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Critic, cheerleader, or just-the-facts: As Covid-19 cases increase, food writers disagree on how to cover at-risk restaurants

With more and more people staying home, food businesses are taking a hit. How should the media be covering this?

This year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, canceled when Mayor Steve Adler declared a citywide state of emergency, was expected to bring in roughly $356 million to the local economy—much of it going directly to the city’s abundant bars and restaurants. As Tenderly food editor Summer Anne Burton noted, many Austin service workers depend on that income boost to carry them the rest of the year.

This year, they’re out of luck, like many restaurant workers around the country, as the Covid-19 virus alters our behavior: In New York City, Chinatown restaurants have experienced as much as a 70 percent drop, with similar stories emerging in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and dozens of other U.S. cities. Every day someone else tells us to stay home, while already-strapped restaurants try to stay afloat.

The downturn raises a question for media: How will journalists cover the crisis in an already vulnerable industry? New York Times food critic Pete Wells weighed in on Twitter this weekend: “Food media is about to execute one of its pivots into cheerleader-for-the-industry mode. I’ve done it myself in the past but it’s always an awkward move for journalists.”

The traditional journalism model dictates that our job is to gather the most accurate information possible, present it to readers, and allow them to make up their own minds. It’s okay to report on how delivery services impact sit-down restaurants’ bottom line, for instance, but not to exhort readers to stop using them.

But it can be hard to sit out a crisis of these proportions. “I get the impulse, I really do,” Wells told The Counter. “When Hurricane Sandy destroyed so much of lower Manhattan, I wrote a love letter to downtown restaurants, asking my readers to eat out. At that point (November 2012), I was still pretty new in my role. Would I have written that piece now? Probably not.”

Wells already tells readers what to do every week, from warnings to stay away—“you start to wonder who really needs to go to Peter Luger, and start to think the answer is nobody”—to the rush-right-over review of a Queens taco truck that serves “the most talked-about tacos of the year.” But that, he says, is the critic’s job. Being a cheerleader is not. “Our primary job is to serve our readers, not the restaurants,” he says. “It gets weird when food writers start to seem like advocates for an industry.”

As the U.S. Covid-19 caseload tips over the 600 mark this week, “business as usual” can feel forced, even frivolous, to some segments of food media. Laura Reiley, formerly a restaurant critic at the Tampa Bay Times and now a food-business reporter for the Washington Post, suggests that media should adapt its coverage—not by being boosters, but by putting reporting before criticism. “How useful is to talk about some restaurant’s garnish being off when you’re standing in three feet of water?” she asks.

“We’ve got Chinese restaurants literally closing because racist, inaccurate fears are keeping people away.”

Reiley was referring to the decision made by New Orleans restaurant critic Brett Anderson to stop reviewing restaurants in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Anderson made a now-famous pivot from criticism to straight reportage, as he homed in on efforts to rebuild the city’s critically wounded food and drink scene. “If I started back pontificating about whether the panéed rabbit was up to snuff,” Anderson told the New York Times, “I would have been missing the bigger story, which was about recovery.”

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Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater’s national restaurant editor, thinks it’s appropriate to step in with solutions; she says that her outlet isn’t shy about calls to action. Her boss, Amanda Kludt, wrote this column entreating readers to patronize New York City’s Chinatown restaurants, hit hard by coronavirus fears. Canavan, who spent years working in restaurants before becoming a journalist, sees no reason to soft pedal or self-censor in times of crisis. 

“We’ve got Chinese restaurants literally closing because racist, inaccurate fears are keeping people away,” she says. “So yeah, you can write a news story talking about how these restaurants are suffering, and show that the reasons people aren’t eating there are dumb. But I have no trouble at all with explicitly telling readers: ‘Don’t be racist! Eat Chinese food!’”

“Coronavirus has hurt restaurants, sure. But so have a lot of things—times are tough! I’m not sure it’s my job to stump for the industry at large.”

The range of reactions is due, in part, to the range of media, from legacy media to influencer blogs; there are simply more ways to write about food than there used to be. Addie Broyles, food columnist for the Austin American Statesman, sees herself as serving all of Austin’s readers, many of whom work in the food industry. This means she’s comfortable trying to drum up business on social media. As she tweeted Friday, “No one person could spend enough money to mitigate this, but there’s a lot of disposable income in Austin and visitors who will come here anyway. Tip generously. Buy a cupcake. Take your friend out for a beer or a kombucha.”

To Broyles, the tweet qualifies as a bit of service journalism, like encouraging readers to shop at a particularly tasty farmers’ market booth, or warning them to avoid leafy greens during E. coli outbreaks. “My mandate is to advise my readers, and be responsible about it,” she says. “There is a place for me to be human, and to advise my readers in a way that benefits my overall community.”

For his part, Wells has not mentioned coronavirus in a review, and doesn’t know if he’s going to. “Coronavirus has hurt restaurants, sure. But so have a lot of things—times are tough! I’m not sure it’s my job to stump for the industry at large.” 

Wells’ West Coast counterpart, Los Angeles Times critic Bill Addison, agrees with the basic sentiment—but when he noticed that an exceptional Sichuan restaurant was nearly deserted, over the course of several visits, he decided to highlight three noteworthy Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. He pointed out that they were emptier than they should be, something he chalked up to misplaced coronavirus fears. “Over the last month, I’ve seen a clear drop in traffic in restaurants and shopping centers in the SGV,” he wrote. “Fear is the cause … Now would be an excellent time to visit your favorite restaurants in the SGV.” 

Addison did not set out to find and help restaurants in trouble; he says the food came first. “My initial goal was to highlight some of the great things happening with Sichuan cuisine in the SGV,” he says. “That review was mostly intended to tell my readers, ‘Hey these places deserve your attention!’ But certainly, if the food wasn’t excellent, I wouldn’t have written the review.”

No one’s clear on what professional decision they’ll have to make in the weeks ahead. Broyles has held off on suggesting her readers start hoarding groceries, but she’s not ruling it out. And Wells floats his own potential scenario: “It may be that we shouldn’t have been telling you to eat out at restaurants at all! For all I know, I might end up telling readers to start cooking at home again.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Hillary Dixler Canavan.

Jesse Hirsch
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Jesse Hirsch

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