Perspectives: Is the media covering the coronavirus productively?

graphic by Emily Zhang

Yes – Eero Helenius

No – Esmé Kamadolli

Turning on the TV or reading the news online, there is only one story that the media is reporting on. Whether it be CNN, BBC, FOX or the New York Times, there is next to nothing to find other than stories of emerging cases of COVID-19, preventative measures that society needs to adopt or statistics as the death toll continues to rise around the world.

The coronavirus outbreak is serious. In fact, it is unequivocally the most serious news, impacting nearly everyone across the globe to some degree. With over 74,000 worldwide COVID-19-related deaths as of April 7th, according to CNN, it is the media’s role to cover the coronavirus, which is impacting us all. Facing this pandemic, definitionally titled so because of its global implications, it is almost unconscionable that the media devotes significant coverage to any other news.

Up to this point, the media has fulfilled their responsibility as the bridge of information from medicine and science to the general public, a role integral to our continued fight to end the global coronavirus outbreak.

There have been and will continue to be morally challenging decisions made about the value of human life and how far we will go to protect it. Italy, which the Washington Post found had a death toll that surpassed 15,000 as of April 5, is already making choices that dictate who gets to live and who doesn’t, something unheard of at this scale. The coronavirus presents a serious threat to the fabric of our society. It is, therefore, the media’s responsibility to spread valuable information, like mortality rates, symptoms and preventative measures, out to the general public in a factual, non-fear-mongering manner. 

Although it may seem extreme, social distancing is one of the best defenses against COVID-19, and the media is essential in communicating the importance of this measure. Even if individuals know that social distancing is a necessary precaution to save lives, it relies on collective effort. The point of social distancing is to act like you already have the virus and to try to alter your behavior to mitigate its spread of this extraordinarily infectious and deadly disease. 

It is the media’s role to provide accurate information by emphasizing the severity of the disease and the significance of minimizing its spread. Accurate, reliable and ubiquitous information will protect us from the rumors and conspiracies that are counterproductive and dangerous to the continuous fight. 

The media must communicate the severity of the coronavirus to gain everyone’s commitment to mitigating its spread. Such awareness is the only way to prevent overloading America’s already-fragile healthcare system, which Yale News reports has only 98,000 intensive care units (ICU) ready to treat COVID-19 patients. 

Yale News further found that 65% of these ICUs are occupied at any given time, meaning that there are only approximately 34,000 hospital beds to treat the already over 300,000 patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 nationwide. That simple multiplication shows that our healthcare system is not equipped to adequately respond to the crisis, particularly as it grows, without the help of regular people actively doing their part by social distancing. By publicizing these alarming numbers, the media is effectively conveying the gravity of COVID-19, therefore urging people to remain at home and take the recommended preventative measures. 

While the quantity and style of media coverage may be viewed as fear-mongering, in reality if people take it seriously and respond by staying home and doing their part to mitigate the spread of the disease, then the media has done its job; a little fear is a small price to pay for saving lives. It remains important, as always, to consume reputable media; however, we, as the general population, must trust the medical experts to advise us. It is not our job to question the CDC or the world’s top infectious disease specialists. Rather, it is our responsibility to act in accord with their recommendations, even if they may seem radical by our less-educated opinions.

With rampant xenophobic rumors circulating, it is critical that the media counters them with accurate coverage. The coronavirus is not the “Chinese Virus” nor the “Wuhan Virus” but technically called SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19. It is also not, as the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhoa alleged, a disease spread into China by the U.S. Army. While tempting, finding someone to blame instead of seriously addressing the coronavirus will only lead to more deaths.

It is apparent that coverage of the coronavirus is increasing radicalism and partisanship, specifically in the U.S. This divide is a cause not of media coverage but of the conflict between news that the press and more reputable health organizations, such as the CDC and World Health Organization, publish and news that the White House wants shared. The confusion regarding the coronavirus, which many attribute to the media, is rather a cause of the President calling media coverage “sensationalist” and labeling reporters “fear-mongers.”

Now more than ever, we need to guarantee an informed and knowledgeable public, and the media is the best-equipped to handle the distribution of important information from reliable sources. The Washington Post and New York Times are prime examples: by allowing people to access vital coronavirus content without a subscription to their services, they are making their information available to those who potentially wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Scrolling through the news feed on my phone, I have to actively search out headlines that don’t include the word coronavirus or COVID-19. Even the food section is void of the fun cupcake recipes I typically read solely for the delicious pictures, instead featuring articles about freezing bread and disinfecting groceries. I desperately click on a seemingly unrelated article about shelter dogs in New York only to see three mentions of the coronavirus in the first paragraph.

