In the Coronavirus Pandemic, We Need Ethical Journalists

At the top of the March 11 “NBC Nightly News” broadcast, just after the World Health Organization labeled the coronavirus outbreak a “pandemic,” Lester Holt began with a direct message to the show’s audience. 

“As anchor of this broadcast, I want you to know we’re focused on bringing you the facts,” Holt said at the time. “The last thing we want to do is unnecessarily alarm people. But this is serious stuff and we are going to continue to follow this story, wherever it takes us.” 

Last week, as the virus continued to spread throughout the U.S. and around the world, Holt called the coronavirus pandemic “the biggest story we have ever seen.” That same day, the Pew Research Center released a poll reporting close to 90 percent of Americans are following news about the virus. 

Now, the U.S. is the country with the third-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world. President Donald Trump has placed restrictions on international travel, and delays in testing in the U.S. have set back the nation’s response to the pandemic. 

These extraordinary circumstances have left journalists with the challenge of how to cover this story accurately and effectively for an anxious population. 

As Poynter Senior Media Writer Tom Jones reflected this week, each day we turn to our phones and TVs searching for the latest updates on the coronavirus, looking “for signs of hope between the grim reports” and “an indication of how bad it will get and when it will all end.” 

 

With breaking reports and tweets from politicians and medical officials coming out by the minute on the latest number of those infected and new guidance to stay healthy, news organizations must evaluate what information is the most useful for the public to know, and what may only cause more harm. 

One of the central issues being discussed by media professionals surrounds Trump and his daily press briefings following the national emergency declaration. While this represents a shift from almost a year without a daily White House press briefing, several journalists are saying that airing these briefings live may only be exacerbating the crisis. 

The Washington Post Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan argued in her March 21 piece that instead of giving the American public “critical and truthful information about this frightening crisis,” Trump is using these daily briefings “as a substitute for the campaign rallies that have been forced into extinction by the spread of the novel coronavirus.” 

Trump has used these briefings to praise himself, attack the media and spread misinformation. When NBC News’s Peter Alexander asked in a briefing last week, “What do you say to Americans who are scared?” Trump responded by calling Alexander a “terrible reporter” and proceeded to go on one of his “fake news” tirades. 

Trump has also made several exaggerations, and even lies, during these meetings. In one instance, Trump claimed that Google was “very quickly,” releasing a nationwide website to help manage coronavirus treatment, a statement that surprised even the tech company itself. Trump also stated that the drug chloroquine, approved to treat malaria, is a potential cure for the virus and added, “we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.” As Sullivan pointed out, the drug has not yet been approved for this use, and there is not enough evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness in fighting the virus. 

And these statements are directly impacting American lives. This week an Arizona man, 68, and his wife, 61, took chloroquine after watching Trump’s briefing. According to NBC News, however, the form of chloroquine was not the medication used to treat malaria and, instead, was a type used for the parasite treatment of fish.

The man died, and the woman remains in critical condition. 

When NBC News’s Vaughn Hillyard asked the wife what message she had for the American public, the Arizona woman responded by saying, “don’t believe anything that the President says.”

 

Given the weight Trump’s words can have, we agree with Sullivan’s argument that for journalists reporting in a crisis full of anxiety and uncertainty, “Business as usual simply doesn’t cut it.” Airing Trump’s briefings live, without being paired with fact-checking and context by reporters, increases the chances that Americans will be actively misinformed about the pandemic and its proper responses. Thus, if journalists are to report on the latest information from the President, they should use the same standard that is adopted for any other claim: only report information as fact if it has been verified by multiple, credible sources. 

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote on his PressThink blog that fact-checking the President when covering his briefings is part of what the media needs to do in a switch into “emergency mode.” 

“We are not obliged to assist him in misinforming the American public about the spread of the virus, and what is actually being done by his government,” Rosen wrote.

Alongside the briefings is the daily back and forth between Trump’s administration and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who are working desperately to pass a crucial economic relief and stimulus bill. The economic security of tens of millions of Americans who have had their work hours reduced or jobs laid off is on the line as solutions are debated and put forward. And once again, journalists are struggling to discern serious commitments from distractions while covering the White House. 

It is true that these are unprecedented conditions, and that journalists should be given a margin for error. There are hundreds of new cases confirmed in the country each day, and so much is still unknown about the disease. But while there are many reasons for journalists to take the information presented by elected officials in good-faith, the stakes are too high to let that overshadow the health and safety of American citizens. 

As argued by Poynter’s Jones, while political leaders or others may attempt to propose possible solutions before they are verified by medical officials, journalists, more than ever, must acknowledge their profound ethical role in this moment. 

“The media’s job is to present facts, not hope,” Jones explained. “The media aren’t trying to make any politician or leader look good or bad, but to hold those in power accountable for their actions — or inaction. They are there to get answers.”

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