How the Media Got COVID-19 Wrong

by Kiran Subramanian ’21

Source: Orange County Register

Published Mar. 3rd, 2021

On May 6th, 2020, Reuters reporter Jeff Mason asked Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany about a comment that she made regarding President Trump not letting COVID-19 into the US. McEnany responded with the following statement, “I guess I would turn the question back on the media and ask similar questions. Does Vox want to take back that they proclaimed that the coronavirus would not be a deadly pandemic? Does the Washington Post want to take back that they told Americans to get a grip, the flu is bigger than the coronavirus… Does the New York Times want to take back that fear of the virus may be spreading faster than the virus itself?”  

What McEnany has done is turn the attention to the press regarding coronavirus coverage. Looking back at the media coverage of the virus, it is clear that the media missed the mark. The real question is why the media messed up.

Naturally, today’s knowledge of the coronavirus is more accurate than it was in March of 2020. However, the widespread downplay of COVID-19 by many major news organizations is not something to be ignored. 

Early on in the pandemic, as shown by the previous quote, major media outlets downplayed the virus, instead framing it as the new Ebola epidemic. Furthermore, many of these media groups, including the Washington Post, told Americans that the flu was a much bigger threat than the coronavirus. While the flu does have a higher mortality rate than the coronavirus, the media failed to account for the high infectivity rate of COVID-19.

One of the main reasons why the press got the virus wrong was because of China. When the World Health Organization wanted information about COVID-19, they asked China to send data to them. China did send data about the virus, but it was evident that the Chinese government was hiding something. For example, the Chinese government forced Doctor Li Wenliang to issue an apology when he stated that Chinese officials were not telling the world what was really going on with the virus. 

 Not to mention, the faulty Chinese COVID-19 tests caused many problems in countries like Spain, which, according to Fox news, purchased 5.5 million of these kits but had to send many of them back for not being sensitive enough to the virus. This caused the number of COVID-19 cases in countries to become low balled causing this threat to be underestimated.  

The question now becomes what the press could have done to get a more accurate report of the coronavirus. The simple answer was to not listen to the Chinese officials and instead trust the Taiwanese data. According to Time, on January 13-15, Taiwanese officials were able to report that human-to-human transmission of COVID-19 was a possibility, while the WHO, using Chinese data, tweeted on January 14th that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Had the press trusted Taiwan over China, COVID-19 coverage would have been much more accurate and thus encouraged more appropriate precautions against the virus.

What this really shows is the hole in the media’s credibility. Students at Montgomery are losing faith in their news sources. In a survey conducted at Montgomery High School, only 53% of students said they trust their news and 64.1% of students recognized that the news given to them was slanted in some way. The media’s credibility is eroding, but by exploring different sources of data, its reputability could improve.

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