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For media, COVID alarm is a hard habit to break

Hill Illustration/Madeline Monroe/iStock

The coronavirus is a hard habit for the media to break — and that’s pushing other dangers off-stage and out of sight. 

As the country marked one year since the attack on the Capitol, most mainstream news outlets last week still made their central focus COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. Every twist and turn in the pandemic continues to gobble up resources and dominate headlines at the expense of stories that are just as urgent.

Like threats to American democracy.

The COVID-19 crisis has shifted, but the extent and tone of media coverage has not. Over-heated language in print and on cable demands readers and viewers treat the epidemic as if it were 18 months ago — before vaccines, boosters and a new, less-deadly strain.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor, placed greater importance this past week not on the raw number of Omicron cases but on hospitalizations. Thanks in part to the vaccine distribution effort, that number has been significantly lower as a percentage of the infected than earlier variants. Other public health experts agreed

In a speech on Tuesday, Biden called Omicron a reason for “concern” but not “alarm.” He once again noted that, by and large, only the unvaccinated face the most severe outcomes.

Yet, at her regular White House briefing later that day, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked if the administration has “lost control” of the pandemic, as “some” had claimed.

There are certainly credible and honest ways to answer that question with either a “yes” or a “no.” (Psaki kind of did both.) But it’s also worth admitting that journalism has, in its own way, lost control of the narrative — by sticking with the same script for too long.

On Jan. 5, the day before the Capitol attack anniversary, one national outlet’s morning newsletter led with Omicron — this time emphasizing that it was “milder” than previous variants. The conclusion: COVID-19 “increasingly resembles the kind of health risk that people accept every day.”

However, readers of that same outlet’s “California” newsletter were then bombarded with stories about a “considerable spike” in cases, a transmission “record,” and a “1,000 percent” increase in positive virus test results. Only several paragraphs later did the report concede that, yes, there is a “disconnect” between the number of Omicron cases (high) and the number of hospitalizations (low).

Similar confusion reigned over at a major West Coast newspaper. On Wednesday, a headline there screamed “coronavirus cases explode in California.” But a day earlier, the paper published an Associated Press story titled: “COVID-19 cases may be losing importance amid Omicron.”

It’s hard to see how any of this will advance the cause of journalism. True: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have hardly been a touchstone of consistency throughout this crisis. But a key mission for reporters is to inform and clarify, rather than simply serve as the frenzied middle man between a muddled message and anxious audience. For all of the time and resources given to COVID-19, it is doubtful most news consumers feel like they now have a better perspective on the virus.

That’s because perspective is not what drives coronavirus coverage. Instead, every new development is one more opportunity to make sure audiences don’t change the channel or Google some other topic. And those other topics are losing out because of it.

Increasingly, media critics are pressing reporters, producers and editors to cover the risks to American democracy — beyond Jan. 6 — in a sustained way, with the same kind of daily and hourly urgent headlines devoted to the pandemic.

But that will take a major shift. No news organization today has unlimited resources; cutbacks and layoffs still plague many newsrooms. When a large portion of those strained resources are given over to all-COVID-19, all-the-time, something else falls through the cracks. Right now, that something else is a nearly 250-year-old tradition of self-government.

Journalism needs to take a deep breath and look at each change in the virus story with fresh eyes. Editors and producers should closely examine and justify the time, tone and effort they put towards pandemic coverage.

And then some of that journalistic muscle needs to shift over to a very different but even more virulent epidemic — one that attacks the body politic.

Jan. 6 was not just a single day of riveting videos and compelling photos. It was not the final chapter of anything.

Yes, COVID-19 continues. But this other story? It isn’t over, either.

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.

Tags American journalism Anthony Fauci coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 pandemic Jen Psaki Joe Biden news coverage omicron SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant threat to democracy US media

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