Journalists are essential during the pandemic

By Christian Trejbal

The Seattle Times

When COVID-19 vaccines begin rolling out to states in the next couple of weeks, supplies will be limited. States will have to decide whom to protect first. Where journalists fall on the vaccination priority list will say a lot about how much states value an independent local free press.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory committee recommends that front-line health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities be at the top of the list. That doctors, nurses and other health care providers should be first in line is indisputable. There’s also a strong case for prioritizing nursing home residents who are at especially high risk of contracting the virus and experiencing negative outcomes.

Deciding who comes after them is where things get messy. The most likely groups are essential workers, people with high-risk medical conditions and adults 65 and older.

The tough question is who counts as an essential worker? Many professions will clamor to be included, but journalists have a stronger case than most.

If the pandemic has proved anything about the local free press — aside from its vulnerability to a massive economic disruption — it’s that people turn to their local news sources during desperate times. More than 80% of Americans rely on local news media for reporting about the pandemic as much as or more than they rely on national sources. The local free press is delivering the story of the pandemic not just as a national and global calamity, but also as a deeply personal and profound event that affects cities and states in different ways.

The National Press Photographers Association urged the CDC advisory committee to expressly include journalists among the essential and critical infrastructure workforce members who will receive the vaccine after doctors and seniors in care facilities. “Visual journalists cannot work from home, and have put their health and lives at risk on a daily basis to cover both the COVID-19 pandemic and other matters of public concern, including matters critical to the health and safety of the public and critical to our democracy,” the photo journalists wrote.

Journalists can’t simply avoid a Black Lives Matter protest where hundreds of people are chanting and screaming at police. They can’t ignore a conservative anti-mask rally. They must talk to participants and learn their stories so that they can report the local news.

The press’s role in supporting a healthy democracy does not diminish during times such as these. It intensifies because the government is reaching into people’s lives in unprecedented ways. Americans need to know what the government is doing and why.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists “workers who support radio, print, internet and television news and media services, including, but not limited to front line news reporters, studio, and technicians for newsgathering, reporting, and publishing news” among the critical infrastructure workers who need to be able to work during the pandemic.

While that support is heartening, the final decision is up to governors and state health officials.

Washington’s draft Interim COVID-19 Vaccination Plan prioritizes “Critical workers in high-risk settings — workers who are in industries essential to the functioning of society and at substantially higher risk of exposure.” Somehow that doesn’t include the news media, which the plan mentions only insofar as they will be a convenient tool to spread the official message.

The omission of journalists is a departure from guidance provided by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office in March that included news media among critical workers. He even included newspaper deliverers.

Meanwhile, the draft plan prioritizes about 22,000 homeless residents and 2,500 state and local government offices.

I don’t envy the officials who must rank some people ahead of others. Terms like “essential workers” and “critical infrastructure” are just the gloss we put on the cold utilitarian analysis of whose value is greatest to society at this difficult time. States must seek to maximize benefits and minimize harms.

Journalists don’t belong at the top of the list, but they certainly belong among the essential workers. Their work benefits society now more than ever.