The Media Today

Is the press too pessimistic about the pandemic?

March 3, 2021

Yesterday, President Biden gave a speech at the White House and said that the US is on track to have enough vaccine supply to cover every adult in America by the end of May—a two-month improvement on his administration’s previous timeline. Biden announced that the federal government has taken steps to accelerate the production of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, including helping to finalize a deal that will see Merck, a rival pharmaceutical company, manufacture doses. “This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II,” Biden said, calling them “good corporate citizens.” He also announced plans to get a first dose to every teacher this month. Across the mediasphere, these new developments were hailed as very good news. Some politics-watchers noted that they also reflected smart media management on Biden’s part. Eli Stokols, White House reporter for the LA Times, recalled “how Trump, desperate to win the daily news cycle, said COVID would be gone by Easter, then summer—and kept moving goalposts back.” There’s more benefit, Stokols wrote, in “setting moderate expectations, working to exceed them, and THEN doing the press conference.”

US health officials only approved Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which requires just a single dose, last weekend. The greenlighting was also welcomed in much coverage. The Washington Post greeted it, in a push notification, as added “firepower in the fight against the pathogen.” Spencer Bokat-Lindell, an opinion editor at the New York Times, put the new vaccine at the heart of his “case for COVID optimism”; Insider’s Hilary Brueck and Andrew Dunn wrote that it is “probably the best shot,” since it’s relatively easy to administer, works very well in young people, and potentially has lesser side effects than other vaccines. Still, such positivity wasn’t ubiquitous: Ever since Johnson & Johnson reported its trial data, some coverage has emphasized that its vaccine has lower headline efficacy rates than those produced by Pfizer and Moderna. The Post recently reported, under the headline “Johnson & Johnson vaccine deepens concerns over racial and geographic inequities,” that the expected deployment of the new shot to hard-to-reach areas could “drive perceptions of a two-tiered vaccine system, riven along racial or class lines—with marginalized communities getting what they think is an inferior product.” On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci toured the networks and was repeatedly asked what he’d say to Americans who’d rather wait for Pfizer or Moderna shots than get Johnson & Johnson’s; he explained patiently that all three vaccines are very effective and that since they were tested under very different conditions, minute comparisons of efficacy percentages aren’t useful. On Monday, Alex Gorsky, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, was asked the same question on Today. He stressed that the company’s vaccine, unlike its competitors’, was tested late last year, when COVID was at the peak of its spread, in countries with differing dominant variants. He added that the shot was still completely effective against hospitalization and death.

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These variations in tone, despite the broad underlying positivity of the Johnson & Johnson news, speak to a broader question that I briefly visited a month ago, and that experts and observers have since continued to ask: is the press being unduly pessimistic in its coverage of the pandemic? Late last week, the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci—who has argued repeatedly that the answer is “yes”—made her most detailed case yet in an article for The Atlantic that took aim at various public-health communicators, as well as journalists.

“The steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism,” Tufekci wrote. She then outlined five fallacies that, in her view, have consistently bedeviled COVID messaging: the undue fear that advising certain precautions will trigger a false sense of security and widespread reckless behavior; the repetition of inflexible rules at the expense of educating people about mechanisms of transmission, so they can make risk calculations for themselves; misleading media scolding about outdoor activities like going to the beach; excessive absolutism; and “a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action”—the framing, for example, that vaccines’ ability to reduce transmission (in addition to infection) remains a scary unknown, when sound reasoning and available evidence suggests they do have this ability, pending the collection of more data. “The public,” Tufekci concluded, “has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.”

But there is, of course, still ample bad news about the pandemic. As I wrote last week, case and death counts remain objectively very high—yesterday, they again topped fifty-four thousand and one thousand eight hundred, respectively—and optimism about a general decline in rates shouldn’t obscure that gutting human cost. Trump may be gone from the federal government, but state leaders continue to make foolish decisions: yesterday, the governors of Texas and Mississippi moved to roll back mask mandates and other restrictions, defying CDC guidance and offering every news show a fretful counterpoint to the hope of Biden’s vaccine speech. As Ellen Ruppel Shell, a professor of science journalism at Boston University, told me last month, much coverage, in seesawing between good and bad news, has felt “schizophrenic,” and induced whiplash. Yesterday, the Times wrote, in an article on the reopenings, that many Americans “are wondering whether to follow the lure of optimism, or to heed the warnings of health officials who say it’s premature to lift restrictions.”

