Until two months ago the word “coronavirus” had appeared in the Guardian just 22 times in 20 years, almost exclusively in stories by those covering health and science in the context of Sars or similar contagions.
Last Friday alone, my quick review of reporting across web and print found that more than 90 Guardian journalists wrote in some way about the new coronavirus. Reflecting the impact of Covid-19, coverage went right across specialisms, including politics, business, sport, transport, culture, education and food. It even reached the chess column.
Since the first death was reported in China on 11 January, teams have worked around the clock and globe to report and explain this now-pandemic disease. Through words, visuals and audio, including a new twice-weekly Science Weekly Extra podcast, they have sometimes produced upwards of 100 pieces of content a day.
Five journalists at the forefront spoke in Saturday’s pages about the challenges of reporting on an unknown disease, with the Beijing bureau chief, Lily Kuo, describing it as one of “the most complicated, difficult and important stories I have covered”. All talked of the high-stakes responsibility of getting it right.
A sense of how much readers are relying on this journalism is seen in the extraordinary numbers. Millions are coming daily to the live blog, while a continually updated explainer from Sarah Boseley, Hannah Devlin and Martin Belam is now the Guardian’s most read piece ever.
I asked the Guardian’s deputy editor, Owen Gibson, how Covid-19 compared with previous stories of significance. “In terms of its open-ended and fast-moving nature, the number of overlapping strands, the requirement to balance the global with the local, and the pressing need for expertise and context, it’s hard to think of many other stories that have become so all-pervasive for such a long period,” he said.
“As a result, we’ve brought different desks – and correspondents around the world – together in new ways to be able to better inform our coverage.”
There are three formal news meetings on coronavirus every day in which desks liaise on stories. Issues of proportionality and tone are regularly discussed, with advice also circulated on use of language. As Nick Hopkins, executive editor of news, says, “single words can make a difference”. Readers are listened to on this, and any concerns forwarded to relevant staff. Dramatic words, such as “surge” for example, which appeared in a 5 March headline as UK cases rose to 116, are now used advisedly.
Readers are not only recipients of coverage, they also inform it – bringing leads to reporters, sharing experiences through the community team and acting as monitors of accuracy via the readers’ editor office (in this last respect, my assessment is that corrections of significance have been relatively few against the scale of the coverage).
Only small numbers have suggested the Guardian is doing too much, and Gibson so far believes the balance is right. But with public anxiety natural and the endpoint uncertain, he sees the explanatory journalism as ever more key: “Everyone feels the responsibility to our readers keenly, and it’s the depth and quality of our coverage that’s as important as the speed of breaking news.”
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• Elisabeth Ribbans is the Guardian’s readers’ editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org