The Media Today

Have we normalized the COVID-19 death toll?

June 9, 2020

In early May, Charlie Warzel, a columnist at the New York Times, saw a tweet that hit him “like a ton of bricks.” In the tweet, Eric Nelson, who works in book publishing, imagined a future in which Americans simply get used to the death toll from covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Warzel wondered if we might be there already. “The day I read Mr. Nelson’s tweet, 1,723 Americans were reported to have died from the virus,” he wrote. “And yet their collective passing was hardly mourned. After all, how to distinguish those souls from the 2,097 who perished the day before or the 1,558 who died the day after?” He went on to compare the possible normalization of covid deaths to the normalization of deaths caused by gun violence.

In late May, as America approached one hundred thousand total recorded covid deaths, the Times, where editors had been reflecting on how best to mark the milestone, published a striking Sunday front page. Under the headline, “US Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss,” the Times ran a list, spanning the length and breadth of A1, naming covid victims in the US, each with a mini obituary. (“Muriel M. Going, 92, Cedarburg, Wis., taught her girls sheepshead and canasta”; “Eugene Lamar Limbrick, 41, Colorado Springs, loved automobiles, especially trucks.”) Simone Landon, an editor on the paper’s graphics desk, said the idea was to demonstrate the humanity behind the grim numbers, amid what Landon and her colleagues sensed was “a little bit of fatigue” with covid data, “both among ourselves and perhaps in the general reading public.”

Related: The Story Has Gotten Away from Us

As that week progressed, other outlets followed suit. On Wednesday, May 27—the day the official milestone was predicted to be hit, and was—the front page of USA Today showed the faces of a hundred covid victims, next to a graphic demonstrating scale. As soon as the hundred-thousand number was confirmed, it was splashed atop news websites and announced on cable news. “Very sad breaking news we can report right now,” Wolf Blitzer said on CNN. “Very, very sad.” The following day, the front page of the Washington Post portrayed victims as beams of light, shooting up from a map of the US. The cover of The Economist turned the figure into a literal milestone, casting a shadow across an empty road. Its headline: “The American way.”

According to several news organizations and Johns Hopkins University, America passed one hundred ten thousand confirmed covid deaths in the past few days; in other words, more than ten thousand people—ten thousand beams of light, one hundred times the faces on a USA Today cover, one-tenth of an Economist milestone—died in the ten or so days since the one-hundred-thousand marker was hit. There’s been some coverage of the rising death count since late May, but nothing of the depth and breadth that we saw back then. The difference is complicated to assess (more on which below)—but it’s hard to avoid feeling like it exposed the arbitrariness of using round numbers as news pegs for human life. Quantifying loss of life is always fraught; with covid-19, the methodological discrepancies in how we count cases and deaths add an extra layer of arbitrariness. (A recent analysis by the Post and the Yale School of Public Health concluded that overall deaths linked to the pandemic likely surpassed one hundred thousand three weeks before the official count—and headlines—caught up.) As the toll continues to climb, it seems likely that the gaps between the numbers we consider round enough to note will grow ever larger. Yesterday—the day I returned to Mr. Warzel’s old column—498 Americans were reported to have died. To borrow his words, “their collective passing was hardly mourned.”

There’s a lot to parse here. The packages marking the hundred-thousand milestone were powerful journalism, and many of them reckoned with the nuances outlined above. (For instance, the Post, even prior to its analysis with Yale, noted that the true death count was likely higher; the Times acknowledged that a number “can never convey the individual arcs of life, the 100,000 ways of greeting the morning and saying good night.”) The pandemic as a whole is still a big news story, including on cable. Yesterday, for example, we heard about New York’s reopening, Trump’s imminent plan to start holding rallies again, and the World Health Organization’s warning that, on Sunday, the daily rate of new confirmed cases hit a high, suggesting that globally, the pandemic is getting worse.

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Still, too often, the covid coverage we’re now seeing feels tired, as if it’s going through the motions. That’s understandable. After years of whiplash news and months of this particular cycle, journalists are exhausted—not to mention furloughed, underpaid, unemployed, arrested, assaulted, and so on. The pandemic story has been especially demanding to cover—for logistical, scientific, and emotional reasons—and also to consume. Fatigue isn’t limited to the press; as Robinson Meyer and Alexis C. Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic on Sunday, America as a whole “slowly seems to be giving up” on the battle against the pandemic. But we have to fight such feelings. The stakes are too high not to.

