A backlash against the media is stirring over the extensive coverage of coronavirus as the pandemic unfolds. Critics say news outlets are trading on fear for attention, and could set off a panic. They don’t think COVID-19 merits recent weeks’ wall to wall coverage.
Fox News contributor Dr. Marc Siegel is one of the most prominent voices to decry what he calls “alarmist” warnings about coronavirus. Siegel is a Professor of Medicine at New York University, and he’s not just calling out the media. He says the World Health Organization’s statements about coronavirus are overblown.
This week WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said:
We are concerned that in some countries the level of political commitment and the actions that demonstrate that commitment do not match the level of the threat we all face. This is not a drill. This is a time for pulling out all the stops.
Dr. Siegel responded:
This is a contagious virus, we’re concerned about it, we don’t have a vaccine for it. But there’s no reason to believe it’s actually more problematic or deadly than influenza.
Many have pointed out that seasonal flu infects – and kills – far more people every year than coronavirus has so far. Therefore, they reason, media coverage has been disproportionate to the impact of COVID-19. But the comparison is specious.
While it’s true that flu virus infects more people each year than coronavirus has so far, there are still salient differences between coronavirus and seasonal flu. These differences merit a greater degree of media vigilance and public caution regarding novel coronavirus.
More people have had the flu than COVID-19 this season, but we still don’t know how many people coronavirus will eventually infect. One leading infectious disease scientist advising the WHO says it could be as many as two-thirds of the world’s population.
Not only could the novel virus infect more people, but it’s more lethal. So far 3.4% of COVID-19 cases have been fatal, while flu has a mortality rate well below 1%.
Most importantly, novel coronavirus is novel. Unlike flu, it’s something new we don’t completely understand yet. There’s no vaccine for it. Gene sequencers have found it’s already mutated once into two different strains. One is more aggressive than its sister strain. We expect seasonal flu every year, but coronavirus is an unknown quantity.
The Guardian reports some psychologists are saying coronavirus coverage in the media is stoking anxiety and could “tip society into panic.”
Many of the coronavirus stories getting shared the most on social media are packaged to drive fear rather than build understanding about the illness…
Why it matters: Social media greases and amplifies dramatic headlines, while more functional or nuanced information gets squashed.
As evidence, Axios points out:
The English-language story shared the most on Facebook since the outbreak began was ‘Coronavirus declared global health emergency’ from the BBC.
This BBC article could not be a more straightforward report of mere facts. The World Health Organization did declare coronavirus a global health emergency. The headline is the most bare report of that fact. It’s not at all “packaged to drive fear.”
It’s just information the public has an interest in knowing. At the time the WHO declared an emergency, we didn’t yet know how serious a threat coronavirus posed. We still don’t. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has devoted his time and vast wealth to fighting disease, says it could be the “once-in-a-century pathogen we’ve been worried about.”
The 1957 Asian flu pandemic caused by the H2N2 virus killed an estimated 116,000 people in the US, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The worldwide death toll was 1.1 million. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, H1N1 virus killed a staggering 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 of them in the United States.
When a novel virus rapidly spreads throughout the global population, people have a reasonable interest in staying informed about it with the most up to date news.
The media has been serving this interest tirelessly and honorably.
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Last modified: June 24, 2020 1:03 AM UTC