The coronavirus pandemic has crippled America. So far, the virus has killed more than 20,000 people in the United States and has sickened more than 500,000 people.
It’s clear now that the US government was woefully unprepared for the pandemic, and that’s been reflected in its messaging to the public since the start.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for instance, didn’t tell the country to stop gathering in groups until March 15 — weeks after a top CDC official announced that the virus would begin spreading throughout the US. And after telling Americans for months that they should not wear masks unless they are sick, the government formally flipped that advice on April 3 and said that everyone should wear some kind of covering on their face in certain public settings.
Much of the mainstream media amplified this slow and muddled reaction to the rapidly spreading virus. Since alarming reports about Covid-19 began to emerge from China in January, the media often provided information to Americans that later proved to be wrong, or at least inadequate.
For instance: While President Trump has been correctly pilloried for describing the coronavirus as less dangerous than the flu, that message was commonplace in mainstream media outlets throughout February. And journalists — including my colleagues at Vox — were dutifully repeating exhortations from public health officials not to wear masks for much of 2020.
As we head into the next phase of the pandemic, and as the stakes mount, it’s worth looking back to ask how the media could have done better as the virus broke out of China and headed to the US.
Why didn’t we see this coming sooner? And once we did, why didn’t we sound the alarm with more vigor?
If you read the stories from that period, not just the headlines, you’ll find that most of the information holding the pieces together comes from authoritative sources you’d want reporters to turn to: experts at institutions like the World Health Organization, the CDC, and academics with real domain knowledge.
The problem, in many cases, was that that information was wrong, or at least incomplete. Which raises the hard question for journalists scrutinizing our performance in recent months: How do we cover a story where neither we nor the experts we turn to know what isn’t yet known? And how do we warn Americans about the full range of potential risks in the world without ringing alarm bells so constantly that they’ll tune us out?
“Not just saying what we do know, but what we don’t know”
Let’s be clear: Journalists have been doing crucial reporting about what the US government got wrong as the pandemic advanced, and what US leaders could have done to prepare America. They provided analysis that put the news in context. And they have also provided important on-the-ground dispatches from places around the world that have been devastated by the disease — often at great personal risk — starting at its epicenter in Wuhan, China.
But when it came to grappling with a new disease they knew nothing about, journalists most often turned to experts and institutions for information, and relayed what those experts and institutions told them to their audience.
And given that the Covid-19 coronavirus is brand new, even the best-meaning experts and institutions gave conflicting information, some of which now has proven to be inaccurate or up for debate. That includes National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, who is now the most trusted official in the federal government when it comes to the Covid-19 response, but as late as February was calling the risk from coronavirus “minuscule” and warning people to worry instead about “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.”
“There’s a line between doing aggressive reporting and kind of acting in the role of a public health agency,” Joe Kahn, the New York Times’s managing editor, told Recode. “And you never have a degree of complete certainty about the medical analysis, and the epidemiology.”
That degree of uncertainty is much larger when it comes to a new virus that moves around the world as quickly as a plane. It’s a problem that comes built into the reporting. Perhaps the only solution journalists have is to simply say: The experts we talked to aren’t sure, but they’re trying to find out.
Laura Helmuth, who was the health and science editor at the Washington Post and recently left to become editor-in-chief of Scientific American, says acknowledging gaps in knowledge is crucial but not easy.
“One thing that science journalists have been getting better at is not just saying what we do know, but what we don’t know,” she says. “But most journalists aren’t accustomed to doing that.”
And that assumes the journalists themselves have the expertise to ask the right experts. Mainstream journalists who know how to read and understand academic research reports are a select group and have been for decades. Many midsize newspapers once employed dedicated science journalists, but those jobs have been dwindling for years. (One reason that Stat, a publication that launched in 2015, which specializes in medical and science reporting, has been so valuable during this crisis is that it employs dozens of expert journalists who once did this work for other outlets.)
But Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science who specializes in the intersection between technology and society, argues that the mainstream media should have been able to understand the threat facing the country much earlier.
Writing in the Atlantic on March 24, she says the threat should have been obvious as early as January 29, when a New England Journal of Medicine paper described the virus’s speed, cunning, and lethality. Tufekci shared the paper on Twitter and said that “with an urgent enormous effort, this could be contained.” But back then, widespread lockdowns and enforced social distancing for everyone regardless of their symptoms were hard to imagine, even for Tufekci. “For all of us, washing hands often and not touching one’s face and self-isolating if feverish are the sensible steps—as in any flu season,” she tweeted.
