Monday, September 20, 2021
Sept. 20, 2021

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Press Talk: The media and COVID-19 a year ago

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‘When is it going to end?”

That was the headline one year ago in The New York Times — Monday, March 2, 2020, to be precise– as the country’s premier newspaper began to cover COVID-19 in earnest.

Ground zero was a nursing home in Kirkland back then and The Times was on the story.

Four of the six people who had died of the virus in our country had lived in a nursing home there. And after King County — where Kirkland is located — declared a state of emergency, “officials announced highly unusual plans to purchase a motel that could be converted into an isolation center for people who get sick,” the Times reported.

A high-rise building in downtown Seattle was closed for precautionary cleaning. And a school district canceled a day of classes for more than 23,000 students to train employees on how to teach children remotely, should the outbreak worsen, according to the Times. The media was cranking up the coverage.

The next day — Tuesday, March 3 — The Columbian’s lead front-page story and photo were about the virus.

About 100 people worldwide had died from the virus at this point, but questions began to surface if the media was blowing this story way out of proportion. The then-Commander & Chooch — Donald J. Trump — was downplaying this virus thing. And his people followed.

But how did people think the media was doing early on in the virus coverage? I decided to ask this question on Facebook one year ago, using a scale of 1-10:

“Is the media overplaying it?

• 1 = They need to be doing much more.

• 5 = Just about right.

• 10 = Way out of line.”

Frankly it was fascinating to me this week to look back and see the responses. But before I share some of them, ask yourself this: Looking back on it now — when this entire mess began about a year ago — how would you rate how the media did back then? Think about it. It’s a worthy topic for discussion.

One person who responded to the question a year ago was Columbian Editor Craig Brown. He gave it a 7, meaning a little bit hyped. And I asked him, looking back on it now, how he felt about that 7.

“I think I was wrong. I probably should have given it a 3. Newspaper editors are professional skeptics. I just didn’t see how quickly this would spread,” Brown said.

Brown’s point about editors being professional skeptics is spot on. We are trained to not simply believe everything that is told us. So when something like an unknown virus surfaces, we should wonder if experts might be overplaying the situation.

Nelson Holmberg also responded to the question a year ago. He’s an all-around community good guy who’s involved in Rotary International and has held a number of jobs related to communications and international trade. He gave the media coverage a 10, meaning he felt the media was way out of line in how they were covering the virus in its early stages. When he looks back on that number today, he said he would adjust it.

“I was impulsive back then. The pandemic was really an unknown. It just seemed like a lot of hype. Hindsight is 20-20 but given the exact same circumstances, it was probably a 5.”

Of course Holmberg wasn’t the only one that gave it a 10. Of the 100 people or so who answered my Facebook question (I also received email and text answers) 17 percent gave 10 as their answer. It was the second-highest total.

The third-highest total, 15 percent, gave the coverage a 1, meaning the media should have been doing much more back then.

But the highest percentage, the number one answer? Those who gave it a 5, meaning the media was covering the story just about right. That came to 30 percent. In some ways, yes, that surprised me a little.

So here is my takeaway:

There are large numbers of people on the fringes — on both ends of issues. That doesn’t make them right or wrong. But it likely makes them loud. At least a little louder than the middle. But in that middle lies the big numbers. So before the media — or society — jerks hard left or hard right — remember where the many reside. An even, steady hand still is wanted.

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