For media, COVID alarm is a hard habit to break

The coronavirus is a hard habit for the media to break – and it pushes other dangers off the stage and out of sight.

As the country marks a year since the Capitol attack last week, most mainstream media have still made COVID-19 and the Omicron variant their primary focus. Each twist in the pandemic continues to engulf resources and dominate the headlines at the expense of equally pressing stories.

Like threats against American democracy.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed, but the extent and tone of media coverage has not. Overheated language in print and on cable requires readers and viewers to treat the outbreak like it was 18 months ago – before vaccines, boosters and a new, less deadly strain.

Dr Anthony FauciAnthony FauciUK officials vote against fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine Overnight healthcare – Presented by AstraZeneca and Friends of Cancer Research – Former advisers urge Biden to revise strategy United States sets record on Wednesday COVID-19 PLUS pediatric hospitalizations, President BidenJoe Biden Are we investing trillions in what matters? Biden praises Reid as a fighter “for the America we all love” at Fox News memorial service tops ratings for coverage of the events of January 6 MOREOmicron’s chief medical adviser last week placed greater emphasis not on the gross number of Omicron cases but on hospitalizations. Thanks in part to the vaccine distribution effort, that number was significantly lower as a percentage of those infected compared to previous variants. Other public health experts agreed.

In a speech on Tuesday, Biden called Omicron a cause of “concern” but not “alarm”. He again noted that, overall, only the unvaccinated face the most serious consequences.

Yet during her regular White House briefing later today, the press secretary Jen psakiJen PsakiPandemic pushes teacher unions center stage ahead of midterm exams It was asked whether the administration had “lost control” of the pandemic, as “some” had claimed.

There are certainly credible and honest ways to answer this question with a “yes” or a “no”. (Psaki sort of did both.) But it’s also worth admitting that journalism has, in its own way, lost control of the narrative – by sticking to the same script for too long.

On January 5, the eve of the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, a nationwide outlet morning newsletter was run by Omicron – this time emphasizing that it was “softer” than previous variants. . The conclusion: COVID-19 “looks more and more like the kind of health risk that people accept every day.”

However, readers of that same outlet’s “California” newsletter were subsequently bombarded with stories of a “dramatic spike” in cases, a “record” in transmission, and a “1000 percent” increase in positive drug results. virus testing. It was only a few paragraphs later that the report admitted that there is, yes, a “disconnect” between the number of Omicron cases (high) and the number of hospitalizations (low).

A similar confusion reigned in a major West Coast newspaper. A headline on Wednesday shouted “Coronavirus cases explode in California”. But a day earlier, the newspaper published an Associated Press article titled, “COVID-19 cases could drop in importance amid Omicron. “

It is difficult to see how all of this will advance the cause of journalism. True: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has hardly been a touchstone of consistency throughout this crisis. But a key mission for journalists is to inform and clarify, rather than simply acting as a frantic intermediary between a confused message and an anxious audience. For all the time and resources spent on COVID-19, it is doubtful that most news consumers feel they now have a better perspective on the virus.

That’s because perspective isn’t what drives coronavirus coverage. Instead, each new development is an additional opportunity to ensure that audiences don’t switch channels or Google on another topic. And these other subjects are losers because of it.

Increasingly, media critics are urging reporters, producers and publishers to cover risks to American democracy – beyond January 6 – in a sustained fashion, with the same sort of urgent daily and hourly headlines devoted to the pandemic.

But that’s going to take a major change. No news organization today has unlimited resources; cutbacks and layoffs still plague many newsrooms. When a lot of these strained resources are spent on all of COVID-19, all the time something else is falling through the cracks. Today, this other element is a tradition of self-government dating back almost 250 years.

Journalism needs to breathe deeply and watch every change in the history of the virus with fresh eyes. Editors and producers should take a close look and justify the time, tone and effort they are putting into covering the pandemic.

And then some of that journalistic muscle has to shift into a very different but even more virulent epidemic – an epidemic that attacks the body politic.

January 6 was not just one day of compelling videos and captivating photos. It wasn’t the last chapter of anything.

Yes, COVID-19 continues. But this other story? It’s not over either.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and reporter and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was news director for NBC, writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on twitter @ ironworker1.

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