Pandemic Brings Out the Best and the Worst in the Media

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Pandemic Brings Out the Best and the Worst in the Media
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Pandemic Brings Out the Best and the Worst in the Media
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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The coronavirus crisis is a make-or-break moment for the American media.

According to Wednesday’s Gallup poll on the coronavirus response, “Hospitals Rated Best, News Media Worst.” The survey shows that 44% of the public says the media has been doing “a good job.” This is high considering how the press fares in normal times, but let’s be honest: It can’t be comforting to a press corps that has been persistently adversarial to Donald Trump that it ranks 16 points lower than the approval of the president’s own handling of the crisis.

Predictably, some of the media’s worst tendencies, such as myopic concerns about political correctness and electoral politics, have often defined coverage of a public health crisis. At the same time, however, many news outlets are finding their voice and rallying around coverage that is unifying and informative. It would be a shame if the errors and  predictable bias drowned out many laudable, even heroic, media efforts.

First, a quick refresher on how the media botched the initial coverage: On Jan. 23, authorities in Beijing sealed off Wuhan, a city of 11 million in China’s interior, to contain the virus. Much of the media response was to downplay this harbinger of the deadly global threat to come. “Don’t worry about the coronavirus,” BuzzFeed wrote on Jan. 29. Worry about the flu.” On Jan. 31 – the same day the Trump administration imposed a ban incoming visitors from China – the “explainer” news site Vox was telling readers, “Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No.” On Feb. 1, the Washington Post ran an article headlined, “Get a grippe, America. The flu is a much bigger threat than coronavirus, for now.” On Groundhog Day, the Post was saying, “Past epidemics prove fighting coronavirus with travel bans is a mistake.”

By Feb. 3, China had extended the quarantine to 50 million people and imposed a travel ban on 16 cities. Now the Washington Post was worried, but about government’s response, not the virus, writing a critical story with the headline “Why we should be wary of an aggressive government response to coronavirus.” The complaint was that harsh measures “scapegoat already marginalized populations” and that the Trump administration’s travel ban on noncitizens coming from China “marks a significant, and potentially counterproductive, escalation in the U.S. response to the coronavirus crisis.”

On Feb. 7, The Daily Beast was saying, “Coronavirus, with zero American fatalities, is dominating headlines, while the flu is the real threat.” As late as March 4, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was telling viewers, “So if you’re freaked out at all about the coronavirus, you should be more concerned about the flu.” (The media has come full circle on the comparisons to the seasonal flu – on Tuesday the Washington Post was fretting, “Trump again downplays coronavirus by comparing it to the seasonal flu.” Media, heal thyself!)

In retrospect, it’s hard to deny the mainstream media’s initial downplaying of the threat was very wrong, or that it was partly a result of kneejerk antipathy to the Trump administration’s travel ban – which in retrospect looks like a prescient move.  

The good news, for the media at least, is that as the threat has become more serious, elements of the media are rising to the occasion. The politically motivated contrarianism is giving way to the kind of serious analysis and in-depth reporting the moment demands.

A few weeks ago, Zeynep Tufekci was relatively obscure Turkish academic – but the professor of information science at the University of North Carolina has emerged as one of the most insightful analysts of the failures that led us to sleepwalk into the current crisis. Her Atlantic essay, “It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong,” looks at how a broad spectrum of American institutions failed, and how our shallow ideas about “scientism” make it hard for society to understand risk.

“We had time to prepare for this pandemic at the state, local, and household level, even if the government was terribly lagging, but we squandered it because of widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics,” Tufekci writes. “We faltered because of our failure to consider risk in its full context, especially when dealing with coupled risk — when multiple things can go wrong together.” In addition to The Atlantic essay, Tufekci has also written an essential New York Times op-ed on how American authorities downplayed the value of citizens wearing masks to contain outbreaks, even though it appears to help and is de rigueur in densely populated Asian countries.

Also at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson has run two pieces on how Denmark is responding to the coronavirus crisis by attempting to “freeze” the economy and “pay 75 percent of their employees’ salaries to avoid mass layoffs.” Both pieces are refreshingly free of the ideological cant that infects so much of our political discourse.

Aside from analysts, reporters have also stepped up their game – Bloomberg Businessweek published a deep dive into how 3M doubled production of N95 masks virtually overnight. It turns out the venerable Minnesota company is employing localized supply chains and has been preparing for a moment such as this since the SARS crisis in 2002. It’s a story that will restore faith in corporate America.

The New York Times’ reporting on the frontlines of the medical response teams in New York has also been impressive. In particular, “13 Deaths in a Day: An ‘Apocalyptic’ Coronavirus Surge at an N.Y.C. Hospital” is Pulitzer worthy, and the video the Times produced to accompany the story thrusts you into the crisis in a way that’s harrowing. Similarly, somebody at The Washington Post had the great idea to let a New York ER doctor write a diary of what his day looks like. And ProPublica produced a disturbing, if necessary, story about a respiratory therapist describing in terrifying medical detail how the coronavirus kills people.

Smaller publications have also risen to the occasion. One of the problems with coronavirus coverage is that the major media have been insufficiently skeptical of China’s government for decades. National Review, on the other hand, has been warning about communist threats for 65 years, so it’s no surprise the staff is on the ball here – NR’s Jim Geraghty compiled “The Comprehensive Timeline of China’s COVID-19 Lies,” and it’s infuriating.  

The New Atlantis, an undeservedly obscure journal devoted to exploring the intersection of science and culture, has published several clearheaded, big picture analyses of the threat and how to respond – you might want to bookmark its homepage now.

Finally, network news in particular has been making an effort to lift everyone’s spirits at a time when everyone’s nerves are frayed. This ABC News’ report on a COVID-19 patient at the Cleveland Clinic who survived 10 days in the ICU only to tape a heartfelt note thanking those who treated him in the window of his hospital room is affecting stuff. A CBS News’ story on the truck drivers and grocery store workers working around the clock to deliver essential food and supplies is sure to inspire additional gratitude. And other stories are simply just a welcome distraction. NBC’s examples of how stir crazy workers are goofing off during the interminable video conference meetings they’ve all been forced into is plenty amusing.  

Media outlets have made, and continue to make, missteps covering this crisis. But it’s also important to remember the media is not a monolith to be judged collectively. This crisis has also been a reminder that having trustworthy and reliable – and, yes, sometimes uplifting -- information  is a matter of survival, and when we get through this, let’s not forget to thank those in the press who delivered when we needed them the most.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.



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