Everyone knew what would happen. Coronavirus cases spiked after millions of people throughout the United States flooded shops and restaurants without masks or social distancing during the first weekends of summer.
For months, the news media has touted rising death tolls, CDC warnings, and WHO alerts, but millions of Americans still regard the odds of contracting the virus, suffering and dying from it, as being too low to worry about.
Though it may be tempting to blame President Donald Trump and Fox News for this collective neglect of health warnings, even blue California reported a new rise in confirmed cases.
One factor driving the failure of Americans to take COVID-19 more seriously is that the media, by and large, have not cast a bright enough light on its human toll. Legacy outlets including CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal continue to churn out milestone statistics, photos of Floridian beach-goers, and concerned close-ups of Anthony Fauci. This humdrum repetition has helped erase the shock value of COVID-19, even as it continues to kill hundreds of Americans each day.
Journalists must recapture people’s attention about the dangers of the virus, lest the unmasked twenty-somethings flooding public places end up infecting their relatives or immuno-compromised friends. It’s a moral imperative that the media adopt reporting methods that more reliably inspire responsible civic behavior.
For starters, journalists should aim to evoke empathy, that uniquely human trait that allows us to imagine another person’s experience. In the newsroom, this will involve making the uncomfortable decision to show infected patients suffering from the virus.
Western media tend to cower away from depicting suffering and death, unless it occurs outside the country. But certain events demand that exceptions be made to deliver the full emotional breadth of important stories. The recent racial justice protests against police brutality were critically spurred by viewers having to watch George Floyd agonizingly die face down on a Minneapolis street.
Cavalier attitudes toward the coronavirus are almost certain to change if major news networks regularly show footage of coronavirus patients sweating and struggling to breathe on ventilators surrounded by frantic health workers.
In addition to humanizing the virus’s effects, the media should seek to counter the specific justifications that COVID-19 skeptics use to ignore health warnings. While almost half of coronavirus infections involve young people, COVID-19 skeptics have cherry-picked the narrative that the virus poses no danger to them. Journalists must find and elevate stories where young people have infected their grandparents, uncles, friends or significant others who are now experiencing debilitating effects.
Many people have rightfully warned against politicizing the pandemic. That includes not being unnecessarily alarmist about COVID-19. But reports of millions of Americans flouting health recommendations and causing cases to spike means our collective risk calculation remains far too low.
Public attitudes on any given subject are shaped by how the news is presented. If making difficult stylistic reporting changes empowers the Fourth Estate to save human lives, it falls to reporters to execute them and editors to approve them.
We likely cannot count on the White House or Congress to make the changes necessary to address this grim reality. It is then up to the media. If reporting can save lives, what more important story is there to tell?
Brent Giannotta is a senior communications strategist based in New York City. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
A note to our community:
As a public service, this article is available for all. Newsday readers support our strong local journalism by subscribing. Please show you value this important work by becoming a subscriber now.SUBSCRIBE