Significant #nCoV2019 paper *just* out at @NEJM. Bad news, which we kinda knew, is there is sustained human-to-human transmission. Goodish news: R0 estimate is 2.2, lower than SARS. But won’t be easier to contain because 2020 is more connected than 2003. https://t.co/IsvnOvs8uU
— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) January 29, 2020
Tufekci’s critique is that many journalists who covered the outbreak in the first couple of months of the year weren’t analytical enough: “Thus from the end of January through most of February, a soothing message got widespread traction, not just with Donald Trump and his audience, but among traditional media in the United States, which exhorted us to worry about the flu instead, and warned us against overreaction. It seemed sensible, grown-up, and responsible.”
Some of that advice shows up in memes that highlight headlines from a range of respected media outlets that now seem terribly misleading after new information came to light. (You won’t find any Vox headlines in the collage below on flu comparisons, but as many people have pointed out, my colleagues at Vox published some stories and tweets with similar angles.)
But, again: Those stories didn’t just materialize out of reporters’ heads. They were informed by experts trying to make sense of something they hadn’t seen before.
For instance, Maimuna Majumder, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told BuzzFeed News in late January — in a story originally titled “Don’t Worry About The Coronavirus. Worry About The Flu” — that some worst-case projections about the disease’s velocity were “absolutely premature and hyperbolic.”
A January 29 piece from Axios explained, “Why we panic about coronavirus, but not the flu.” It quoted an infectious diseases physician at the University of Nebraska, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, and a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University to make the argument that the flu should be Americans’ real concern.
The same was true for a much-discussed Recode piece from February 13 that looked at the way Silicon Valley was responding to the virus. That story relied on information from the CDC as well as an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, who said that “the chances are astonishingly low that you would come into contact with a coronavirus infection” at work or in a public setting. Building on those interviews, it repeated the argument that “the fact remains that, so far, the flu has impacted far more people.” Though true at the time, this clearly missed where the virus was headed.
But even now, months after we first learned about the virus, scientists are still learning the nitty-gritty of how it spreads and the extent to which it lingers in airborne droplets and aerosols that can infect others. That makes it hard to answer a question like, “can you contract the virus just by breathing in the same space as someone who’s infected?” We don’t know the full answer and may not for some time, and that’s why the institutions that employ these experts have been giving journalists and the public contradictory advice along the way.
That back-and-forth can be jarring, even if we’ve become accustomed to continual contradictions from our government leaders. The Trump administration has conditioned Americans to a reality where the president routinely announces something in the morning, backtracks it shortly afterward, and later pretends he never said it. So when he does say something, it’s pored over immediately to check for falsehoods and (usually) treated with appropriate skepticism.
You can argue that American newsrooms should use the same kind of scrutiny when it comes to pronouncements from institutions — including ones like the CDC, which generally don’t make news. But it’s not a stance Americans are used to seeing, particularly in the middle of a catastrophe, when people want reassurance and guidance.
An obvious but important point: All of the coverage we’re discussing here doesn’t include Fox News and the rest of the pro-Trump media infrastructure, because it would be unrealistic to expect useful coverage from that infrastructure. With the narrow exception of Tucker Carlson, that apparatus simply provided an echo chamber and feedback loop for Trump’s messaging, so that when Trump said he expected the virus to “miraculously” disappear, they said the same, and when he said it was time to take it seriously, they did the same. This did a deadly disservice to an enormous swath of the country, which takes its cues from those outlets. But it’s not surprising. “Misinformation from the Trump administration is the biggest challenge,” Helmuth says. “Really good reporters are wasting a ton of time refuting misinformation from the White House.”
“In a fundamental way, news is bad at communicating risk”
But even if you’re inclined to give the media a pass for its performance before the pandemic hit the US, what about the second phase? When we knew it was coming and that it would be bad?
You can’t argue that Americans had mixed messaging by that point: On February 25, CDC official Nancy Messonnier told reporters that she expected to see the coronavirus appear in the US via “community spread” — meaning people would become infected without knowingly coming into contact with other infected people — and that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.”
But even after that, worrisome news about the spread and effects of the virus, which was moving across Asia and showing up in Europe, competed with coverage of the Democratic primary and other stories of the moment, like Harvey Weinstein’s sentencing for sexual assault. And stories that did cover the virus often focused on the Trump administration’s moves — like his decision to put Mike Pence (theoretically) in charge of a virus response team — instead of plainly telling Americans that they could be facing huge death tolls and a devastated economy.
“I think people were worried about being alarmist,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes told Recode. But Hayes also says that figuring out the right degree of alarm to sound is a basic problem for journalists.
“In a fundamental, definitional way, news is bad at communicating risk,” he said. Telling you about a plane crash is news, but it doesn’t convey the risk of flying — it overstates it, by giving it prominence. The same with local crime stories. Meanwhile, telling you about a pandemic that’s about to overtake the country, kill tens of thousands of people, and crater the economy is very hard to do when it hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a chance it could.
