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Novel Threats is a series of brief conversations with fellows and affiliates of the Reiss Center on Law and Security exploring the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and key national security challenges.

Kate Brannen on Coronavirus, Misinformation and Covering National Security

October 28, 2020

Kate Brannen
is the editorial director of Just Security. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy (FP), The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Slate, USA Today, Newsweek, and Vice. Previously, she was a senior reporter covering the Pentagon for FP. Before that, Brannen was a defense reporter for POLITICO, where she was also responsible for “Morning Defense,” POLITICO‘s daily national security newsletter. Brannen has also covered budget and defense policy debates on Capitol Hill as the congressional reporter for Defense News. She spent three years covering the U.S. Army—first as a reporter for, then as the land warfare correspondent for Defense News. She has discussed her reporting on CNN; MSNBC; NPR’s All Things Considered, On Point, and The Diane Rehm Show; and PRI’s To the Point.  Full bio

Misinformation has been a growing phenomenon and a threat to public discourse in the United States in general, and of course has even more severe implications in the context of a public health crisis that requires clear and trustworthy guidance from experts and government officials. How can journalists report on misinformation without inadvertently amplifying it?

The pandemic has raised the stakes of misinformation, and in the United States, we have seen it coming from truly surprising institutions, making a journalist’s job more fraught with opportunities to elevate dangerous ideas. It’s pretty clear that the U.S. coronavirus death toll is as high as it is partly because of the amount of misinformation and disinformation that has repeatedly come from the government itself, especially as the White House has tried to control and manipulate data about the virus. Journalists have the difficult task of reporting on the fact that the president’s ideas about the virus are often incompatible with those of public health experts and epidemiologists, without inadvertently spreading those dangerous ideas. Now, we’re seeing this repeat itself with the election: How do you report on a president who is intent on spreading disinformation about the legitimacy of the election? The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan recently provided some practical advice for journalists. She says to pay particular attention to how you present information and recommends the “sandwich approach,” where “accurate information is presented first, followed by the news of the latest false claim or misleading threat, followed by a fact-check of the information.”

“Journalists have the difficult task of reporting on the fact that the president’s ideas about the virus are often incompatible with those of public health experts and epidemiologists, without inadvertently spreading those dangerous ideas.”

I also think news organizations are too worried about being perceived as taking sides. When one side is peddling dangerous or false information that could get people killed or undermine the country’s free and fair elections, that needs to be made clear to the reader. A quote from legendary Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein has really stuck with me and guided me in my own reporting during the Trump era. He told Preet Bharara in 2019, “I’ve been struck throughout this presidency how pejorative my remarks on the air, and other reporters’ remarks on the air, about the president and his conduct sound as opposed to the kind of reportorial tone we’re accustomed to—and it’s not pejorative; it’s reportorial-based.” It’s really uncomfortable to write something like, “the president is lying about the pandemic,” but it’s not biased. It’s simply true based on reported facts.

In the end, this may be a helpful reorientation for the Washington press corps, or at least an opportunity to more frequently ask: When, if ever, should you take what the government says at face value? It is certainly a good idea to always approach the official line with a healthy dose of skepticism, no matter who’s in charge, but this administration has proved it doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.

How has COVID-19 changed the landscape for journalists? Are there unique challenges that the pandemic has posed to the profession?

COVID-19 has changed how everyone works, and journalists are no different. First and foremost, the pandemic has simply made it very difficult for some people to get work done, especially if you have young children. I know I’m not alone in saying that the first three months under lockdown—working from home full-time with no childcare—were extremely difficult and took a real toll, trying to work before my children woke up and after they went to bed. Plenty has been written about this, but the pandemic is particularly demanding of working mothers, not just because the burden of childcare tends to fall more heavily on them, but also the pull of wanting to care for your children in the midst of a crisis can overwhelm professional obligations and ambitions. This is true for mothers and fathers, but as data shows, far more women are having to leave the workforce than men during the pandemic, partly because of increased responsibilities at home. Many journalists are lucky because they can continue to work from home, but the demands of the job make it difficult to do so when there is reduced childcare and remote school.

“Reporters are having to grapple with new potentially life-threatening risks to do their jobs, but also the idea that their families could be put in danger based on the professional choices they’re having to make.”

