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Covid-19 is a ‘split screen’ scenario heading into 2021. Here’s how the news media should cover it

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

The days are getting shorter. The lines for Covid-19 testing are getting longer. The case counts are getting scarier and the warnings from public health experts are getting more and more dire.

At the same time, the prospects for publicly available vaccines are looking better and better. So how should the news media balance the bleak Covid winter with the hopeful news about all the help that’s on the way? I asked several experts on Monday and came away with valuable insights.

“Realism is important,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Zeynep Tufekci told me. “The good news is really good, but that doesn’t take away from the challenges we still face and the tough winter ahead with surging cases across the nation, overloaded hospitals and overworked health-care workers. So I think it’s a matter of being realistic on both counts, the good and the bad.”

Tufekci has authored several acclaimed pieces about the pandemic this year. Her latest, on Monday, was about the “pandemic heroes who gave us the gift of time and gift of information,” helping companies to develop vaccines in record time. Speaking of the vaccines.

The 2021 “split screen”

“If 2020 was one long episode of misery, 2021 will be a split screen,” Juliette Kayyemsaid. Kayyem is a homeland security expert, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a CNN analyst. She said “reporters must continue to expose the tragedy of this pandemic and our government’s response, but also capture the glimmering light — that will be brighter over the months as this distribution rolls across the US, delivering a vaccine in waves — that will get us to normalish.”

Kayyem also made the point that “medical stories — of patients and doctors and the health apparatus — are so personal, intimate. Supply chain logistics are not.” So the story is changing: “We are now pivoting to a story whose success is measured in bulk; it will be messy, and big, and bulky, and rolling over a long time period. These stories are only interesting when something goes wrong: a missed delivery, a power outage that impacts freezing capacity, a person getting a vaccine who shouldn’t yet or one who can’t. So, it’s worth taking a step back and assessing just how much is getting done — measured in its totality.”

While the vaccines are rolling out, millions of Americans will still be getting sick. “We have to make it through the next two months,” said emergency physician and Brown University professor Dr. Megan Ranney, a relatively new addition to CNN’s group of medical analysts. “We have to keep hammering home the message that this is a real disease, and there are real things that we can do to prevent the spread.”

“You as the media,” Ranney said on the phone, “are our best chance of giving a comprehensible and consistent public health message, since our federal government continues to fall down on the job and many state governments continue to fall down on the job.”

“The road ahead is bound to be tortuous”

“Covid-19 has never been a one-dimensional story,” STAT News co-founder and executive editor Rick Berke pointed out. “For many months, we’ve seen gradual scientific progress on vaccines and therapeutics even as we’ve witnessed human tragedy at a breathtaking scale. Journalists have faithfully covered both the hope and the despair.”

“In that respect,” Berke wrote in an email, “news organizations have a responsibility this winter to keep doing what they have since the start of this crisis — cover all elements of the story. Find ways to tell compelling human stories so that the public doesn’t lose sight of the incredible toll Covid-19 is taking on the country. And find ways to reflect the promise of vaccines, while rigorously reporting on their rollout. These vaccines are real lights at the end of the tunnel, but they are not panaceas. There are pressing questions about the vaccines themselves, such as how long they will provide immunity, as well as about how they will be distributed and who will get them first.”

Berke raised some key questions — ones that news outlets need to keep addressing. Readers and viewers need answers to basic inquiries about the vaccines. “The road ahead is bound to be tortuous,” he said, “and it’s one journalists need to follow.”

Another day of record hospitalizations

This just in from CNN Health’s Ben Tinker: “A record 96,039 people in the United States are currently hospitalized with Covid-19, according to data published Monday evening by The COVID Tracking Project. This is the third straight day of new record numbers, following a slight dip reported on Friday. The states with the most people currently hospitalized with Covid-19 are Texas, California, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.”

Read CNN’s latest overview story here.

But “we can see the shoreline”

There’s just an awful amount of infection rippling through the United States. The NYT’s in-house expert, Donald G. McNeil Jr., is out with a new story titled “The Long Darkness Before Dawn,” noting that “the number of deaths is rising and seems on track to easily surpass the 2,200-a-day average in the spring, when the pandemic was concentrated in the New York metropolitan area.” McNeil says “our failure to protect ourselves has caught up to us.”

But his story also describes his “hopeful” view of 2021, thanks to the vaccines on the horizon. Kayyem sounded similarly hopeful — she told me she was born cautious, but is feeling truly optimistic right now. “As reporters and analysts, I think we can allow ourselves to be,” she said. “It’s like with sea sickness; the misery seems easier if we can see the shoreline. We can see it.” She has even booked a vacation — for this coming August.

The need for leadership

On Monday CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote about a “leaderless America” slipping deep into the Covid winter. President Trump’s negligence is only part of the story. Some governors have also been in hiding.

I noted on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” that Florida governor Ron DeSantis was refusing to hold press briefings and relying on video messages about Covid-19 instead. On Monday, for what it’s worth, he DID hold a Covid briefing for the first time in four weeks. The first question was posed by a reporter who asked, “Where have you been?” CNN’s research found that 14 other governors have only held a single Covid-19 press briefing apiece in the month of November. A majority of the governors are Republicans. These men and women need to be front and center right now!

We’ll never know…

I was struck by something that Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said to Bret Baier on “Fox News Sunday.” There are “many different things that we could have done differently,” Adams said. “This virus has been challenging. I wish that again this hadn’t been superimposed on top of an election. I wish that we had been able to come together as a nation and really talk about the science instead of the politics, and that’s on all sides, that’s all around.” The “all sides” comment is a cop-out, but he’s right about the terrible timing of this tragedy. We’ll never know how different it could have been.

CNN

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