It’s glaringly clear that media outlets across the world and political spectrum are covering this pandemic. The coronavirus-related articles, blog posts, memes and even TikToks are rampant. But in this case, quantity really does not equate to quality. While there are definitely outliers, as a whole, media coverage of the outbreak tends to repeat vague, sometimes contradictory statistics and blanket statements that overwhelm instead of inform readers.

The first issue tends to be with the sheer amount of attention that the pandemic gets. While COVID-19 affects a lot of people around the world, there are plenty of other issues of equal importance that necessitate coverage. Right now, Saudi Arabia and Russia are in an oil-price war that has pushed the price of Brent Crude, a type of oil, dangerously low. This oil price drop has significant implications for people across the world, like COVID-19, but is receiving a negligible fraction of the coverage. While covering the virus is important, other stories also need to be heard.

The lack of diversity in news stories also magnifies the concept that we’re in an apocalypse brought on by COVID-19; the coronavirus then becomes this all-encompassing, evil force, portrayed as the only thing that matters. This panic and fear has manifested in unproductive and detrimental practices like hoarding a year’s supply of toilet paper.

While some amount of fear can be helpful to reinforce concepts like social distancing, it isn’t helpful when panic is spurred by misinformation. The painful reality is that our federal and local government, health experts and media sources are spreading contradictory information. Because information varies from differing sources, coverage of the virus through a glaringly inconsistent lens is extremely confusing and hinders efforts to stop its spread. There are some things we don’t know about the virus yet, so when the Mayor of New York City says that COVID-19 only spreads over prolonged contact, the CDC says to clean doorknobs and then reputable news outlets say that the virus can last up to nine days on certain surfaces, media coverage becomes primarily detrimental, not educational. Such varied media coverage has several effects. 

First, people get really scared because they don’t know whether to believe that COVID-19 is a really big issue or a really big overreaction – mostly they think that no one really knows. Second, they are forced to choose who to believe, thus creating a spectrum with concerning extremes on both sides: those who freak out and those who can justify telling themself that COVID-19 is not a big deal. 

This extremism, even when it is fairly uncommon, creates a cycle where the nonchalant see preventative action against the coronavirus as typical of those who they label as crazy, apocalyptic hypochondriacs and are further disincentivized from altering regular habits. Meanwhile, the concerned are pushed into an outraged frenzy by the inaction of those who remain unconcerned and are more likely to affirm stereotypes about them being radical. 

Those on one extreme ignore the less obvious motives (like health condition) behind the actions of those on the other extreme, perpetuating a cycle of extreme responses like continuing to go to 50-person parties or holding up in your basement with a trillion masks and rolls of toilet paper, all of which hurt genuine efforts to contain COVID-19.

Both extremes have adverse effects on society as a whole, because the unproductive responses that ensue tend to contribute to the spread of coronavirus. Fortunately, media outlets can definitely improve how productive their coverage is to minimize the presence of these extremes.

They could highlight the positive aspects of society that COVID-19 has brought out to encourage more good samaritans and alleviate general panic and anxiety. It is important to highlight the importance of not stockpiling and of donating supplies to hospitals alongside scary statistics and information about shortages. 

The media also needs to stop using COVID-19 as another issue to deepen partisan lines. The media needs to stop wasting time ridiculing President Donald Trump’s misconduct and spread of misinformation and focus instead on spreading accurate information in productive ways.

Most importantly, everyone needs to understand that the danger isn’t just the direct fatality rate of the virus, it’s our inability to handle and respond to the spread of the virus. We need to hear about everyone who will die because of overcrowding and shortages. Early coverage botched our chances of early prevention by hammering in the idea that the virus is only fatal for certain at-risk individuals. 

In reality, it’s the opposite: every single person that gets and spreads COVID-19 creates a need for medical resources, which means more deaths overall as hospitals experience supply shortages. We cannot continue to make the same mistake of not addressing every danger of COVID-19, and the first group who can help to ensure that is the media.

At the end of the day, much of how we see the world is shaped by the media around us, and we need to stop looking at the virus like this massive uncontrollable, evil force. It’s an issue, and it’s going to force us to change and adapt a little bit. It’s going to make life very hard for some people, but we have to start treating and portraying it like a problem that we have to fix, not as a malignant force that we have to fear and panic about.