Moreover, not all reporting can be done from home, and the pandemic has made this aspect of the job more dangerous. Some reporting comes with risks to your personal safety—covering war or natural disasters, for example—but political reporting in Washington, D.C. is usually fairly risk-free. Now it’s not, because public health guidelines are being ignored by the same government issuing them. Most readers will be familiar with the fact that the White House recently held a superspreader event where reporters covering it became infected with coronavirus, and thereby put their own families at risk; The New York Times’ White House Correspondent Michael Shear told Axios that his wife also tested positive after the event. Reporters are having to grapple with new potentially life-threatening risks to do their jobs, but also the idea that their families could be put in danger based on the professional choices they’re having to make. Not to mention, the logistical headaches of traveling and reporting these days, with the requirement to quarantine upon returning to your home state. It means that every trip means more time away from your family, carries more risk, and not just for you, but your loved ones. This inevitably means fewer reporters doing in-person reporting, relying more heavily on Zoom and phone calls, just like everyone else.

Finally, try as they might to stay out of politics, political reporters find themselves being pulled into the story, mainly because of the politicization of the basic public health measures put in place to keep people safe. Whether it’s wearing a mask, calling for COVID testing on Capitol Hill or navigating the challenges of interviewing politicians who refuse to wear masks, new political landmines are popping up all over, creating new opportunities to be accused of having bias affect your reporting just by insisting on a work environment that adheres to basic health protocols.

A few weeks ago, members of the Joint Chiefs of the military went into voluntary quarantine after the vice commandant of the Coast Guard tested positive for coronavirus. As a longtime national security and defense reporter, how do you view the security implications of this development?

To me, more alarming than the logistical challenges of having the country’s military and political leadership in quarantine was the message it sent to the world about how ineptly the United States is handling the virus. I was reminded of watching the news coming out of Iran in March and April when coronavirus was spreading through that country’s leadership. However, unlike Iran, it didn’t happen here at the beginning of the pandemic, when it was chaotic everywhere and not as much was known about the virus. Instead, coronavirus hit the highest levels of the U.S. government more than seven months into the pandemic.

At Just Security, you’ve seen a lot of COVID-and-national-security related coverage on the site, including calls to elevate global health threats (along with other threats such as climate change) in our conception of “national security.” What is your view on this movement? Does it represent a paradigm shift?

Before the pandemic, we were already starting to see an effort to try to move away from counterterrorism, which has dominated the field for the last 20 years, and toward a new focus on great power competition between the United States and Russia and China. This was the course the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, released in January 2017, wanted to set. But this shift was largely internal to the traditional world of national security, aimed at reorienting the thinking largely within the Pentagon, with a focus on force deployment, weapons systems development and other defense issues.

“If Washington is being asked to redefine national security, then the newsrooms covering it should also consider whether they need to change as well.”

But, as many have pointed out—at Just Security, in this series and elsewhere—a pandemic (even one which has ravaged the U.S. economy and whose toll on American lives has surpassed that of recent wars and terrorism combined) does not lend itself to a military solution. Climate change, also an “actorless threat,” promises to be even more destructive if not addressed. In a similar vein, disinformation—whether foreign or domestic—has done more to undermine American democracy than any type of traditional weapon. To elevate and prioritize these threats in Washington would either mean bringing them into the national security tent and, in effect, “militarizing” them, which carries risks, or seeing a shift in resources to agencies and departments that are not typically included in the national security debate, like public health and environmental programs, not to mention traditional national security institutions that are chronically underfunded, like the State Department and USAID. I think this type of reorientation is incredibly hard to do because the way we conceptualize national security is so entrenched in the halls of power in Washington. That said, until such a shift happens, the United States remains extremely vulnerable and unprepared for the next time something like COVID hits.

As for the journalism landscape, some of the same biases exist. National security reporters largely focus on the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, but it may be time for beats to merge or new beats to be introduced. For example, a newsroom’s national security team should include a climate reporter that can help draw out the environmental factors driving conflict around the globe. Better yet, health and science stories could earn the kind of front-page exposure and resources that often go into covering the military, especially during wartime. This kind of re-think could also include shifting the number of reporters covering certain topics. Because of the size of its budget and the scope of its activities, it can feel like you can never have enough reporters covering the Defense Department. But I also know from my time reporting in Washington that too few journalists are exclusively covering the Department of Homeland Security, which has become a gargantuan federal agency that has suffered from a lack of oversight and accountability during the Trump administration. If Washington is being asked to redefine national security, then the newsrooms covering it should also consider whether they need to change as well.

Novel Threats: National Security and the Coronavirus Pandemic
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