The Media Today

The many challenges of covering the coronavirus haven’t gone away

June 24, 2020

On March 9, I wrote in this newsletter about the challenges of covering covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that was, at that time, spreading rapidly around the world. That newsletter very quickly came to feel like a dispatch from a different world—yet, reading it back again now, the many things that haven’t changed seem more notable than those that have. Back then, a spike in confirmed cases in the US was causing alarm. This week, that’s true again; as the New York Times put it on Monday, “new Covid-19 clusters have been found in a Pentecostal church in Oregon, a strip club in Wisconsin, and in every imaginable place in between.” When I wrote in early March, Trump had just said that he hoped a cruise ship with a covid outbreak would stay offshore because he didn’t want to inflate the case count on US soil; yesterday, Trump confirmed that he wasn’t kidding (as his aides insisted he was) when he said, over the weekend, that he’d asked officials to slow down covid testing because it’s showing the spread of the virus. That same week in March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was just starting to become a national figure, told Congress that the US’s testing setup was “a failing”; yesterday, Fauci told Congress that the US does not have the virus under control. From a journalistic standpoint, the coverage challenges I listed in March—including the risks of making the virus story all about Trump, rampant disinformation, and our lack of access to good data, all amid the dire financial state of the media industry—are all still with us.

In recent days, as confirmed case counts have ticked up in many states, much of our coverage has taken on a familiar hue. Interviewing Dan Diamond, a health reporter with Politico, on MSNBC last night, Chris Hayes said that when he looks at current hospitalization rates in Arizona, for instance, “I think to myself, I’ve been covering this story from February. Like, I know what this looks like. I’ve seen it now. I’ve seen what it does.” Hayes asked why, several months later, the US was having to relearn those lessons.“This feels like déjà vu,” Diamond replied. “It feels like—with the numbers rising and the White House largely playing it down—somewhat of a reprise of where we were.” History is repeating itself. It’s been both tragedy and farce all along.

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Of course, below the striking similarities, there is much that is different about the current covid situation and the media’s coverage of it. Our understanding of the science behind both the disease and the public health interventions that can slow its spread remains far from complete, but has greatly improved. Many of the other differences are less hopeful.

In early March, the eyes of the world were on Italy, where the virus was overwhelming the healthcare system. Now, as Politico’s Diamond and Sarah Wheaton wrote on Monday, the US has effectively taken Italy’s place; Italy is well past its viral peak, whereas in the US, “new per capita cases remain on par with Italy’s worst day.” On the evening of March 9, Italy entered a full nationwide lockdown; now, in the US, we’re talking about opening back up. On March 11, Trump moved to restrict travel to the US from twenty-six European countries; yesterday, the Times reported that the European Union is now planning to stop people entering from the US. (This drove a lot of discussion. “Americans are literally too dangerous to be let out of our country,” Hayes said.) In early March, Trump’s aides told him to lay off rallies; this week, the president has returned to the campaign trail, first in Tulsa, then, yesterday, in Phoenix. The occasional congressional or media appearance aside, Fauci has disappeared from public view. Most disturbingly, the fear that marked the beginning of the US outbreak has given way, in some quarters, to fatigue, even boredom. The death count seems to have been normalized, including among some sections of the media.

In addition to the coverage challenges we faced in March, we find ourselves confronted by new ones. Fighting back on fatigue and normalization is among them. So is the challenge of holding to account a president whose response to the virus has been so inadequate that it almost defies meaningful rebuke. Capitalizing on covid fatigue, Trump has engaged in a conscious effort to shift public attention away from the virus; yesterday, Politico reported that the administration is lining up scapegoats, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a bid to shift blame, too. In the mainstream media, condemnation of Trump’s negligence isn’t hard to find—but often, the outrage feels too generalized to be of much use. One has to imagine that if we had a more responsible administration, the press would be trying to hold it to its own higher standards; in the UK, for instance, the government set a daily testing target for the month of April, effectively ensuring trial by media if it wasn’t met. The British government is hardly a beacon of responsibility, and there were many problems with the April testing goal, both in terms of its execution and the press coverage of it. But it was, at least, a specific benchmark—not a non-joke joke about doing less testing than before. Is it time, now, to implement such benchmarks for Trump, that aim higher than the bare minimum? Perversely, setting low expectations can enable bad actors to dodge scrutiny.

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The US is doing more testing nationally now than it was in previous months—but as Vox’s German Lopez noted on Monday, testing is still at or around a level that many experts would describe as a “bare minimum,” and some cities and states aren’t even hitting that. As I wrote last month, journalists would do well to conceptualize testing as a freedom of information issue: the more testing there is, the clearer the picture we’ll have of the true spread of the virus inside the US. Throughout the pandemic, the full picture has eluded us—not just in terms of spread but in terms of the science of covid, too. In part, that’s understandable—this is a novel threat, and smart people are still figuring it out. It’s also the case, however, that our coverage continues to be limited by avoidable government failures and, sometimes, our own lack of understanding of the limits of the data we do have—which, as well as being partial, operates on a time delay, given covid’s incubation period. The virus remains, in many ways, invisible to us—and not just because we can’t physically see it. The better our visibility, the better the journalism we can do.

Whether the recent spike in confirmed cases constitutes a second wave of the virus or is still part of the first is one of the questions that we’ve yet to satisfyingly answer. As HuffPost’s Jeffrey Young wrote over the weekend, however, it is ultimately “a semantic difference that utterly doesn’t matter.” The past few months, Young noted, “have felt like eons. But the truly terrifying thing is that if we continue on this path toward pretending the pandemic is over, the nightmare will last even longer.” Months from now, should I revisit today’s newsletter, I’d love for its contents to feel like a relic, not newly relevant. The press can’t control the virus or the path politicians take in responding to it. But we do have a role to play, despite the challenges we face. It involves demanding answers and action, however long that takes.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.