The Pandemic Mistakes Journalists Need to Be Thinking About Include Our Own

Yes, there were failures of leadership, but also failures of imagination.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

The CDC recently announced that the risk of getting COVID from touching a surface is low, and that there have been very few reports of people actually getting infected this way. In fact, they said, “each contact with a contaminated surface has a less than 1 in 10,000 chance of causing an infection.” Cleaning surfaces once or twice a day does little to lower this risk, they added.

In other words, the millions of dollars companies spent on “deep cleaning” of workplaces last year was basically wasted, and the anxiety about this risk suffered by millions of people was largely for naught.

If you were surprised to read this, there is a reason for that, and it includes what’s been in the news— and what hasn’t.

A story in the New York Times, for example, in the early days of the lockdown last March was headlined, “How Long Will Coronavirus Live on Surfaces or in the Air Around You?” It began portentously, “The coronavirus can live for three days on some surfaces, like plastic and steel, new research suggests.” The story quickly added that the risk of infection was low, and the facts in the lead are still deemed accurate, but the fear instilled was real, and long-lasting.

As another Times story from late May summed it up, again in the lead:

Fears about catching the coronavirus from contaminated surfaces have prompted many of us to spend the past few months wiping down groceries, leaving packages unopened and stressing about touching elevator buttons.

The story went on, again, to say that this was not the main route to contracting COVID, “But it can happen,” the subhed warned.

I am not trying to dunk on the Times. Its pandemic coverage has been generally excellent, and sometimes brilliant. I reference it just by way of example (here’s a different example from the Washington Post), and because the Times is so widely read. I recognize also that we are only as good as our sources, and the CDC itself was responsible for no small measure of this confusion.

But as we begin to reflect on the lessons learned from the pandemic, and the mistakes made to bring us to a place of such grievous loss, journalists need to start to grapple with the mistakes of our own.

I think a good place to start might be to contrast reporting from early in the pandemic highlighting the risk from surface contamination with that from the same period minimizing the need for masking. Both turn out to have been erroneous, and on both dimensions the early mistakes left long and damaging trails. On the surface contamination issue, for instance, the phrase “low risk” seems, at least to me, a quite inadequate way of conveying a one in ten thousand chance. Why did we, collectively, do that? When should we have known better? What did we do when we did know better?

On masking, some people realized quite early on that it might be wise, but also knew that inadequate stockpiling had left commercial masks in short supply. Trump Surgeon General Jerome Adams even sort of said it out loud1:

But even if public officials feared that a call for masking would threaten health care workers with inadequate supplies, shouldn’t journalists have more aggressively touted home-made masking for all?

If you take these two errors together, you might sum things up this way: we amplified warnings against touching surfaces despite a lack of evidence of the risk, but failed to promote early masking because, well, we didn’t yet have evidence of its effectiveness. Again, how did that happen?

As we start in on the second rough draft of the history of the pandemic, we will need to confront the failures of leadership, which are increasingly widely understood, and were considerably reflected in last year’s election results. At the same time, and perhaps even more critically in terms of lessons learned, we need to reckon with the failures of imagination, which at this point seem less well understood.

These failures of imagination—a repeated delay in offering new thinking about what was, after all, constantly referred to as a “novel” coronavirus—are harder to grapple with, and require looking at our own conduct as well as that of others. For example, it is beginning to be clear that it took much longer than it should have to broadly recognize that asymptomatic transmission was a fundamental challenge. Much too much reliance was placed on the fact that such transmission had not previously been seen in coronaviruses, even as the virus spread.

I worry now that we may be making a different mistake in much of the coverage of vaccination: losing sight of the important reality that our role as journalists differs fundamentally from that of our sources, no matter how sympathetic they may be.

The agenda of both public health officials and the relevant medical specialists at this juncture is to maximize vaccination. Yet they have sought, for instance, to accentuate concerns that vaccinated people may transmit the virus, in the face of increasing evidence that this is quite unlikely. (As with infection from touching surfaces, it’s not impossible.) And they have continued to advocate against vaccinated people resuming what seem to be very low risk activities.

Perhaps this is wise public health policy. Perhaps it is true that the broad public cannot hold multiple ideas in mind at once— such as the ideas that vaccinations are imperative, that those vaccinated need not be as careful as those who have not yet been and that some precautions need to continue until vaccination is prevalent. But conveying excessive caution can make for bad journalism, defined as journalism that obviates or flies in the face of the facts as we know them.  That, in turn, can only add to the very considerable trust deficit confronting much of the American press in our time.

The reckoning with all of this is coming. Journalists would be wise to welcome it, candidly and openly—and, in the meantime, to do our own jobs, to our own highest standards.

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This tweet was eventually deleted, but not before the Surgeon General had told CBS’s Face the Nation, eight days later, that “Masks do not work for the general public and preventing them from getting coronavirus.” In July, on the same show, he breathtakingly analogized the deleted tweet and his earlier broadcast statement to the fact that “once upon a time we prescribed cigarettes for asthmatics.”