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Analysis: News orgs should emphasize the big picture, positive news about the pandemic

Analysis by Oliver Darcy, CNN Business

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Check the news lately, and if you come across a story pertaining to the coronavirus, it is likely to be about the Delta variant. Headline after headline, chyron after chyron, push alert after push alert — they’re all seemingly focused these days on the dangers posed by this new variant.

Now, to be clear, the Delta variant does deserve to be reported on. It is a serious story that warrants serious coverage. The increased transmissibility rate poses a significant risk to unvaccinated populations, both in the US and around the world. People in the US who are not vaccinated should be informed about the risks it poses to them.

But it is also very important for newsrooms — in both stories specifically about the Delta variant and others — to zoom out and show audiences the big picture about the state of the pandemic here in the US. Otherwise, they might walk away with a skewed impression of things.

The big picture is quite good. Vaccines are protecting people from the virus. The US has been seeing all-time low infection rates, even as businesses and restaurants continue to open. And in some cities, such as New York, days go by where zero covid-related deaths are recorded.

For all of 2020 and in the early months of 2021, newsrooms flashed incalculable numbers of headlines in bold red warning about the pandemic. And those were all justified. But, now that the threat has largely passed for the significant swath of the population that is vaccinated, newsrooms should also flash headlines in green. Headlines which indicate that, if you’re vaccinated, the coast is clear.

As Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine at George Washington University and CNN medical analyst, told me, “For vaccinated people, there is almost no risk.” Audiences need to hear that. And they need to hear it regularly and in a way that really gets the point across.

Show the charts

One way to do that is to just show a visualization of the data. Charts showing the CDC data are quite stunning to see. Both deaths and new infections have plummeted in the last six months as Americans have received vaccines. Throughout 2020, news orgs repeatedly showed such charts indicating surges in infections. Why not show the same charts now, spotlighting how coronavirus is largely on the decline in the country? Most people are not independently checking the CDC’s website like journalists do. They rely on news orgs to relay that information to them. These charts should be spotlighted every single day in meaningful ways.

“Things are fine is not a story”

I phoned up Dr. James Hamblin, a former staff writer at The Atlantic who has started his own newsletter on science and medicine. I asked him why he believes the coverage I’m talking about doesn’t appear to be coming through in the press. “That is partly because of the nature of the media,” Hamblin replied. “Things are fine is not a story.” Hamblin also suggested that what we could be seeing reflected in coverage is a “bias in expertise.” As he put it, “It is just much safer to tell people to be cautious. And it is high liability to tell people to be less cautious.”

Regarding the Delta variant, Hamblin stressed that it is “definitely something the public should be aware of.” But he also stressed that it is important for news orgs — particularly cable news orgs — to cover it when there is “actual information.” What does he mean by that? Information that advises people they need to change their daily lives. For example, if they need to get a booster shot to protect against the variant. “I think we risk creating fatigue if we keep raising alarms without a clear takeaway about what this means for you,” Hamblin said. “But that seems to be what is happening here.”

But: “The big story IS the success story”

I also exchanged emails with Reiner, who pointed out to me that “the big story is the success story.” Reiner explained, “Broadway is opening. There wasn’t a single Covid death in DC last week. The Covid positivity rate in NY is 0.4%. There’s a lot of good to tell.” Reiner suggested that the press should focus on “telling the stories of the real heroes” of the pandemic.

“The ER and ICU nurses. The respiratory techs. The people who staffed the vaccination clinics and gave shots to 300 million people,” Reiner said. “These are the people who really put this fire out. 3600 healthcare workers died during this pandemic. We should hear about the people who were essential workers who couldn’t zoom for work. People who drove the buses. Police and fire. People who delivered food. This country was held together by the people in our communities who … fulfilled their responsibilities at great personal peril. I want to hear about how small businesses survived. There’s so much to talk about. And it’s so uplifting.”

A differing view

Dr. Leana Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University and also a CNN medical analyst, offered me a differing view. She said that she believed “the press has been partially responsible for giving Americans the false impression that the pandemic is over.” Wen agreed that the vaccinated “are generally fine to go about their normal lives,” but she stressed that coverage suggesting the threat has receded could imply to some that the same is true for those who are not vaccinated. While many are choosing not to get vaccinated, children and some others still cannot. “This is not a disease people want to get,” she added, “and headlines that make it look like even the unvaccinated are fine to return to their normal lives are misleading and dangerous.”

I definitely do agree with that. And headlines should not suggest that for those who are unvaccinated that they are in the clear. They are not. But it is also important to communicate the science to those who are vaccinated. The science indicates that things are OK for them now. It is no longer all doom and gloom — and coverage should make that more clear.

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