Here's the truth about how the media handled the beginning of the coronavirus crisis

Here's the truth about how the media handled the beginning of the coronavirus crisis
President Donald J. Trump speaks with reporters on the South Lawn driveway of the White House Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, prior to boarding Marine One to begin his trip to Cincinnati. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)
Personal Health

How has the American media responded to the coronavirus crisis? This question is particularly fraught given President Donald Trump's own prominent role in the outbreak's progression and his notoriously combative relationship with the press. This, in combination with the fact that much of right-wing media is devoted to both toeing and shaping the president's talking points, makes analysis of the rest of the press a lightning rod for political dispute.

But I'll take it as a given, as I have and others have argued elsewhere, that Trump himself and right-wing media broadly have proven particularly disgraceful and destructive during the pandemic. They've shifted positions multiple times, from downplaying the coronavirus to taking it seriously and back again, with their particular attitudes seeming to depend solely on whatever stance they believed will best suit the president's interests.

In response to this kind of analysis, Trump and conservative talking heads have taken aim back at the mainstream media. But while these attacks can't be taken in good faith, they can raise good questions. And recent pieces from Peter Kafka at Vox and blogger Scott Alexander, took up the challenge, each concluding that the media failed in a big way.

This conclusion is far too quick, however. Neither conduct any thorough analysis of the media's coverage, and instead rely on cherry-picked headlines. Here's how Alexander summed up the failure:

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock recently (honestly, valid) the media not only failed to adequately warn its readers about the epidemic, but actively mocked and condescended to anyone who did sound a warning. Real Clear Politics has a list of highlights. The Vox tweet saying “Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No.” Washington Post telling us in February “Why we should be wary of an aggressive government reponse to coronavirus (it might “scapegoat marginalized populations”). The Daily Beast complaining that “coronavirus, with zero American fatalities, is dominating headlines, while the flu is the real threat”. The New York Timesweighing in with articles like “The pandemic panic” and “Who says it’s not safe to travel to China”. The constant attempts to attribute “alarmism” over the virus to anti-Chinese racism. Etcetcetc.

And here's what Kafka writes, citing a tweet from the far-right radio host Dan Bongino:

Some of that advice shows up in memes that highlight headlines from a range of respected media outlets that now seem terribly misleading after new information came to light. (You won’t find any Vox headlines in the collage below on flu comparisons, but as many people have pointed out, my colleagues at Vox published some stories and tweets with similar angles.)

(Kafka also acknowledged that there's been good reporting, too, but his overall assessment the media's performance is negative.)

But this is a very misleading way to analyze the media's performance. There will always be bad takes, opinions, and headlines about any given news story, and if you lump a bunch of them together you can paint the media as deeply misguided. But this wouldn't define the media's coverage more broadly. And because of the nature of human disagreement and the incentives and structure of the media market, there will always be some dissenting voices from a broad consensus. So even if the media's overall response to a crisis is optimal, there will be misguided headlines that look regrettable in retrospect.

Some of the stories targeted for criticism by Kafka and Alexander aren't entirely fair subjects of derision, either. Bongino's tweet, for instance, includes an Atlantic article from Feb. 24 titled: "You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus." The subheadline was: "Most cases are not life-threatening, which is also what makes the virus a historic challenge to contain." This analysis holds up. Another Feb. 25 piece in Health, titled "Is the Coronavirus Worse Than the Flu? Here's How the 2 Illnesses Compare," underestimated the threat of the virus, but relying on expert opinion, it concluded:

That's not really an easy question to answer, says Dr. Brown. "It depends on what you mean by worse,” he says. “More easily spread? Then it appears to be coronavirus. Causes more cases of serious illness. Then it’s flu.”

Another thing that makes the coronavirus a bit more dangerous? That there are so many unknowns attached to it—unlike the flu which has been studied for decades. "Despite the morbidity and mortality with influenza, there's a certainty … of seasonal flu. I can tell you all, guaranteed, that as we get into March and April, the flu cases are going to go down. You could predict pretty accurately what the range of the mortality is and the hospitalizations [will be]," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a White House press conference on Jan. 31. "The issue now with [COVID-19] is that there's a lot of unknowns."

Either way, with new cases of COVID-19 being identified in Iran, Italy, and South Korea, Dr. Juthani believes we should be prepared for community spread of COVID-19 in the United States. “Until a vaccine is developed or pharmaceutical agents are identified that can treat COVID-19, we will need to use the same tactics we are familiar with for preventing flu to prevent COVID-19,” she says.

It didn't predict the severe changes coming to our society, but it accurately reflected experts' and public health officials' opinion at the time. It also warned of the uncertainties surrounding the virus.

Alexander is also critical of pieces that warned that some fears about COVID-19 were arising from or fueling bigotry toward Asian people. Again, some of the claims in these articles now look wrong, and perhaps should have been recognized as wrong at the time, but the problem of anti-Asian bigotry is and was a genuine problem in this crisis.

