Journalism of a Plague Year


Plague in Phrygia. Art Institute

Journalism of a Plague Year

By Hugh Miller

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

On April 3rd, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for the 14thCongressional district of New York, wrote in a tweet: “COVID deaths are disproportionately spiking in Black + Brown communities. Why? Because the chronic toll of redlining, environmental racism, wealth gap, etc. ARE underlying health conditions. Inequality is a comorbidity.”

The following Tuesday, April 7th, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stood at a podium at the White House and praised the “incredible courage and dignity and strength and activism” of the gay community’s response to the AIDS crisis. Fauci, much of whose career has been dedicated to battling HIV/AIDS, then drew a connection between the “extraordinary stigma” which then attached to the gay community, and a similar stigma and marginalization which, he argued, today was increasing the burden and death toll imposed on African-American COVID-19 sufferers, who make up a disproportionately high number of fatalities of the latter-day plague.

As a philosopher and ethicist, I’ve been reflecting on the role of my discipline in coming to grips with this new and sudden event since it first burst into the headlines in early March. As the novel virus grew from an outbreak to an epidemic and then to pandemic dimensions, and the gravity of the illness associated with it, COVID-19, became clearer, the ethical approach to it became less so, to me.

Like the stone in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream that broke off from a mountain and grew until it filled the whole world, the issue seemed to me to have grown so vast and multifaceted as to have outstripped the capacity of ethical reflection to comprehend it. What is more, the political turmoil of this and other countries now seems to have become enmeshed with the humanitarian catastrophe of the disease as it spreads, seemingly relentlessly, around the world. It seems to call for political science, public health medicine, virology, economics, sociology, psychology—the impact of the pandemic is so vast that it dwarfs any one approach.

In fact, even taken together the various scientific disciplines seem to be scrambling for a hold on the problem. We seem to be in a moment of what Lorraine Daston has called “ground zero empiricism”: not only do we lack knowledge, we lack a “settled script for how to go about knowing.” The attitude called for might even be what other thinkers such as Amy Allen term “epistemic humility,” a recognition that all knowledge is limited by the degree to which it can penetrate to the object itself, which is to say, never fully.

This seems especially true in the case of a discipline like journalism ethics. Where, in such a vast and turbulent theatre, could questions about such tiny, almost insignificant matters like what reporters do for a living, and how they might do them more ethically, find a place? As the SPJ Quill Blog on Ethics says, “This is the biggest story right now, for 2020 and maybe of our lifetime. We should be covering it as such.” But how can this be done ethically, given the scale and complexity of the subject matter?

AOC’s and Fauci’s remarks have pointed me, however, towards an answer—or, at least, a provisional one.

Fauci’s praise of the gay community, with which he worked during the years of the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, led me back to the great journalistic work of that period, Randy Shilts’s nearly thousand-page account, And The Band Played On (1987). Shilts, who was assigned the AIDS story in 1982 by the San Francisco Chronicle, covered the outbreak from a variety of angles—the medical, the epidemiological, and most certainly the political. As he wrote in the prologue to the book, his aim was not just to tell the story, but by constructing a grand narrative of the event, to see to it that “it will never happen again, to any people, anywhere.”

It is, of course, alas, happening again—and to many people, everywhere. And it is happening in a world far different from Shilts’s, one in which the main ethical failing of the media, in his view, was lack of interest in a story that seemed to affect so small and so marginalized a group of people. Today, a pandemic has been unleashed upon a world in which truth itself is besieged, and where news organizations compete with internet bubble chambers and whole networks whose output is indistinguishable from partisan propaganda. And those news organizations are themselves the objects of economic shock and destruction, so that carrying out journalism’s mission is more and more difficult by the day.

Nevertheless, though in this regard Shilts’s book seems dated, it still can teach us a lesson. What gave the sprawling, complex, intricate story its unity and held the engagement—the moral attention, if you will—of the reader was the accounts of the sufferers of the disease woven as warp into the weft of the larger-scale events.

Matt Krieger, Gary Walsh, Bill Kraus, Gaetan Dugas, Enno Poersch, Frances Borchelt, Lu Chaikin, Cleve Jones, and many more: as Shilts follows them and their loved ones through the book, sickening, dying, and surviving, we are carried along with a sense of human orientation and concrete concern. It is, of course, an intrusion on their suffering, their grief, their privacy to tell their tales. But without the red thread of those stories one is left in the sterile corridors of economy, policy, and laboratory work—much of it heroic enough, in all truth, but confusing and somewhat inhumane, like the operation of vast ensembles of machinery.

As an ethicist, I have often felt this same sense, that ethics, at least as practiced as an applied professional discipline, resembles a complex machine—but a machine nonetheless. The rationalism of the Enlightenment, the soil out of which much contemporary ethical thinking arises, is deeply skeptical of ends, and thus of goods, as being knowable. (Think of Darwin’s evolution as a purposeless, directionless striving; think of the directionlessness of markets in Hayek’s economics, and the individualistic notions of private happiness embodied in Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim, “There is no such thing as society.”)

