Susan J. Demas: Years of media mistakes have made the coronavirus pandemic worse. We can do better.

March 17, 2020 5:48 am

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Looking around at all the college kids jamming bars for St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the seniors defiantly shaking hands like it’s a badge of honor, and too many conservative leaders refusing to close schools and businesses to help their citizens, I have an overwhelming sense of dread.

There are all sorts of reasons for this cognitive dissonance in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic: denial, fear, anger, misinformation and sadly, hyperpartisanship.

A statewide coronavirus hotline will be open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-888-535-6136. Information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.

The media, overall, to their credit, have risen to the occasion with factual stories on why staying at home now to #flattenthecurve is crucial to ensure fewer people get sick and die. There are real-time updates on the number of cases and where people can go for help.

Outlets across Michigan and across the country are churning out hundreds of amazing stories on health care workers on the front lines, people who are ill, laid-off workers with no benefits, strangers stepping into help and so much more.

That’s the best of the news industry, my home for almost 20 years. That’s what makes me proud to be a journalist.

But there’s a dark side to COVID-19 coverage, most of which lives in the bowels of right-wing media, where harmful misinformation thrives and coronavirus is just a liberal plot to destroy President Trump (seemingly like everything else, from cold coffee to Gay Pride parades.) Some of the tone seems to be changing on Fox News, thankfully, but serious damage has been done.

And a few mainstream outlets haven’t covered themselves in glory, especially with the strong impulse to cover the contrarian view that it’s no big deal. You can even find some folks with medical credentials (probably not relevant ones) to say so on camera.

But it’s not responsible to do so during a pandemic, where the death toll in countries like Italy is staggering. And no, it’s not responsible ever.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been crying a lot during the COVID-19 crisis, and not because I know anyone who’s sick. It’s because I know years of mistakes in my chosen profession are making things worse.

I’m the Debbie Downer of the news business. A lot of my colleagues think I’m unfair about it (and undoubtedly use some different, more colorful words.) But I love journalism. I believe in journalism. I believe it is a fundamental part of a free society. Millions of people trust us for accurate information, to tell their stories and to hold powerful people accountable.

So we have a mighty responsibility not to screw it up.

But we have, time and time again. That’s why a lot of people think we’re just freaking out about coronavirus to whip up ratings and clicks like it’s “Shark Week.” We’ve made Dr. Drew, Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil the biggest names in medicine because they’re showmen, not the greatest minds in their fields. (And for the love of God, don’t quote Dr. Drew’s contrarian schtick on COVID-19 right now.)

We’ve coddled anti-vaxxers for years as just concerned parents, instead of people flagrantly ignoring doctors and medical research to spread harmful misinformation on every corner of the internet, which has meant big bucks for Facebook, YouTube and other tech giants. Years of quoting unqualified people and, in turn, undermining our faith in science, has real consequences during a pandemic.

Journalists also cover campaigns and government like it’s a sports or entertainment story because too many of us don’t have faith in our audience to just read about the sober process of governing.

Look at Trump’s flailing, lying and failing throughout every stage of this crisis. For weeks, he thought this was just something he could spin his way out of and it would somehow go away — or hopefully, everyone would blame someone else (Obama, probably.) And then tell me that political journalism hasn’t failed by not leveling with people that governing is really hard and competence is everything.

Being the guy you can have a beer with doesn’t mean you can run the world. “Winning the morning” on Politico doesn’t mean you can take on a pandemic.

Political journalists also have made things worse with our obsession with “both sides” coverage. I was a practitioner for years, because of a well-intentioned obsession with fairness, but it’s one of my biggest regrets. In the case of COVID-19, you’ve got GOP Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt bragging on Twitter one day about taking his family to a restaurant (“It’s packed tonight!”) — a popular way to own the libs and go viral these days — and then declaring a state of emergency over coronavirus the next.

But if you feel the need to present Stitt flouting public health recommendations on social distancing as just another side in the debate, you’re contributing to misinformation. And in a pandemic, people may die.

So let’s just stop taking victory laps about #actsofjournalism (seriously, talk to your non-journo friends and see what they think of all that.) Many reporters do fantastic work, but let’s save our appreciation right now for medical staff and first responders risking their lives, workers at grocery stores and people who have lost their livelihoods. Let’s do everything we can to make sure there are fewer people fighting for their health and their lives right now, and not make it about us.

We could use a little more humility about the news business, overall. We’ve all made mistakes — big ones. And we, of all people, should be able to admit that, especially when we demand that of the people we cover.

Right now, many people (wrongly) believe our coronavirus coverage is overblown. Millions probably trust their friends, family and random Instagram posts more than us on COVID-19. All we can do is the best work we possibly can to inform people.

And hopefully, when this terrible chapter ends, journalism will change for the better because of it.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.