Covering fast-paced, complicated issues like infectious diseases is not only exhausting emotionally, mentally and physically, it’s dangerous and complex. Journalists are not doctors. Journalists are regular people who committed their lives to the craft of observance and storytelling. Sometimes these stories are entertaining, sometimes they’re informative, sometimes they’re lifesaving, sometimes they’re shallow.
So, when a journalist wakes up at 7 a.m. like the rest of the world and stares a pandemic in the face, they’re doing so with a curious mind, a desire to inform, an excitement to report on history and with a healthy dose of fear. A lot of fear, actually.
Journalists rely on experts to help tell stories and sometimes, even with expert opinions, hours of research and mountains of data, an issue can be difficult to understand. Further, not just difficult to understand, but an issue can be difficult to convey in all its entirety — with every voice, perspective and angle represented.
So, not only are journalists trying to wrap their minds around the fact we’re living through a pandemic — like everyone else — they’re also trying to fathom the disease even experts don’t understand, to inform the most protected and the most vulnerable. This can be a hard job to do. I have faith that well-trained, dedicated journalists are up to the task.
This is what journalists do. They take complex problems many do not want to unravel for themselves, and they research, question, analyze and turn out an article. Yes, many journalists like seeing their name in that byline, too, but at the end of the day, the accomplishment of learning an issue, researching and finding answers, analyzing and objectively (to the best of their ability) turning out an article is fulfilling.
The COVID-19 crisis is no different. In fact, this is the best time to watch journalists showcase their ability to understand, question and inform on a grand scale. Journalists make mistakes. Sometimes facts get lost, meanings are misinterpreted, people speak out of turn. Sometimes experts are too busy on the frontlines to sit down for an interview. Sometimes people want to be informed but don’t read past a hastily written headline.
I do believe “the media” has good intentions. I’d like to define this phrase, “the media,” with my definition for the purpose of this column. The media I’m referencing are professional, trained and experienced storytellers working for newspapers, TV stations and online publications — but not blogs, Facebook pages or other amateur citizen journalism. So, when referencing the media in this way, I believe these individuals have good intentions and mean to convey credible, lifesaving information in this critical time. Do they make mistakes? Of course. As with every crisis or large news event, reporting is not perfect.
My last point here, other than to humanize those reading teleprompters and filling the pages of your local newspaper, is to note that sometimes journalists reporting on crises such as COVID-19, need to remember that the quantity of journalism may cause panic, just as incorrect information may.
While responsible reporting strives to minimize harm, an overabundance of that responsible journalism can do the same as irresponsible journalism. By blowing an issue out of proportion and over-exaggerating an issue to collect great soundbites, journalists can cause panic as would happen if those soundbites held panic-inducing, inaccurate information.
While I haven’t seen outright incorrect or disingenuous reporting, my hope is journalists will remember to report the news and only the news in a paced, responsible way to avoid causing unnecessary panic, stress and anxiety to the masses. While I do not believe this is their intention, sometimes the race to be “the first” to publish or the desire to have all the answers can cause journalists to publish an overabundance of information the public never needed.
As for the consumers — you and me — we need to make responsible choices. I don’t just mean washing your hands for 20 seconds and social distancing. Yes, those are important to “flatten the curve” of the virus. We also need to make responsible, careful decisions in who we trust and listen to for credible information.
If you’re trying to find critical information about COVID-19 and come across a fake news website or an amateur Facebook blog, I beg you not to blame the journalism industry as a whole for this travesty. We also hate deceptive information presented as truth and we want you to stay away from it.
During this critical time, one way you can help your community is to support and consume your local news. Subscribe to your local newspaper or send an encouraging note to the local news station. And know today you can trust the journalists on the other side of your TV screen anchoring the news, or the journalists running around in a pandemic with a camera strapped to their back filling the pages of your local newspaper.
We’re doing it for you.