By Marley Malenfant
Vice President Kamala Harris paid homage to journalists covering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at the 2021 NABJ virtual Newsmaker Plenary, one of the highlights of the 2021 NABJ Virtual Convention Aug. 18-21 that was filled with special guests.
In a 3½-minute speech, Harris addressed the daily propaganda that journalists and scientists face with the virus.
The vice president shared a tidbit about the scientific work her mother did. She said challenging assumptions, investigating, and finding the facts were requirements in her field and acknowledged that journalists do the same.
“For 18 months now, you have shared the facts about the COVID-19 pandemic and the science around it,” she said. “There is not an issue in our nation that Black journalists do not cover.”
Despite it being the second year NABJ has gone virtual, the conference still has star-studded guests.
Some of this year’s special guests include Kim Godwin and Rashida Jones for a presentation on leadership. Dr. Ian Smith, host of the Emmy award-winning television show, “The Doctors,” and public health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci shared their thoughts on the ongoing pandemic. ESPN broadcasters Michael Wilbon, Stephen A. Smith, and Monica McMutt chopped it up with NABJ mentees for the Sports Task Force mentor luncheon.
Godwin was named president of ABC News in May. She is the first black woman executive to run a broadcast news operation. Jones succeeded Phil Griffin for the role of MSNBC president in February. Jones is the first black woman to lead a cable news network.
After Harris’ speech on Thursday morning, Smith moderated a discussion with Fauci and White House senior policy adviser for COVID-19 equity Dr. Cameron Webb.
Smith opened the discussion with a question to Fauci on how mistakes were made early in the pandemic on how to slow the spread of the virus.
Fauci said that while he has a thorough understanding of how viruses work, there was still a misunderstanding of how this particular virus moved. Many assumed COVID-19 was like influenza, he said. The country did not put mask mandates into place last March, he said, and that allowed the rapid spread of the virus.
“Could you have imagined me getting in front of the TV and saying ‘OK, we have one documented case and we have a few that we think are community spread,’” Fauci said. “‘A: You have to shut down the country. And B: Everybody has to wear a mask.’ They would have thought I was crazy. But retrospectively, it was a mistake not to do that.”
Smith added that he and his wife were in Japan pre-pandemic and noticed how wearing a mask was culturally accepted there. Smith said his wife told him that Americans would be too stubborn to do the same.
“It’s been frustrating for me as a physician and a man of science to see how people have behaved and reacted to something that is a scientific phenomenon, the politicalization of it and people who are fighting over it and making it something that is not,” he said.
A panel of five journalists shared their coverage and insight into COVID-19 for the final leg of the newsmaker plenary.
Dallas-based broadcaster for KVTV Steve Pickett asked the journalists what they see in their coverage and what obstacles can get in the way of doing the job.
KNBC Los Angeles general assignments reporter Beverly White said the stories she’s covered were devastating. According to The Los Angeles Times, for every 100,000 Black residents, 8.1 people were hospitalized with COVID-19; for every 100,000 Latino residents, 5.3 were hospitalized.
White said there was a shift in coverage where she had to include more Latino voices as well as Black voices in her stories. This brought the challenge of getting through a language and cultural barrier for reporters.
“The numbers are undeniable, the science was there, like a cold slap in the face,” White said. “We may not have been righteous in our coverage of these communities before the ‘rona arrived. But we frankly have no choice. Black folks in LA are fewer than 10%. But Hispanics [represent] 60% to 70% depending on your math. So we had no choice. We go into those communities and bring our Telemundo cousins if need be and try to save lives. This is no joke and it’s still ongoing.”