By Ben Holzer
March 27, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
Now is a good time to consider the cost of our instant news addiction. The impact of the coronavirus is staggering, as unemployment filings have reached an all-time high while more than 1 billion people must remain at home. Yet despite this undeniably serious situation, coronavirus reporting is filled with misinformation and exaggeration. And while there are many responsible reporters, the public health effect of bad coverage is real. How many people have done the wrong thing based on incorrect information? How do we prevent this in the future?
The coronavirus pandemic ranks as one of the biggest news events in recent history. According to the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of U.S. adults are following news about the coronavirus either fairly closely or very closely. This means that every briefing and story has the potential to alter public health behavior.
The coverage, however, has been misleading. As the Pew Center notes, “misinformation has also found its way into the information stream. About half the public (48%) say they’ve been exposed to at least some made-up news and information related to the virus. And when asked two questions about the virus, substantial portions express belief in claims that are in fact false.” At the same time a number of dangerous rumors and conspiracy theories have gained traction.
This is likely a symptom of the way we get our news, which is increasingly focused on rapid-fire digital reporting. Almost half of Americans receive their political news from social media or online sources. Correspondingly, these consumers are the most likely to report encountering misinformation about the coronavirus.
In response Americans have returned to traditional outlets. After years of declining ratings evening newscasts have seen their biggest audience in over a decade. One reason may be their adult approach: Those looking to national television and print are the least likely to see misinformation. As CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell recently stated, “I think the evening news plays a public service role, and now we’re playing a public health role.”
Unfortunately, it’s already too late. Americans are clearly confused about what to do from a public health standpoint, with only 37 percent trusting what they hear from the president, whose guidance often conflicts with the Center for Disease Control’s. The consequences are, again, acute – 22 percent of adults misleadingly believe a vaccine could be available in a few months, 23 percent believe COVID-19 was created in a lab and 48 percent say they may have come across fictional coronavirus information. It’s an echo of the unfortunate 2014 Ebola coverage, which saw one infected nurse pursued by a pack of journalists into the Maine woods.
Moving forward the path seems clear: We should follow the unfashionable example of the evening news and slow down. It can be fun to cover everything like a sporting event, but this isn’t the time or the place. Instead of seeking clicks about all else, let’s focus on the values that once made the media among the most trusted American institutions: objectivity and dependability. With every article measured and monetized this is easier said than done. But now is a good time to get back to basics.
Ben Holzer is a consultant living in Seattle who served as Special Assistant to the President and Director of Research for the White House from 2011-2015.
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