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It’s helpful, instead, to think of such formulations as false dichotomies: health officials are optimistic, but in the long term, more than the short. The pandemic has been marked by a flattening of time—the arrival of March sparked innumerable Twitter jokes about how last March never ended—but time is essential to any assessment of what constitutes good and bad pandemic news. We need constantly to interrogate how our baselines have shifted—not just in terms of what we consider to be high numbers of cases and deaths, but also in more positive contexts. If the overall efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is worth noting at all, it’s in the sense that a year ago, the breadth of our current vaccine arsenal, and the pace of the rollout, was almost unimaginable; as James T. McDeavitt, of Baylor, told the Times last week, if Johnson & Johnson’s shot had been authorized before Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, “everybody would be doing handstands and back flips and high-fives.” Time also has a distorting effect when we look forward. The light at the end of the tunnel illuminates how much tunnel we still must navigate, which creates a set of expectations different from the one-day-then-the-next grind of the past year.

The best thing we can do to guard against whiplash is to situate optimism and pessimism not as contrasting poles of a coverage debate, but compatible—indeed, unavoidable—facets of this same everything story we’re all still living. As Tufekci put it, “effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe.” In her view, such balance has a practical benefit: encouraging “people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely,” she wrote, “can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment.” Yesterday, during his vaccine speech, Biden said that the Johnson & Johnson news is “a huge step in our effort to beat this pandemic, but I have to be honest with you: This fight is far from over.” Increasingly, and may be a better word than but.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • “The looming vaccine story”: Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, writes that with Biden’s new timeline for supply, the vaccine story is about to enter a new phase. “Stories about limited doses and the need for new approvals of new vaccines are about to be a relic of the past,” he writes. “Instead, the story looming on the horizon is about vaccine hesitancy and skepticism.” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst, told Darcy that coverage should “start talking about how being vaccinated changes someone’s outlook and daily life,” and center the stories of vaccinated people from communities of color.
  • What the numbers don’t show: For Scientific American, Amy Yee takes aim at the “myth,” stoked by widely-reported polling data, that the pandemic has been less hard financially on Asian-Americans than on Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. Working-class Asian-Americans, Yee writes, “are woefully neglected by researchers, academics and pollsters” and consequently overlooked by the press and policymakers. “Coverage about struggling Asian Americans and unemployment are a fraction of similar coverage about other racial groups,” Yee writes.
  • Fatphobia and the press: On The Takeaway, Rebeca Ibarra spoke with Virginia Sole-Smith, a journalist who has covered weight stigma, about the role of the press in amplifying fatphobic narratives before and during the pandemic. Early on, researchers noticed a correlation between weight and COVID outcomes; “they were not saying that higher body weights cause the severe COVID… but that’s not how it got reported in the media,” Sole-Smith said. “It was presented as a causal relationship, which is not scientifically true. That’s when we started to see negative bias against high body weights really spike.”
  • The media-business angle: For the Daily Beast, Sophia June profiles four alt-weeklies that figured out how to survive the pandemic, despite early predictions that it would spell their financial demise. “While so much news coverage of alt-weeklies has eulogized them before they’re gone, perhaps the real story is one of resilience,” June writes. “Because for all the stories about the end of alt-weeklies, there are many that, against all odds, have survived. In true alt-weekly edge, it’s a stubborn, punk refusal to let go.”
  • The press-freedom angle: The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China surveyed its members about worsening press freedom in the country. Their responses highlighted ways that the government used the pandemic to hinder reporting. “Journalists who sought to report in Wuhan, the city which reported the first cases of COVID-19, said they were harassed by police and forced to delete images or footage gathered in the course of reporting,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Others said authorities forced them to take an unreasonable number of COVID-19 tests or were threatened with quarantine—efforts they said were intended to disrupt reporting.”

Other notable stories:

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify Al Jazeera’s relationship with Qatar.

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.