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Q: Is the news media overreacting to the coronavirus?

A:

It may feel like a constant cascade of news, but the coverage is proportional to what could be the biggest global health crisis in more than a hundred years. And when you consider how much more globally connected we are now than during the flu pandemic of 1918, and how much the world economy relies on precisely that connection, it’s arguable that this crisis could prove to be even worse.

In response to these extraordinary times, just about every reporter is now on the corona beat, and as the Washington Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, wrote to subscribers, it is the news media’s responsibility to keep the public informed and keep a “close watch on what public officials, private companies, health providers and others are doing – or failing to do – to respond to a crisis of sprawling, unprecedented proportions.”

That’s no exaggeration. In one way or another, the virus is touching almost every aspect of our lives and changing the world in real-time. As of March 16, there have been 170,000 cases of the virus worldwide and more than 6,500 deaths. Millions of people are now working from home or going to school remotely. Restaurants and bars in New York City and elsewhere are shutting down. Stocks officially entered a bear market as the major indices tumbled more than 20 percent off their recent high. Sporting events from March Madness to the Masters have been canceled or postponed while museums, Broadway shows, and even Disneyland are all closing. Millions of people stand to lose income or their jobs entirely as a result of this pandemic. 

Despite the challenges and risks of reporting on this fast-moving story, the vast majority of the mainstream news media’s coverage has been authoritative and responsible (social media is an entirely different matter—and NLM post). Some of the most outstanding reporting can be found at The New York TimesWashington Post and Wall Street Journal, all of which have all taken down their paywalls for their coronavirus coverage and set up special covid homepages that update continually. 

The Poynter Institute is praising the comprehensive coverage by the news divisions at the big three networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC. Kudos as well to The Atlantic for its guide, “What you Need to Know about the Coronavirus,” which covers everything from social distancing to what to do if you start coughing. Another standout is CNN’s new podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Since his first episode on March 2, Gupta has been calmly answering basic questions, dispelling myths and providing much-needed context about the outbreak’s impact. The Daily podcast from the New York Times has also provided excellent coronavirus coverage over the past several weeks and continues to devote entire segments to keeping abreast of the pandemic as it spreads. 

That said, not all the news coverage has been exemplary, most on notably the Fox News Channel, which has been called out not for overreacting to the coronavirus, but for politicizing the outbreak and minimizing the risks. In his CNN.com article, How Fox News Misled its Views about the coronavirus, media reporter Oliver Darcy writes, “Top hosts and personalities on the conservative cable news network downplayed concerns about the virus, baselessly accusing credible news organizations of overhyping the crisis to hurt Trump politically.” 

In this video, Fox Business News Host Trish Regan called the coronavirus an impeachment scam and accused the liberal media of using it to demonize and destroy President Trump. (Her show went on hiatus after that rant was widely criticized.) The highest-rated host on Fox News, Sean Hannity, has referred to the virus as a “conspiracy theory” and “the newest hoax.” Fox and Friends Weekend host Pete Hegseth accused the media of wanting to see people infected with the virus to hurt the president. Even one of the more well-regarded news anchors, Martha MacCallum, contrasted the coronavirus’s death toll so far with that of the seasonal flu without mentioning that the mortality rate for covid is significantly higher. 

Not all of the Fox News coverage is irresponsible. Chris Wallace and Bret Baier are part of the “straight news” team providing fact-based information (usually), and even Tucker Carlson recently disparaged his fellow prime-time hosts for minimizing the risks of the coronavirus and called it a “very serious problem. ” But the modus operandi at Fox News has been to amplify White House talking points and misinformation from the president himself without any fact-checking, including Trump’s comments that “anyone that wants a test can get a test” and that a vaccine is coming “pretty soon.” As Darcy concludes, this misinformation is endangering the very lives of the Fox News audience, whose median age is 67, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Of course, the Fox News Channel is not the only news outlet spreading misinformation or conspiracy theories. In this New York Post opinion piece, Steven Mosher posits that the virus escaped from a bioresearch lab in China, although there is no evidence of that. Some press coverage has also been criticized as stoking anti-China sentiment by, for example, calling covid the “Chinese coronavirus.”

But overall, journalists are distinguishing themselves and proving once again that a free press is indispensable in a crisis and saves lives. Journalism’s most critical role is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing—and safe. It also means holding power to account, calling out false claims and putting facts first. It is not hyperbole to say that this could be one of journalism’s finest hours.