The Media Today

The many challenges of covering the coronavirus

March 9, 2020

On Friday, amid ever-rising fears about the spread of the coronavirus, President Trump traveled to Atlanta to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trip was shrouded in confusion—it was initially canceled, for reasons that shifted throughout the day—and Trump’s message when he got there was unhelpful. The president indicated that he’d rather a cruise ship reporting cases stay off the California coast, because “I don’t need to have the numbers double” on US soil; called Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state, “a snake”; suggested that he may have “a natural ability” to understand medical science linked to a “great, super-genius uncle” who taught at MIT “for, like, a record number of years”; claimed that everyone who wants a virus test can have one (they can’t); and appeared to say that the tests were almost as “perfect” as his impeachment-triggering phone call with the president of Ukraine. Each of these claims echoed through the news media—and yet, as CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out on air yesterday, most coverage of the visit still “downplayed just how strange it was.”

In recent weeks, other media critics, too, have argued that major newsrooms are botching their coverage of Trump’s coronavirus response. Last week, Alex Pareene wrote for the New Republic that our optics-obsessed political press is grading Trump more on his messaging around the virus than its real-world consequences, and that Trump understands this; as Pareene put it, “Trump believes coronavirus is a thing that happens on TV, and that he can control what the TV says.” Dan Froomkin, of Press Watch, wrote that too many articles have credulously repeated Trump’s preferred narrative up top, without quickly demonstrating its distortions. Froomkin argues that news organizations should pull political reporters off the coronavirus story altogether, “because they don’t distinguish between right and wrong.”

ICYMI: The infinite scroll

Another problem with the political coverage of the coronavirus may simply be that there’s too much of it. Aggressively scrutinizing the government response to a medical crisis is an urgent imperative, especially when the head of government has a track record like Trump’s. Still, sections of the media—cable news panels, for example—could surely find better uses for their bandwidth than cyclical, often-partisan punditry about whether Trump is doing a good job with this, and what it all might mean for his reelection prospects. “Trump and the news media both have a tendency to, make, well, everything about Trump,” Stelter said yesterday. “But this virus story is only a little bit about Trump.”

Stelter is right. When it comes to coronavirus coverage, the Trump story is only one among many that need to be told, and all of them pose their own, sharp challenges to our established ways of doing and talking about things; as the coronavirus threatens to reach into every sphere of our lives, so it threatens to underscore and exacerbate every big problem the media faces, all at the same time. The coronavirus misinformation coming from the White House, for instance, may be unparalleled in prominence, but it arguably pales in comparison to the virus conspiracy theories stampeding around the internet right now, some of which—around miracle cures that are tantamount to drinking bleach, for example—are immediately dangerous.

As Charlie Warzel wrote for the New York Times last week, the coronavirus is shaping up to be the first “singular global event” to seriously test our networked way of life. The news media’s role in this connected ecosystem is to disseminate reliable, high-quality information to the public, and yet our power to do so has waned—our industry has declined, especially on the local level, and social-media platforms, which facilitate and even incentivize disinformation tactics, have stepped into the void. The World Health Organization—which has declared an “infodemic” around the coronavirus—is working with platforms to flag and kill viral junk, but the dregs still seep through the cracks, including via private channels such as WhatsApp. Where we can report on, and debunk, all this bad information, we risk accidentally furthering it.

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Even official information about the virus can be misleading if we don’t report it with adequate context. At the moment, the world’s media is flooded with ever-changing figures about confirmed cases and death rates. Often, such figures are presented with a certainty that belies what they can’t tell us—death rates don’t account for people who contract the virus, but display so few symptoms that they don’t recognize or report it; the number of cases in a given location reflects not just the spread of the virus, but local officials’ attitude toward testing, too. Journalists may grasp such limitations implicitly, but we shouldn’t assume that readers do. As Alexis C. Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic recently, “People trust data. Numbers seem real. Charts have charismatic power. People believe what can be quantified. But data do not always accurately reflect the state of the world.” The challenge here is to communicate nuance and uncertainty in formats—headlines, tweets, and so on—that reward brevity and clarity.

These sorts of problems lack easy answers. Nonetheless, there are relatively basic steps we can take to improve our coverage. Last week, Al Tompkins, of Poynter, outlined some of them. To avoid transmitting undue fear, Tompkins writes, we should limit our use of adjectives such as “deadly.” We should also more carefully consider the stock photos we use to illustrate coronavirus stories. Pictures of people wearing masks risk conveying the false impression that masks are an effective everyday defense against the virus. And often, the people in such photos are Asian, even if the story in question has nothing to do with Asia—which has had the effect of furthering stigmatizing, xenophobic stereotypes around virus transmission. As CJR’s Amanda Darrach reported recently, such tropes are being perpetuated linguistically, too.

Already, the coronavirus is affecting the nuts and bolts of how we tell and disseminate stories. Every coverage decision we make must walk fine lines between scaremongering and complacency; between facts and uncertainty; between science and politics. But the virus also offers us opportunities to sharpen our coverage in any number of areas, from race, to data, to the structural iniquities of societies in which experiences of healthcare—and, if it comes to it, quarantine—divide sharply on class lines. And yes, it’s another chance to sharpen our coverage of Trump, too.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • The face of the response: Allies of the president reportedly have been encouraging him to put administration experts front and center of his response to the coronavirus. One official in particular—Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—has become a public face of the response, in large part, the Times reports, because “when reporters call Dr. Fauci, he calls them back.” Last week, Fauci was profiled by Politico. White House officials reportedly saw it as a distraction.
  • A frontline account: Josh Dawsey, a politics reporter for the Washington Post, was tested for the coronavirus last week. (He didn’t have it.) He recounted his ordeal here. Elsewhere, Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Paul Gosar, both Republicans, are both quarantining themselves after coming into contact with a virus carrier at CPAC, the annual conservative conference.
  • Personnel changes: Amid the coronavirus crisis, some key staffing changes at the White House. On Friday, Trump named Mark Meadows, the hardline North Carolina  Congressman, as his new chief of staff, replacing Mick Mulvaney. And Hope Hicks is back at the White House from today, as an adviser to Jared Kushner.
  • Cancel culture: On Friday, South by Southwest, the annual tech, media, and entertainment conference in Austin, Texas, was canceled due to the coronavirus. It had been slated to start this week, with plenty of news media types in attendance. On the homefront, Columbia University announced yesterday that it’s canceling classes today and tomorrow, and shifting to remote learning for the rest of the week. CJR will continue to publish as normal.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

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.