Confused about COVID: Too many news outlets prioritize hype over accuracy

Confused about COVID: Too many news outlets prioritize hype over accuracy

More than a few fingers of blame have been pointed at reporters for the confusion and anger surrounding the Delta variant of the Coronavirus, but that criticism actually highlights a wider media problem – like a doctor finally noticing symptoms of a long-ignored malady.

Truth is: The mass media has too often done a haphazard job reporting all kinds of medical news, a flaw that has arguably contributed to public skepticism about both journalists and health experts.

And now, when confidence in those professions is sorely needed, things aren’t working out so well.

For years, bold headlines and television graphics about breakthrough research have been typical features of everyone’s news diet. But those reports are often missing crucial context and nuance, sometimes sparking more questions than answers.

Think about medical stories you’ve seen regarding coffee: They seem to gyrate madly between the evils of caffeine and its miracle health benefits. For example, in the course of a just a few years, readers of one national newspaper would have learned about studies that made coffee responsible for a higher risk of death, lower grades for college students, reduced chances of contracting liver cancer, and faster fat burn off for dieters.

What are news consumers supposed to do with all of that each morning, as they decide whether to brew a pot of disaster or deliverance? A continuous media stream of conflicting research reports doesn’t help some people “trust the science” when they need to.

But most reporters and producers don’t have the time or resources to present a fuller context. They work in a news environment that moves on to the next big thing every nano-second. Grabbing our attention becomes critical.

With medical news, this can mean zeroing in on the most extreme findings — and downplaying any subtlety or contrary evidence. That eye-catching angle (“Coffee can kill you!”) then gets picked up throughout the media universe, burying other points of view.

These old habits all came into play when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance for dealing with the Delta variant. Without a doubt, the CDC’s messaging was confounding, but that doesn’t let the news business off the hook. Reporters are not stenographers. The job is to investigate and clarify — not simply pass along a press statement.

But the CDC’s pronouncement that “the war has changed” was too good to resist. That phrase spread into every corner of the media eco-system, along with frightening warnings of “breakthrough” infections among the vaccinated.

Left under-emphasized was the clear fact that the vaccines work. Yes, there were “cases” of infections among vaccinated people, but very rarely did those cases end up in hospitalization or death. That’s what vaccine makers promised all along: not blanket immunity, but protection from the most severe COVID outcomes.

In many reports, calmer and panic-free perspectives were placed at the bottom. One national news outlet’s Delta article from July 30 waited until the very last sentence to offer this quote from a Cornell virologist: “But the sky isn’t falling and vaccination still protects strongly against the worst outcomes.” A television segment that same day reported out of Provincetown, Mass. —  described urgently as the “canary in a coal mine” for infections — tacked on this final soundbite from the town manager: “But it’s not likely you’re going to be hospitalized and you’re certainly not going to die.”

The story did evolve throughout the past week, as reporting more clearly labeled the Delta variant a crisis directly affecting the unvaccinated. But by then, the sheer volume of coverage — hour after hour of color-coded charts and graphics — guaranteed viewers and readers would stay on edge.

Criticism of how this story was handled — and the fear it triggered — has been strong, most coming from inside journalism itself. But the White House also weighed in, with one unnamed official asserting “the media coverage doesn’t match the moment.”

That’s unusual — and cause for some optimism. Stern censure might be enough to push the news business to finally re-examine the way it covers medicine in general, big stories and small.

Until then, news consumers might be better off turning to outlets that focus specifically on medical and health topics, often aimed at professionals in the field. The website Stat is a strong news source in this area. They posted a big story on July 30, too, jumping on the fresh CDC guidance. But Stat’s headline didn’t scream “the war has changed,” nor did it label Provincetown a “canary in the coal mine.”

Instead, it read: “What Delta has changed in the COVID pandemic — and what it hasn’t.” No fear factor there, no alarming quote pulled out of context. The accompanying story was sober and balanced.

In other words, journalism.

Give us more like that, please.

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


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