DANIEL VAUGHAN: National media fails, local reports win on COVID-19

“Navigating the Uncharted” is how a Friday editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine characterized the world’s response to the current outbreak of the coronavirus disease known as COVID-19. That seems somewhat fair; it is a new virus, after all.

But the media coverage of this outbreak is far more tinged by politics than a real concern for ensuring that people follow proper protocols. And in a potential pandemic situation, that amounts to gross malpractice by those tasked with disseminating information.

Take a look at bad weather outbreaks. Local news stations focus on reporting where the storms are heading and what people should do to ensure they’re safe, whether it’s from a tornado, hurricane, flood, or any other disaster. Even on national cable networks like the Weather Channel, you’ll get instructions and information pushed out by the National Weather Service and all its affiliates.

In contrast, take a look at the national media on the coronavirus story. The New York Times, which is maintaining hour-by-hour coverage, is printing columns by people saying we should call this the “TrumpVirus.” Oliver Darcy of CNN is running around saying that the president has needlessly politicized COVID-19, and he even ran a story blaming Trump for “infecting Americans” with a lack of public trust.

Darcy is running out in the middle storm and blaming it on Donald Trump, giving no information to viewers except his partisan hits. But he’s not the only one.

At pressers on the topic, national journalists have spent their time asking political questions rather than finding out more about the virus. At a Saturday briefing at the White House, one reporter kept asking if Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had been muzzled by the Trump administration. Trump, for his part, finally cut the reporter off and let Dr. Fauci, who was standing right next to the president, move on to other topics.

These people are not journalists. They’re not doing journalism. They’re hacks trying to get gauzy clips for their websites. And it’s appalling.

These are the same people who mocked the president and the rest of the federal government for pointing out that the best way to stay safe from COVID-19 was to practice sound hygiene: wash hands, disinfect surfaces, stay home when you’re sick. Of course, those reporters got quiet when California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) gave the same instructions — the same as every single health professional in the world.

You’ll also find Democrats and journalists mocking the notion that Trump and health professionals have used to compare COVID-19 to seasonal flu. Yet, in that same New England Journal of Medicine article I led with, the medical experts said, in a discussion of the disease’s mortality rate:

…[T]he overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968) rather than a disease similar to SARS or MERS, which have had case fatality rates of 9 to 10% and 36%, respectively.

The World Health Organization (WHO) adds that the virus is “genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003,” but “while related, the two viruses are different.”

Indeed, in the past decade, we’ve had numerous disease outbreaks and even a pandemic. In 2009–2010, the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic swept the world, infecting somewhere between 11% and 21% of the global population, with approximately 60.8 million cases, 274,304 hospitalizations, and 12,469 deaths in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since that pandemic, we’ve dealt with the 2010 cholera outbreak, MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, measles in 2014 and 2019, and the Zika virus in 2016.

That’s not to say that COVID-19 shouldn’t be taken seriously — it should, and everyone should take precautions, because it’s likely we don’t know the true extent of the spread of the virus in the United States right now. But it is to say that the national media is so hyper-focused on taking a Trump angle that they’ve forgotten to report on the crisis at hand.

And we’ve seen this before. Health experts studying the 2009 swine flu outbreak criticized the media at the time, saying “reporters and other members of the media have their own goals and agendas that do not always align with those of public health authorities.

“[S]everal participants expressed concern that the press tends to focus on deficiencies, inadequacies, and problems, rather than what is being done right,” they continued in an article shared by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “David Brown of The Washington Post explained that that is where the stories are.”

That may be where the stories are, but for a newspaper whose motto is “Democracy dies in darkness,” The Washington Post hasn’t done anything of note to deviate from their failures of the past. The public is still ill-informed, and the national media is still useless.

But that same NIH report also said that local media outlets in Atlanta, where there were four major local networks at the time, had “partnerships created and maintained over the past decade [that] paid off tremendously in spreading the news” about H1N1.

Local news worked; the national press did not.

COVID-19 is a severe virus that deserves a sober response. But we’re not getting that from our national media; we’re getting it from local media.

Pay for them and ditch the national journalists. Local reporters the only ones doing any real work these days.