and in some cases a handful) of the candidates just didn’t respond. Our usual model of publishing Q&As just prior to the election was also thrown off balance by the COVID-19 outbreak, since so many voters are casting ballots absentee and would have, I’m sure, liked those resources earlier than we had them available. I’m truly sorry about that. If you haven’t cast your ballots yet, you can find our election coverage, including some pretty revealing Q&As from candidates for Wausau School Board, Wausau Mayor, Wausau City Council and Marathon County Board, here.
Thanks for reading, and stay well.