Reporting on human suffering in COVID times
December 22, 2020
The COVID news remains disturbingly bleak. Deaths in the US are over 300,000 with Tennessee as “ground zero” and California running out of ICU beds. The suffering behind these numbers is obviously heartbreaking. So how should journalists be telling the world about this human misery?
I spoke today with Lesley Blume, the author of the excellent FALL OUT: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World. The U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 killed around 100,000 people immediately and many more thousands of longer-term casualties. The American “cover-up”, Blume argues, was not allowing journalists to cover what, exactly, had happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
The reporter who revealed the truth about Hiroshima to the world was, of course, John Hersey whose 30,000 word piece in the August 31, 1946 edition of The New Yorker later became a best-selling book. Blume argues that what made Hersey’s journalism so remarkable was the simplicity and directness of his prose. By detailing the impact of the attack on the lives of six survivors, Hersey’s Hiroshima woke America up to the human consequences of the nuclear attack. It was journalism, Lesley Blume reminds us, that really did change history.
So how would Hersey report on COVID in America today? My guess is that he would want to document the stories of human suffering in the manner, for example, of the “51 Lost Lives” feature in today’s Washington Post. No data or stats. Just simple, uncluttered stories about people’s lives.