There’s a saying in journalism, dusty but true: Report the news, don’t become the news. On Friday morning, when The New Yorker published an online article about Blaine County’s coronavirus outbreak, the Idaho Mountain Express became the news.
Michael Ames’ article “Why an Idaho ski destination has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the nation” highlights a report we published on March 20. Our report, headlined “Outbreak intensifies in Blaine,” included information about six members of the National Brotherhood of Skiers who tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after visiting the Wood River Valley for the group’s annual summit.
We did not “allege” that the NBS event “could have been the source of the outbreak in Blaine County,” as Mr. Ames writes. The Mountain Express story doesn’t suggest that the Brotherhood brought the virus to the valley. It doesn’t speculate at all about how the virus got here.
We’re disappointed that Mr. Ames, a former employee at the Express, did not make any attempt to reach out or talk to us before publishing his misleading and inaccurate story.
We learned what he was working on Thursday afternoon when a fact-checker from The New Yorker called the newsroom to ask whether we had tried to contact the Brotherhood prior to publishing our report. We informed the fact-checker that our reporter had made multiple attempts to contact spokespersons for the organization via phone calls and emails. We would have been happy to share those emails with Mr. Ames had he asked. We would still be happy to share those emails with The New Yorker if any questions or doubts remain.
Had Mr. Ames spoken to me, this is what I would have told him. I think the community deserves the same explanation, so here it is.
As a local public health official stated in the same March 20 article, it does not matter where the virus came from. It only matters that it is here and how our community responds to it.
The intention of our article was not to “point fingers,” as Mr. Ames suggests. Nor was it to imply that the Brotherhood “tried to harm the community,” as The New Yorker article quotes NBS President Henri Rivers saying. Multiple people who were present at a highly-publicized, well-attended public event tested positive for a deadly and highly contagious disease. Others reported known symptoms and couldn’t get tested for the virus. We relayed these facts to the community as a matter of public safety.
Mr. Ames quotes a source in our story saying, “I would think that they would want to track this,” and writes that the woman was referring to the Brotherhood. Actually, she was speaking to the fact that she was refused testing for COVID-19. A more careful reader might have noted the context for that quote and realized this. A more careful New Yorker reporter might have done the same.
Our March 20 article was published after the Brotherhood itself openly shared information about the positive tests. We realize that those who tested positive may very well have contracted the virus in our valley. Our article did not assert otherwise. If you read Mr. Ames’ story, I’d ask that you read ours, too, and see for yourself.
At the same time, I recognize that our intentions for an article don’t really matter once we put something out in the world. When readers interpret a story differently, we need to reflect on why, and we need to think about how we can do better.
I regret our use of anonymous sources, which likely contributed to the perception that our goal was to assign blame to a particular group.
Our sources asked for anonymity to protect their privacy amid the outbreak, and I honored those requests. In retrospect, I could have handled this differently. We published numerous other articles on the volume of out-of-state residents flying in and out of Blaine County in the early weeks of March, but could have also included more of this context in our March 20 report. As editor, it’s my job to make sure readers have all the information they need.
I have received a number of questions from readers asking why we reported the confirmed cases within the Brotherhood but did not investigate certain private events that allegedly attracted out-of-state visitors. A few reasons. These events were not open to the public, were not affiliated with any particular organization, and their organizers did not publicly share information about the health of attendees. After the virus became widespread the health district ended its investigations into large events, quashing how we’d planned to follow up. The district won’t disclose any more—only that the evidence suggests the earliest cases stemmed from people travelling into the area.
It is impossible to say how the virus spread to the Wood River Valley and irresponsible to speculate. It isn’t productive, fair, or ethical to seek a scapegoat for this outbreak.
I’m sorry for any harm our reporting may have caused to the National Brotherhood of Skiers and its members. We had a great time talking to their members around town, on the lifts, and for stories before the news turned bleak. We hope they come back in better times.
Our March 20 story was one of around 200 that we’ve published on the pandemic since it became the news of the world. Together, our newsroom, which is composed of one part-time and three full-time news reporters, has asked thousands of questions. I know the work they’ve done has shaped for readers a fuller view of how the outbreak has hit Blaine County.
Given the luxuries of time and distance, I’m sure we would have handled several stories differently. There are always more calls to make. The closer you are, though, the faster things seem to move. That’s also the only way you can see the granular details. It’s the only way you can start to understand the impact this global story has had on the 23,000 or so who live in Blaine County. That’s our role in this, as your community newspaper, and there’s value in local reporting that can’t be replicated in dispatches filed from afar.
I’ve been standing in as editor at this paper for maybe two months now. To use the easy metaphors of sports, this past month I’ve been less of a boxer’s trainer than his cutman, wiping the blood from reporters’ eyes, spouting a word or two of encouragement, and sending them back out to do their work. I suspect everyone at the Express must feel the same way—from the finance manager plugging at paperwork for SBA loans, to the front desk answering the calls of the afraid. I suspect most readers understand the feeling, too.
The fear we face—fear of anything—can prompt a full spectrum of human responses. I’ve seen great kindness, and I’ve seen corresponding cruelty, often in quick succession. As you read the Express in the coming days and weeks, please know that we’re working, that we’re always working, and that we hope our work prompts more of the former than the latter.