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No, mainstream media isn’t sensationalizing COVID-19

Courtesy Alexa Thomases

By Alexa Thomases     3/31/20 3:55pm

We’ve seen it happen time and again: clambering for attention in our click-driven world, major news outlets cherry-pick sensational stories and dramatize their headlines. This tactic has blown countless news stories out of proportion — but COVID-19 isn’t one of them.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first too. Like many Rice students, the practice of critically evaluating sources has been drilled into my head. I try not to take what I read and watch at face value. So in January, when headlines about coronavirus became a mainstay on trusted news sources like The New York Times, it seemed plausible that journalists were giving undue attention to a story they knew would create a stir. Coronavirus certainly had all the elements of a buzzworthy story: It’s equal parts unprecedented, mysterious and dangerous. I thought news organizations might be exaggerating it to boost their ratings. By extension, I figured that coronavirus couldn’t possibly be as dangerous as the media made it sound. After all, is it really that different from the flu?

The staggering influx of new cases coupled with several sobering articles illuminated what I should have known all along: Yes, it is. It was a crucial, if belated, realization that impelled me to take social distancing seriously. As COVID-19 has escalated rapidly in the United States, I sincerely hope that most people have similarly accepted how dire its consequences could be. Yet, I still worry about the pervasiveness of the concerning sentiment — that President Donald Trump himself has propagated — that the mainstream media is exaggerating the extent of COVID-19’s severity.

Simply put, COVID-19 is every bit as dangerous as the media is portraying it to be. Reputable sources are not blowing it out of proportion.

To prove this, let’s look at the data. According to the World Health Organization, 36,571 coronavirus-related deaths had been reported at the time of publication. Over 2,000 of these were in the United States alone. These numbers are expected to surge as hospitals run low on beds, ventilators, masks and other critical supplies. The New York Times reported that every intensive care bed in New York City is expected to be filled within two days, leaving no room for new patients. Although the elderly are at the highest risk, a weekly report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted that many young, otherwise healthy COVID-19 patients have also been hospitalized.

Rice students cannot afford to be blasé about this. No matter how often the Trump administration downplays the crisis, we must believe the statistics and the sources that report them. Only then will we understand why social distancing saves lives and why we must adhere to it strictly. We have already lost too much time to speculate that the media is trying to capitalize off of the pandemic. In fact, there is evidence that the media is dedicated to providing accessible information: Most major news outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, have removed their paywalls for coronavirus-related coverage. For the sake of public safety, we must have faith in the information the media is relaying about COVID-19 and its grave consequences.

By extension, we must heed experts’ advice to slow the viral spread. The CDC recommends that everyone — including those who are asymptomatic, young and have no underlying health conditions — practice social distancing. Stay home as much as you can. Even if the place you live still allows public gatherings and dine-in restaurants (and indeed, an alarming number of U.S. states do), don’t go unless necessary. If you live in a county such as Harris County that has implemented a stay-at-home order, where only essential businesses remain open, it is your obligation to comply. You can even take it a step further. Rather than frequenting the grocery store, consider buying all the food you’ll need for the week in one trip. If you’re hoping to exercise at a park that turns out to be crowded, find another one where you can exercise without being within six feet of anyone else. Do it for yourself, do it for those who are most vulnerable and do it for the healthcare workers who are compromising their own safety to treat others.

It is, of course, always good practice to consume news with a critical eye. But as we collectively try to mitigate the effects of a global pandemic, it is imperative that we trust that news organizations are not exaggerating the magnitude of this crisis. Understanding the severity of COVID-19 and acting accordingly will save lives. Save your skepticism for another story. And please: stay home.

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