In the absence of agreed-upon public or common goods, ethics is reduced to a kind of proceduralism. Whether one is a “virtue ethicist,” a “utilitarian,” or a “deontologist,” to be ethical is to follow certain codes that insure that all participants have a fair chance, that there is due process in conflicts, that claims of redress can be justified according to generally accepted norms of fairness. Ethics has no choice but to become a regulation of forms of behavior, in the absence of a compelling vision of the good.

But not all contemporary ethical thinkers are carried along in this current. The great French-Lithuanian thinker Emmanuel Levinas developed, beginning in the 1960’s, a complex but fundamentally rigorous and direct new approach. The locus of ethical responsibility, he argued, does not lie in my own autonomy, nor institutional or social mores. Neither does it lie in divine commandment, or in a rational calculation of happiness outcomes. Instead, it lies in the “other person”: ethics is the response to an appeal from outside ourselves, originating from another. In our experience, we find that appeal engaging us in two places in life.

First, we see it in the naked, supplicating face of the Other in need: “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger,” as Levinas put it, drawing from the texts of his own Jewish upbringing. Confronted with the face of the suffering Other, we feel compelled, commanded, to go to their aid. We turn our clean, well-lighted life inside out, and ransack it for what will come to the aid of the Other. But, more importantly, we feel the appeal from the very depths of our own selfhood. For, Levinas argued with great force, we are nothing if we are not, always and already, persons given over to the service of others. Using terms like “obsession,” “vulnerability,” and even “persecution,” Levinas argues that we are, at the deepest level of our being, already given over as “hostage” to the Other.

This sounds, to our non-Levinasian ears, like nonsense. Surely the self is the bedrock of identity? Do we not have first property in ourselves, and in our bodies, and through them do we not appropriate to ourselves the natural world, as our private property, as John Locke taught? Does not neoliberalism teach us that this self is the source of our personal capital, to be invested, developed, and grown, in a competitive market of other selves similarly striving to maximize their self-interest?

It does, Levinas would say; and it is all wrong. For him, my self has no other purpose and use than to be of service to others. (In this regard, Levinas’s ethics shares many features in common with another school of contemporary thought, the “ethics of care,” which grew historically out of feminist thought and which has particular application today in nursing and related fields. Like Levinas, ethics of care regards the recipient of care, the “patient,” as an absolutely unique, irreducible person, the service of whom is of paramount importance.)

How can we apply Levinas’s insight to journalistic ethics? I would argue that it gives journalism a human orientation lacking in the more formal and procedural codes. Journalism should listen to the Other: it should tell the story of the Other, so that as many as possible may be called to service of that Other. It should tell the story of the individual, in all the danger that may involve for the journalist—and for the one(s) they are telling the story of.

For the ethical mission, if you will, of journalism does not stop merely at the observation of norms of codified conduct, so as to count as a professional practitioner. It goes further: it extends to calling upon the consciences of the readers, so that they may be moved to act on that “obsession” with, and that “vulnerability” to, the suffering of our fellows, which is our most fundamental inner life and reality.

An example. On April 11th, the New York Times published a story by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “Life and Death in the ‘Hot Zone.’” Kristof and staff videographers were allowed to robe up and enter the Covid-19 wards of two hospitals in the Bronx to cover the stories of staff and patients. “The best way to understand the coronavirus,” Kristof wrote, “is not by tuning into White House briefings but by tuning into the distress on the front line.

The Bronx is one of the most diverse places in the country, and the patients I saw this past week were of all races and backgrounds but tended disproportionately to be black and brown. They were mostly feverish, drained — too sick to be interviewed. But there was no mistaking their anguish.” We need more—many more—such stories. COVID-19 has a human face, and if that is lost, the meaning of the plague for us is lost as well.

This leads to my final point. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes wrote above of the “Black + Brown communities” who were the principal victims of socio-economic inequality so great as to constitute a “co-morbidity” for them. These are the faces, today, of Levinas’s “widow, orphan, and stranger.” Journalists, I think, would do well to think of taking their ethical orientation in this vast crisis, not from the podiums of the Washington power centers, nor from the commercial boardrooms of great capital—but from the poor, the marginalized persons of color, indigenous people, and the incarcerated, who chiefly bear the burden of this scourge. To tell their stories is of the utmost importance, ethically.

The SPJ Code of Ethics asserts that responsible journalists should “boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.” What Kristof and others are doing, with all its hazards, is exactly this. And they should do it, not merely to inform or delight, but, most importantly, to rouse their readers and viewers to come home to their responsibility and rise to the service of these, the seemingly least among us. Let’s not be afraid of the charge of “advocacy journalism.” All great journalism is, and can be nothing but, advocacy of human beings for other human beings.


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