The Media Today

Good news in the news about COVID

September 15, 2023
Shivani Agarwal, left, sits with her daughter daughter Kiran, 3, during the observation period after Kiran was inoculated with the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for children 6 months through 4 years old, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at Montefiore Medical Group in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The recent resurgence of COVID has a depressing familiarity: cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising; a new vaccine is being rolled out, to some confusion; anti-vax and other conspiratorial voices are getting louder, doing their best to turn the rebound of the virus into a right-wing talking point.

But, lucky for all of us, the media response this time seems better—avoiding disinformation, saying honestly what we know and what we don’t, and sidelining the fabulists rather than centering them in the national conversation.

That is not only the right way to cover this COVID moment, but a model for how the press should think about other sprawling, interconnected stories, such as climate change: connect the dots, don’t turn your stories over to fringe conspiracists, and bring all the talents of the newsroom into telling the story in innovative ways. 

This week, for instance, the Times treated the rise of COVID skepticism not as part of its central coverage but as a separate story, worthy of note but rightly on the sidelines. (The piece, by Stuart A. Thompson, also struck the right tone, noting that there is zero evidence, for instance, that Democrats are fanning the COVID rise to distract from a coming war in Russia. And mention of a Donald Trump COVID rant, on his Truth Social platform, was relegated to the last paragraph of the story.)

The point is not to ignore disinformation. According to the same Times piece, a third of Americans say they believe COVID vaccines kill otherwise healthy people. And Semafor reported on a New Hampshire focus group in which several participants viewed the COVID surge as being linked to supposed Democratic election rigging. Understanding where that misunderstanding comes from, and holding its purveyors accountable, merits journalistic attention. (One place to look: Meta, whose Threads service is blocking the search term “long COVID,” according to a piece by Taylor Lorenz in the Washington Post.)

The challenge for the press is in how to keep covering a story that has become part of the fabric of life. COVID is, in a way, the opposite of news. The virus is still with us; people are still dying; masking and vaccines and distancing are still the best solutions we have to keep ourselves safe.

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And, crucially, we don’t really have a clue how bad, or how mild, this or future waves of COVID will be. Humility has never been a defining trait of journalists. But acknowledging what we don’t know—can’t know—at a time like this will deepen reader trust rather than diminish it. On Wednesday, Apoorva Mandavilli, a health reporter for the Times, was interviewed by Michael Barbaro on The Daily and asked what the COVID picture might look like in five years, or in a decade. Her answer: “It’s almost impossible to predict what will happen.”

We might not be able to look into the future of COVID, but we can look back and learn from our mistakes. For that, there’s no better source than our issue on the pandemic, published last summer: “The Everything Virus.” The centerpiece of the project is a piece by Jon Allsop, the writer of our flagship newsletter, “The Media Today,” chronicling how the virus came to encompass every aspect of media, from the influence of social networks and partisan disinformation to the struggle of newsrooms to embrace the scale of the story. As he wrote:

Covering COVID, ultimately, demanded an information environment that incentivized intellectual curiosity and fierce debate, but also humility, cool heads, and flexibility in the face of ever-changing science. That is not the environment we had. Instead, our polarized, highly politicized media world incentivized almost the exact opposite. To the extent that news organizations tried to push back on those incentives, science won a victory. To the extent that we indulged, or even encouraged, them, science lost, and so did we.

It’s been heartening to see that pushback in the latest COVID coverage. But let’s not forget how we got here. Because it’s fall again, COVID is on the rise, and agents of disinformation are back in force. You can read the full issue here


Other notable stories:

  • In 2006, the oil giant Exxon Mobil acknowledged publicly for the first time that fossil fuels contribute to climate change—but documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher M. Matthews and Collin Eaton show that privately, the company took a very different tack. Under the leadership of Rex Tillerson, who would go on to serve as Trump’s secretary of state, Exxon executives “strategized over how to diminish concerns about warming temperatures” and “sought to muddle scientific findings that might hurt its oil-and-gas business,” Matthews and Eaton report. In 2011, Tillerson blasted a UN panel’s warnings of climate catastrophe and privately slammed media coverage of them.
  • Earlier this year, Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, hinted that the company would consider selling off its traditional TV assets, including ABC. Yesterday, Bloomberg’s Christopher Palmeri and Thomas Buckley reported that the company has held discussions about selling the network and other local stations to Nexstar, a prolific owner of stations nationwide. The talks are only at a preliminary stage, and any deal would likely face antitrust scrutiny, among other logistical hurdles; nonetheless, CNN’s Oliver Darcy hears that staffers inside ABC News are already “freaking out” about the prospect of a sale.
  • This week, Bill Maher, the host of the HBO late-night show Real Time, announced that his program will soon start airing again—even though its writers remain on strike. Maher attributed the decision to the struggles of his staff and insisted that he would honor “the spirit of the strike” by changing the show’s format—but the Writers Guild of America West said that the show would likely violate strike rules and that it would organize a picket. The WGA also pledged to picket Drew Barrymore’s returning daytime show. 
  • NPR’s Eyder Peralta reflected on a recent trip to Nicaragua, the country of his birth, where journalism has increasingly been criminalized amid a broader authoritarian crackdown by the regime of President Daniel Ortega. “I knew being here, as a journalist, could very well mean I might not be allowed back,” Peralta writes. “I saw myself like my parents—on some mountain, across the border, yearning for my country.”
  • And, for the latest episode of its One Year history podcast focused on forgotten stories from 1955, Slate charted the rise of the “weather girl” on American TV and radio. “Nineteen-fifty-five was the year of the weather girl—the moment when, all of a sudden, women weathercasters were everywhere in every corner of the country,” the host, Josh Levin, said. “Weather girls were enormous stars. They were idolized and lusted over.”

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Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.