Since the end of February most citizens in countries around the world have remained glued to their televisions. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and various local news outlets have all dominated our brainwaves. Whereas in autocratic states the news media is simply a tool of the government, in democracies the role of the news media is to provide citizens with independent and objective reporting of the facts.
So it begs the question: Has the media fulfilled its role responsibly during this epidemic?
It is interesting to note the differences found in the reporting of the same information by various media sources. Aside from the numbers of COVID-19 infections and the death counts, other aspects of the pandemic appear to pass through orthogonal filters. This is, in particular, true in the evaluation of the leadership exhibited by the POTUS, and in predictions of the human and economic outcomes from the coronavirus plague. In the former case the right-wing conservative oriented press seems to conclude, almost without exception that POTUS has been doing an outstanding job. In contrast the liberal press does not miss an opportunity to criticize the President. Clearly, and perhaps not surprisingly, media bias and political perspective influences the reporting of the various news outlets. The same set of facts is interpreted very differently depending upon the preconceived perspectives of those doing the reporting.
However, what might be even more interesting than these differences is the similarities displayed in all the media reporting on Covid-19, regardless of the perspective of the given news outlets. In particular, daily reporting from all outlets is filled with stories that have been uniformly pessimistic. Very rarely does one read or hear encouraging news. One wonders why this is the case? The scientific community, while urging caution and wise decision making, has made it clear that it believes that the coronavirus pandemic will ultimately subside and that the world will return to a new equilibrium. People will work, children will go to school and families will go on vacation. Ultimately, a treatment will be found that reduces the morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19 and a vaccine will likely be forthcoming. A sanguine reaction to such scientific and medical assessments would appear worth stressing to our citizens.
Yet the media emphasizes the unpreparedness of most western societies including Israel, the United States and most of Europe and the bodies piling up in the morgues and the alleyways. They highlight the destruction of the world economy and the plunge of the world into a spiral of depression and hardship. This is despite concrete and aggressive steps being put in place by the Federal Reserve, the EU and China to prevent this from happening. Is the media justified in emphasizing worst case scenarios in its reporting? Is it possible that there are ulterior motivations for such an approach?
As an example, an interesting lead header appeared in a news report on April 15, 2020: “Prominent scientists have bad news for the White House about coronavirus antibody tests”. The article began “In a phone call last week, some of the nation's top scientists briefed White House officials about antibody testing, according to two doctors who were on the call, “Much of the news wasn't very good.” Many reading this article would conclude that antibody tests were in big trouble. However, the facts, even at the time of the latest writing, indicated that despite many challenges to overcome, progress was being made. In fact, that same week Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed, on the same news platform, that he was confident that reliable antibody tests would soon be forthcoming. Dr. Fauci is a seasoned level-headed scientist who has acquired a reputation for providing an objective and sober analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Why did this lead emphasize the negative side of the story? Perusal of the NY Times online, on almost any day, shows that negative stories out-number positive news by a large margin. On Tuesday April 21, the news, not opinion, headlines, had a negative/positive ratio of at least three to one. It is hard to find any positive news in the headers of opinion articles.
Perhaps it is naïve to look for positive news stories in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the total number of infections climbs past 2.5 million. Every lost life is a personal and communal tragedy. These facts should not be understated. However, the pandemic has resulted in responses that are worth reporting, both because they demonstrate the remarkable spirit of humankind, and also because they provide hope. Why are these not featured? The likely answer is that the Media has a vested interest in underscoring the crisis aspect of any situation. This is true in the case of the reporting of natural disasters, the projections of the human costs for entering wars, the status of the economy at any given moment, and the current pandemic. Such reporting keeps the news in the public eye and, as we know, sensationalism translates into dollars. Unfortunately, over stressing the negative aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is not without consequences. Undoubtedly, the closing of the world economies due to the social distancing required to temper the spread of the virus will have a major effect on how business is done and the productivity of many workforces. On the other-hand, world economies are influenced by consumer confidence and providing the citizens of the world with an objective optimism that SARS-CoV-2 can be defeated is not fake news. Perhaps the time is ripe for the Fourth Estate to consider whether a more abstemious depiction of the World’s reaction to this plague is consistent with responsible reporting and its role in free societies.
The writer is a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, Former Provost of CSI and a visiting scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel.