By Dr. Dean Hart
April 06, 2020
In a matter of weeks, the United States went from a few hundred to tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases. As the virus rapidly spreads, news organizations, public officials, health care experts and providers, and average citizens drastically altered not only their opinions and priorities but their ways of life.
As the COVID-19 situation changes by the hour, millions of Americans turn to various news outlets for the latest developments. Their ultimate concern is keeping themselves and their loved ones safe during this pandemic.
As a nation, we take pride in our founding principles, one of the most cherished of which is freedom of the press. The importance of a free press should come with acknowledgement of the responsibility that comes with such great power. News organizations play a critical role in dissemination of information but the way the information is, or is not, reported clearly affect the public’s perception of the ‘facts’ being reported. However, in a public health crisis, as in other crises, we should expect the media to understand that reporting and disseminating critical information is far more important than the ‘spin.’ Critiquing the outcomes of our government’s response should be provided later; liberal and conservative philosophies in a pandemic should not be of dissimilar pursuit. Therefore, the current role and pursuit of the free press must be to report and provide the information essential to promote the health, safety, and well-being of our citizenry.
Unfortunately, not all news outlets have risen to the occasion. Instead of focusing on public health and reporting accurate and complete information critical therefore, some media outlets dedicate portions of their COVID-19 coverage to attacking competitors’ coverage of this crisis, thereby putting their own ‘spin’ on the facts. Such journalism is a disservice to the public that relies so heavily on the cherished free press to keep it informed during this global pandemic. Serious consequences would result if those charged with exercising our First Amendment rights do not do so in a responsible manner.
A recent New York Times article criticized Fox News for minimizing the severity of the COVID-19 virus. While the nation, and the world, are still very much in the darkness of uncertainty about this virus, and questions abound without answers, such reporting is a waste of news column space and a disservice to the public that the media should serve. Instead, news articles should be highlighting ways that Americans can prevent the spread of this virus. A discussion about supplies at hospitals and what medical providers need to treat sick patients is more germane. Rather than engaging in counterproductive attacks, we need accurate and forward-looking reporting whether the bent is libertarian, conservative or liberal. The more accurate the information, the less the public will even be able to discern the bent. Certainly, this time of crisis calls for such accuracy.
This pandemic is something without parallel in our lifetimes. Data collected changes and morphs on a moment by moment basis. News outlets across the country downplayed this threat, from the Washington Post who previously cautioned against an “aggressive government response to coronavirus” to CNN who initially claimed the seasonal flu posed a graver threat than COVID-19. Indeed, we are all playing catch-up as a result of the unexpected extent and severity of this virus and its impact. And this nation learns and grows as we test the very fabric of the freedoms and autonomy that is our great nation.
As a microbiologist, with more than 30 years of experience and a published author on the transmission of viruses and diseases, I know a most important way to fight this battle is to enlist the public and arm it with accurate information. Transparency and knowledge are the greatest weapon in this war against the COVID-19 virus. Everyone must receive clear messages about social distancing, isolating vulnerable populations, and practicing good hygiene. Implementation of a robust testing protocol is the best short-term fix for this dilemma, so that those who require medical care and need to be isolated are identified immediately.
Fox News has a disproportionately older audience, which is the population most at-risk to suffer serious complications from COVID-19. According to new data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 8 out of 10 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the United States are adults aged 65 or over and as much as 59% of this age group may require hospitalization if they contract this virus.
If Fox News is unjustly accused of spreading false information, this population may become more scared and confused. Instead, the press must ensure the most current and accurate information is disseminated during this pandemic, particularly to the most vulnerable population and to the health care workers and first responders on the front line of fighting this virus.
At a time of national uncertainty, with health threats escalating each day, we must unify as a nation and a people. Providing the most accurate information to the public is of paramount importance. Undoubtedly, mistakes were, and will be made, but now is a time for action and not recrimination. There will be plenty of time in the future for recrimination and examination of how society can improve its pandemic response.
Dr. Dean Hart is an expert in microbiology and published author on the transmission of viruses and diseases. For 25 years he taught as an Associate Research Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Hart studied these subjects as a Postgraduate Research Scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and obtained his first graduate degree in biology with an emphasis in microbiology at Hofstra University