It's also important to remember that many of these articles were themselves written in response to other media reports, which were deemed by some to be overhyping the dangers of the coronavirus. This view is now discredited, but the very existence of this opinion undercuts the claim that the media was asleep on the COVID-19 peril. You only start to see headlines like "Doctors suggest worrying about common flu, not coronavirus," because lots of people are worried about the coronavirus, presumably because of the news coverage.

So what was the media's dominant narrative about the coronavirus as it emerged? Doing a systematic review of news coverage will have to wait for a more thorough academic study, but one simple proxy is Google News results. If you constrain the search to only find items published in February — a time when the virus was clearly on the radar, but not yet recognized by most officials as the danger it would become — you don't see widespread denialism about the problem.

Here are just a few samples of the results:

Much of the coverage was simple and straightforward. It updated readers about the latest development in coronavirus news across the globe. But note that deciding what to coverage is itself an editorial judgment, one that reflects a range of complicated considerations, including reader interest and objective importance. In covering the issue widely, much of the mainstream media was clearly sending the message that it was a matter of global significance.

It was this status, it seems, that led some outlets to push back against the tide and try to tamp down fears of the coronavirus before it made its way to American shores. While this was misguided — we should have as a nation been more generally on much higher alert about the threat from global pandemics  — it wasn't entirely unfounded. Many novel threats are exaggerated, and many common threats are treated with much less seriousness than they deserve. It's not true that the flu was more of a threat than COVID-19, but the flu is generally a much greater danger than is recognized. Trying to educate people about this fact by tying it into events in the news is standard journalistic practice, so the strategy was understandable, even if, in this instance, mistaken. And if people were more concerned about the flu generally, we would have been better prepared for a threat like the coronavirus.

And, it should be noted, there was pushback in the media against anti-alarmists. Vox, on Feb. 6, published a piece titled "Don’t scold people for worrying about the coronavirus," which, speaking personally, helped alert me to the seriousness of the threat. On Feb. 9, Wired published a similar piece titled: "Coronavirus Is Bad. Comparing It to the Flu Is Worse."

So there were a diversity of voices airing different concerns, but overall the trend was to treat coronavirus as an increasingly serious global threat as it emerged. That seems about right, and about what we should expect from the media. The U.S. federal government severely underreacted to the crisis, and many public health experts and scientists were too dismissive of the concerns; it's hard to see how the media could have been telling people they should be stocking up on extra food or avoiding public spaces long before officials and experts were issuing these kinds of warnings.

How did AlterNet do?

It's reasonable to ask, since I'm writing this article, how the publication that employs me fared in the face of coronavirus. Personally, I regret not paying more attention to the issue earlier on, and I do think I could reasonably have raised the alarms more than I did. But AlterNet has a relatively small staff compared to major news outlets, so we can't cover every story out there. And we did republish syndicated content from other publications about the emerging threat from the coronavirus to supplement our coverage.

Overall, this coverage provided significant warnings about the coronavirus in its early days. For example:

Jan. 19

Mystery China pneumonia outbreak likely caused by new human coronavirus — The Conversation

The Wuhan coronavirus outbreak bears similarity to the 2002-03 epidemic of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) coronavirus (SARS-CoV). The SARS-CoV outbreak, which started in south China, lasted for over nine months. It spread to 37 countries, causing 8,098 people to become ill and 774 to die.

Nearly 10% of those confirmed to be infected went on to die. The deadly nature of the disease, the frequent human-to-human spread, and infection of front-line clinical staff, contributed to the seriousness of the outbreak.

Jan. 23

The mystery of a new virus outbreak deepens as first case hits U.S. — Salon

Almost all of those who have died have been older people with preexisting conditions. Blumberg said it is important to note that such groups are at a higher risk of experiencing severe effects of the virus, though they are not at a higher risk of contracting it.

“As far as we can tell, it’s novel . . .  we don’t believe anyone has immunity to it,” Blumberg said. “The entire world is going to be susceptible; everybody is at risk for getting infected.”


While everyone is at risk, there are things you can do to protect yourself, Blumberg said.

“Avoid being around sick people, it’s not always possible, but those who are sick are more likely to transmit it,” Blumberg said. “We aren’t sure if it’s transmitted in other ways, probably via touching if it survives on surfaces for some period of time we are not sure how long,” which is why washing your hands is a good idea, too.

Jan. 25.

Are you in danger of catching the coronavirus? 5 questions answered — The Conversation

Am I at risk?

Not now, because currently every case of the novel coronavirus is linked to Wuhan.


For the novel coronavirus from Wuhan, there is no vaccine, and we’re lacking a specific therapy. So it is key to limit spread through quarantine of infected individuals and by tracing of contacts.


The concern is that this coronavirus is going to behave like SARS and MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012, both of which were serious.

Jan. 28

American cities prepare for the worst as coronavirus spreads — Salon

Public fear over the Wuhan coronavirus continues to grow as the Chinese government restricts travel over fears of an outbreak; meanwhile, the number of cases of the virus in the United States has risen to five, with 73 potential cases still pending, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As the virus’s infection rate is still not well-understood, American cities are preparing for the worst.