This core challenge for journalists won’t go away after the pandemic: There are always going to be threats that could eventually lead to disaster, but most of them don’t. If we holler every time we see one, we’ll be wrong and no one will listen to us. If we don’t holler when there’s a real one, we will have let down our audience.
I first started poking a few weeks ago at the idea of whether the mainstream media should have been more alarmist about the coronavirus sooner. When I talked to Brian Stelter, CNN’s media reporter, on March 10, he told me he didn’t want to cause “undue fear” in his coverage, and that extended to the way he edited the on-air chyrons that ran during his Reliable Sources show.
For instance, Stelter said at the time that he was stripping out the word “deadly” whenever he saw the phrase “deadly virus.”
“Everyone knows it’s a deadly virus,” he said. “You don’t have to call it ‘deadly virus’ every time. It’s a virus. We don’t call the flu the ‘deadly flu.’”
As Stelter noted, a lot of this comes down to packaging: How and when do you communicate the most important news to people, and how do you balance the need to not scare them prematurely with the need to scare them into action?
“The media should be screaming about it,” says Laura Helmuth. “They should be saying that the states that don’t have stay-at-home orders are killing people, that politicizing this is killing people.”
In some cases, the screaming was there, but you had to work to hear it. You wouldn’t find it in a headline or the top of a newscast, but if you absorbed the whole thing, you’d find news that would scare you into some kind of action.
My sort-of come-to-Jesus moment started on February 27 when I listened to Times reporter Donald McNeil on the paper’s Daily podcast. He said the worst-case scenario was a repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 50 million people worldwide and at least 675,000 in the United States.
In that version, McNeil said calmly: Everybody in the US would “know somebody who dies.”
It’s most gripping in audio form, but I want to pull out a section here:
Donald G. McNeil Jr.
Some big chunk of the country — 30, 40, 50 percent — are likely to get a new virus when it blows through. And if you don’t get it in the first wave, you might get it in the second wave.
And 2 percent lethality rate of 50 percent of the country. I don’t want to do that math. It’s really, really awful.
It’s a lot of people. It means, you know, you don’t die, 80 percent of people have mild cases. But you know somebody who dies.
That’s pretty horrible … Okay. Now, the best-case scenario.
The best-case scenario is one of these drugs works, and basically everybody gets sick next year, but everybody who is hospitalized gets a drug that keeps them from dying and keeps them from going into deep, deep, deep respiratory distress. And we have the equivalent of a bad flu season. And then everybody says, ‘Oh, the media, they blew it out of proportion again.’ You know, it’s all ridiculous. And, you know, I get blamed.
That was enough for me — sort of. I didn’t change my plans to travel to Los Angeles the following week, but I did start assuming that the rest of my spring plans were going to be up in the air. And I told my family that we should start buying food — not in panic, but slowly. And I wondered how The Daily’s millions of listeners would respond.
But, again, if you just scanned the title of that day’s Daily episode, you might not realize that a New York Times reporter was projecting that the best-case scenario for America was that “everybody gets sick” over the next year but could be saved from serious illness via yet-to-be-developed drugs. And that the worst case was more American deaths than we suffered in World War II. That Title: “The Coronavirus Goes Global.”
The truth is, there’s no good answer to this. You can be as diligent about your sourcing as possible and still get it wrong if the experts you talk to get it wrong. And you can err on the side of not scaring people, when scaring people into action may be the only thing that saves their lives. I don’t know that we’ll do better next time, and we may just have to live with it — no matter how early the warnings are.
Let’s end by traveling back in time to January 27, to watch an exchange you probably didn’t see when it aired: CNBC’s Brian Sullivan interviewing former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who was also the head of the Department of Health and Human Services from 2005 to 2009.
Leavitt was arguing that if the coronavirus made it to the US, it would be nearly impossible to confine it. But you can see Sullivan struggling, in real time, with how much fear to strike in his audience.
There will be a period of time, if this starts to spread, where people will need to change their behavior. These will be the same kind of provisions that every family, every business, every community, every employer, needs to be thinking about, not just for a pandemic virus but for many kinds of emergencies.
But we also have to walk, I would imagine, that very fine and difficult line, Governor, which is: You don’t want to scare people unnecessarily. We do have five cases. Nobody is minimizing any of those five cases or what is happening. But you also don’t want to create a situation where people may begin to act irrational.
[Pause] So here’s the problem. Anything you say in advance of a pandemic seems alarmist. Anything that you’ve done after it starts is inadequate.