Our covid coverage needs to be focused and to avoid becoming arbitrary, episodic, and siloed. As my colleagues Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason demonstrated powerfully last week, the pandemic is intimately and powerfully linked to the other huge story of this moment, about a white police officer killing George Floyd, and the society-wide demands for racial justice and reform that have followed. covid-19 has exposed and compounded systemic racism in spheres from the medical to the economic; meanwhile, the killing of Floyd has shown just how powerful the news can be when we refuse to accept abnormal deaths as normal. Whatever form our future covid coverage may take, it’s our job, now, to find ways to make it fresh and urgent and compelling again, because the threat the disease poses is still all of those things. We can’t wait until two hundred thousand deaths to devote ourselves to remembering again. We can’t even wait until a hundred and twelve thousand.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • The accountability aspect, I: Last week, Andrew Restuccia, of the Wall Street Journal, reported that Trump has made a “strategic decision” to shift his focus away from the pandemic. “Trump’s advisers have told the president there is little political advantage to continuing to talk about the pandemic and that fewer Americans are paying attention,” Restuccia wrote. One adviser told him, “I just think the fight has moved on.” As the Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote last month, “Trump wants America to ‘normalize’ coronavirus deaths. It’s the media’s job not to play along.”
  • The accountability aspect, II: On Friday, White House officials moved reporters’ chairs closer together ahead of a Trump press conference, in violation of federal social-distancing guidelines. Members of the White House press corps grumbled—but as Bill Grueskin notes this morning for CJR, they did not move the chairs back. Trump, Grueskin writes, used journalists as “stand-ins for a piece of politicized stagecraft. Unfortunately, our press corps played along.”
  • The economic aspect: Also for CJR, Jane Eisner, the former editor in chief of The Forward, assesses the uncertain future of Jewish media post-covid. “As the economic consequences of the coronavirus cause respected community newspapers like the New York Jewish Week to reduce staff, and national newspapers like the Canadian Jewish News to close entirely,” Eisner asks, “will Jews, an already polarized minority, lose a rich history of journalism and what’s left of their communal common ground?”
  • The climate aspect: As I wrote in April, the coronavirus and climate stories are strongly linked, too. Today, Bloomberg is launching Bloomberg Green, a new quarterly magazine focused on the climate crisis and possible solutions. The magazine’s debut cover package—including an essay by Michael Bloomberg—explores how covid-19 stimulus funds might be steered toward climate projects.

Other notable stories:

  • A convulsive moment for the media industry continued yesterday: Christene Barberich stepped down as editor of Refinery29 after former staffers spoke up about discrimination at the site, and Adam Rapoport resigned as editor of Bon Appétit amid similar claims of racism in the newsroom and its coverage, and after an old photo showing Rapoport in brownface circulated on social media. Elsewhere, Jim VandeHei, the CEO of Axios, told staff that management “proudly support and encourage you to exercise your rights to free speech, press, and protest”—though VandeHei reportedly did not intend his note as active encouragement. Edmund Lee and Ben Smith have more for the Times. Smith also obtained and published a consultation at the Post on how staffers use social media.
  • Yesterday, the Post published two ambitious stories on policing. In the first, Mark Berman, John Sullivan, Julie Tate, and Jennifer Jenkins report that police nationwide have shot and killed around a thousand people a year since 2015 and are on track to do so again this year—a toll that has proved impervious to protests, calls for criminal justice reform, changing crime rates, and, this year, a pandemic. In the second, Dalton Bennett, Sarah Cahlan, Aaron C. Davis, and Joyce Lee reconstructed, in fine detail, how police charged protesters outside the White House last Monday, so Trump could do a photo op.
  • In other police news, Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller, has called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to strip the NYPD of its responsibility for issuing press credentials and fold the process into the mayor’s office instead. And the Writers Guild of America, East, became the first member union to call on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from police unions. Hamilton Nolan, a WGAE representative (and CJR writer), has more for In These Times.
  • New York’s Olivia Nuzzi has the story of Peter Weinberg, who was misidentified as the man caught on camera assaulting a child on a cycle path, and faced a torrent of online abuse as a result. The child had been posting flyers in support of George Floyd. “Weinberg didn’t know what ‘doxing’ meant,” Nuzzi writes, “but it was happening to him.”
  • Last week, Wyatt Myskow and Piper Hansen of the State Press, the student newspaper at Arizona State University, reported nearly two dozen claims that Sonya Forte Duhé, the incoming dean of ASU’s journalism school, mistreated students in a previous post at Loyola University New Orleans. Yesterday, ASU canceled Duhé’s appointment.
  • In the Philippines, trolls cloned the Facebook accounts of hundreds of journalists and students, and used them to perpetrate abuse, the Post’s Regine Cabato reports. Fears abound that allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, who is about to sign draconian “anti-terror” legislation, plan to use the clone accounts to harass or incriminate critics.
  • Recently, China expelled American journalists working for the Times, the Post, and the Journal. Lingling Wei, a naturalized US citizen who writes for the Journal, was among them. Her expulsion, she writes, forced her to leave her family behind, and “brought to an abrupt end my dream of reporting from the country where I was born and raised.”
  • And Microsoft’s recent move to replace editorial staffers with artificial intelligence already backfired; last week, robots at MSN wrongly illustrated a story about Jade Thirlwall, of the band Little Mix, condemning racism with a photo of Thirlwall’s bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock. Both singers are mixed race. The Guardian’s Jim Waterson has more. (He says MSN’s remaining humans have been told to delete his story, should the AI aggregate it.)

ICYMI: The uncertain future of Jewish news media

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.