David Zurawik: Mainstream media trying to communicate reality and magnitude of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths

During the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis last year, I thought media was doing a poor job of humanizing the tremendous fear, pain and loss Americans were suffering from COVID-19. But by April, camera crews were making their way into emergency rooms and pandemic wards to show us the horror that we had mostly only been told about by front-line medical workers and people sitting at anchor desks. A CNN report by Miguel Marquez in late March that showed us a hellish landscape of horribly sick patients on gurneys in a hospital’s crowded hallways coughing and gasping for breath was the breakthrough report. I hailed it hoping that seeing would be believing for most viewers.

And yet with a president saying at the time how he wanted the economy back up by Easter and exclaiming how “beautiful” it would be to have “packed churches” for that Sunday, millions continued to ignore masks and social distancing and party straight into Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Remember those beach scenes of people drinking, dancing and standing face to face inches apart with no masks?

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As we surpassed the mind-boggling milestone of 500,000 deaths this week, I have been asking myself why some people still don’t seem to get the horror of where we are with this pandemic even today as others scramble desperately to get a vaccination. Are the media to blame? If so, how? That’s the column I thought I would be writing for today.

Some in the right-wing media are to blame. Remember Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume mocking then-presidential-candidate Joe Biden on Twitter in May for wearing a mask ― mockery that Trump, who did not wear a mask in public events at the time, then shared with millions? COVID had already killed 97,000 Americans, but wearing a mask was still apparently a laughing matter to some in right-wing media and Trump.

Fox, One America News Network and Newsmax do share blame for spreading the former president’s misinformation, disinformation and lies about the pandemic. If you want to blame the media for the inability or unwillingness by some Americans to get their heads around this horror, you can certainly blame the right-wing media all you want.

But that is not true of most of the mainstream media, which not only tried to report one of the biggest and most challenging stories of the last 100 years, but also to sort out some of the confusion Trump generated on an almost daily basis when he was using press sessions at the White House podium as a substitute for campaign rallies. Remember Trump sharing his crackpot speculation about injecting a disinfectant into our bodies to kill the virus?

But CNN, MSNBC, PBS and the commercial networks of NBC, CBS and ABC have been all in on reporting COVID. The “Frontline” series on PBS has done outstanding documentaries not just on the impact of the disease in terms of hospitalizations and deaths. In “COVID’s Hidden Toll,” it looked at how the virus was affecting workers in the fields and packing houses of California who work without safety protections and live in a constant state of dread. In “Growing Up Poor in America,” “Frontline” looked at the special hardships COVID inflicted on those who were already struggling economically before the pandemic hit, such as families whose children didn’t have a computer or the internet connections necessary to continue their educations when schools closed.

The strong coverage isn’t only at the national level. The Sun has a page one story and a variety of other reports on COVID virtually every day online and in the print edition. And the reports are not just handout and press conference journalism in which the governor or mayor announces something and it makes it straight into the paper or online without further reporting or context. A story Monday about Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announcing vaccinations at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore quoted him hailing it as a “another milestone toward ending this pandemic,” but it also reported that the website was immediately overwhelmed and unable to book appointments.

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The mainstream media is doing its job. If you cannot get your head around the enormity of 500,000 dead from this virus and the lethal possibility of that figure ultimately including you and someone you love, that’s on you. Don’t blame the mainstream media if you are getting your COVID analysis from Fox’s Sean Hannity instead of CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Try making better media choices.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik