Mainstream media’s COVID-19 failure

It’s pretty clear, at this point, that the U.S.’s political leaders would like for us all to pretend that the pandemic is over. President Biden says he doesn’t think about it (even though everyone in his orbit is still PCR-tested regularly), Congress hasn’t passed any new COVID-19 funding since spring 2021 (but sends billions to the military), state and local governments end their final mask mandates (yes, the ones in healthcare settings), and so on.

And the mainstream media—tasked with holding these powerful people accountable—has let them do it. Most news outlets these days barely want to include the word “COVID-19” in their headlines, let alone give you an honest picture of the risks that this disease still poses. Many individual journalists are doing their best to get the important news out, but they have to push back against shrinking editorial budgets, colleagues who spread misinformation, weariness from sources, and other structural barriers.

Personally, as a freelancer still covering this topic, I would love to write about only COVID-19, all the time. But in order to keep working, I’ve had to branch out. Even when I write COVID-related stories, these days, the headlines often aren’t directly about the coronavirus; they focus on broader issues like health surveillance or chronic disease that are easier to give broader appeal (or at least, what my editors see as broader appeal).

I’m eternally grateful to have the COVID-19 Data Dispatch and its community of readers, as a place where I can keep prioritizing this topic and sharing my honest perspectives, rather than watering them down for more mainstream outlets. But this is a pretty small fish in the sea of media coverage—I know my work only goes so far.

So, I was really glad to see an excellent article in Neiman Lab this week that captures exactly how mainstream media has failed on covering COVID-19 over the last two years. Climate journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis explains that yes, COVID-19 is still a major health threat, and publications have failed their duty to the public by largely ignoring it.

I highly recommend reading the full story, but here’s one section that exemplifies Pierre-Louis’ argument:

Outlets like The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and NPR, to name just a few, have amplified voices and arguments that helped create a narrative that not only pathologizes those who remain cautious about the disease, but also fails to adequately convey the risks associated with Covid such that many people are unwittingly taking on potentially lifelong risks.

In the process, we’ve failed at our field’s core tenets — to hold power to account and to follow the evidence. Our failures here could last a generation. As reporters, it’s our responsibility to accurately represent the needs of diverse perspectives and avoid an ableist bias that diminishes the real and lasting health concerns not only of those who are keenly at risk but those who are cautious about repeatedly catching a virus that scientists are still grappling to understand.

I hope this article inspires some reflection among other journalists, if not some real changes in editorial priorities.

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