In San Francisco, city officials are activating its emergency operations center in the event of local cases of the flu-like virus. In Southern California, two cases were confirmed in Los Angeles and Orange counties. New York City is setting up a biocontainment unit in Bellevue Hospital, according to the New York Times, though there are no cases in New York as of today.

Jan. 31

World Health Organization declares global emergency as coronavirus cases are confirmed in 18 countries — Common Dreams

China has reported more than 7,700 cases of the disease and 170 deaths. So far, there have been no deaths from the disease outside of China.

On Thursday, the first human-to-human transmission case was confirmed in the U.S., where at least six people have been sickened. A man in the Chicago area reportedly contracted the coronavirus from his wife, who had recently returned from Wuhan.

Financial elites appear oblivious to the threat of the next global economic calamity — Independent Media Institute

Globally, we have a glut of consumer goods, much of it emanating from China, but given increasingly weakening demand from an economy that is growing more and more skewed to the top 1 percent, we have fewer consumers able to buy it. Moreover, in China itself, modest fiscal stimulus measures undertaken at the end of last year could well be overridden by the onset of the coronavirus, which risks undermining the impact of these recent upticks in infrastructure investment, along with the potential benefits accrued from the cessation of the trade war with the U.S. government.

Feb. 4

How Trump left the US more vulnerable to outbreaks like coronavirus — The Conversation

As coronavirus continues to spread, the Trump administration has declared a public health emergency and imposed quarantines and travel restrictions. However, over the past three years the administration has weakened the offices in charge of preparing for and preventing this kind of outbreak.

Two years ago, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates warned that the world should be “preparing for a pandemic in the same serious way it prepares for war”. Gates, whose foundation has invested heavily in global health, suggested staging simulations, war games and preparedness exercises to simulate how diseases could spread and to identify the best response.

The Trump administration has done exactly the opposite: It has slashed funding for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its infectious disease research. For fiscal year 2020, Trump proposed cutting the CDC budget by US$1.3 billionnearly 20% below the 2019 level.

Feb. 6

Fear is spiking about the coronavirus — but don’t lose sight of the larger picture — The Conversation

What should we do while we wait for things to unfold? My advice, if I were a physician dispensing it, would be to encourage people to pay attention to official information as much as possible, the Public Health Agency of Canada, for example, or its provincial counterparts. It will be there, and will be up to date and accurate for the most part.

The behavioural advice is relatively straightforward: wash your hands often, cover your mouth (with your arm) when you cough, avoid touching your face (surprisingly difficult to do consistently) and, for now, avoid travelling to Wuhan.


Spending too much time watching television while snacking on potato chips is probably riskier than shaking hands. But maybe avoid both for now, just to be safe.

And to end where I began — recalling how SARS overtook our collective consciousness in 2003 — it’s important to also remember that five times more deaths are attributable to the seasonal flu every year. If there is an infection we should fear, could it be that one? Or should we stop fearing infections altogether?The Conversation

Of all these stories, only the last gives me serious pause. It was written by Peter Hall, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo. And while it's understandable why he wrote those words then, in retrospect, it certainly seems like it was the wrong message to send. Americans largely didn't need to be dialing back their fears about coronavirus in early February, as Hall suggested, but preparing for the fact that the outbreak really could get out of control. [Note update below.] Nevertheless, the piece still recommended advice that is now ubiquitous, including washing your hands and even avoiding handshakes.

And much of the rest of the coverage, with a few exceptions, warned that the coronavirus really could be a serious threat. One article from the Independent Media Insitute flagged that it could be a global economic threat, though it likely did not anticipate how true this would be. Most presciently, the Feb. 4 piece reprinted from The Conversation accurately pointed out that the Trump administration was unprepared for a full-on pandemic, which now reads like a prophecy.

One element that I do think is missing from all this would have been a deeper dive into what a pandemic could mean for the country. This has long been an interest of mine, and it would have been the perfect opportunity for me to explore the issue in a way that could have helped prepare readers for the situation we're now all living with. Such an article would have put into context the information and warnings from the other AlterNet content linked to above.

UPDATE on April 17, 2020:

After this story was published, Peter Hall reached out to clarify the context of his article mentioned above:

1. That piece was not written in February, but last week of January when there were no known Covid-19 cases here in Canada, and yet people were panic buying medical masks and acts of racism against Chinese people were occurring here in Ontario. The shortage of medical supplies became a very real issue here in the months following, and remains an ongoing concern in early April.

2. Even more importantly, the piece was written specifically for the Conversation Canada (not US, or any other context). Here's why context is important: In Canada -- and specifically Ontario -- we were long ago primed by our experience with SARS, and if anything, people were immediately at a very high level of fear even in mid-January. It was leading to some kinds of harmful mis-reactions (see above), and the piece was intended to get people to focus on what they should be doing to manage their risk, as recommended by the CDC, and PHAC (as opposed to focussing on fear).

In hindsight, not what the US needed given the political context south of the border, but it was actually meant for the Canadian context, and intended to highlight the importance of action over emotion.

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