Newspaper editors face a dilemma in covering the coronavirus epidemic that so far has infected almost 93,000 people, killing more than 3,100, across at least 70 countries since December. Giving the outbreak too much coverage could lead readers to dismiss it as sensationalism. But failing to cover it thoroughly could allow misinformation to fester and help the virus spread.
One good example of how not to cover the outbreak came on radio host Rush Limbaugh’s Feb. 24 show, when he said: “I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks. The drive-by media hype up this thing as a pandemic,” adding that the virus was being “weaponized” by the media to “bring down Donald Trump.”
The president himself isn’t helping. At a Feb. 28 rally in South Carolina, he insisted “the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” claiming “they tried the impeachment hoax. ... And this is their new hoax.” When asked the next day whether he regretted calling the outbreak a “hoax,” Trump said vaguely of the Democrats: “The hoax is on them.”
If the president is using the word “hoax” without knowing its meaning, as apparently may be the case, then he should stop. As of Tuesday afternoon, the virus has killed nine people in the U.S. and spread to 15 states, including New York. A 39-year-old health care worker from Manhattan tested positive after returning from a trip to Iran. A Westchester lawyer has tested positive for the virus, becoming the second New York patient infected by suspected community spread, and Gov. Cuomo said Tuesday that two Buffalo families are being isolated at home over concerns they may be infected.
Iran has been ravaged by the virus, with 77 dead and 2,300 infected, according to Iranian government statistics that experts say could be underestimates. The deaths include three Iranian government officials, including a member of Iran’s parliament, a former Vatican ambassador and a confidant of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
There’s nothing fake about the economic damage the outbreak has inflicted, either. U.S. markets on Monday recovered only a portion of their staggering losses from a week earlier, in which $3.6 trillion of value was wiped out, before plunging again Tuesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 3,583 points in a single week, or 4.4%, its biggest weekly loss since 2008.
It was perhaps the shock to markets that jolted Trump into action, as the president’s habit of taking undue credit for rising stocks could backfire and leave him taking undue blame for their fall. The White House has also faced bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill for penny-pinching in preparation for the outbreak, including from Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“It could be an existential threat to a lot of people in this country. So money should not be an object,” Shelby warned last week. “We should try to contain and eradicate this as much as we can, both in the U.S. and helping our friends all over the world.”
Health experts have also criticized the sluggish pace of the federal response, warning that the slow pace of testing could allow the virus to spread undiagnosed.
“In New York state, the (first) person who tested positive was only the 32nd test we’ve done in this state. That is a national scandal,” New York City doctor Matt McCarthy, a virus expert, said on CNBC. “They’re testing 10,000 a day in some countries, and we can’t get this off the ground.”
Those expressing such concerns about the virus probably don’t “hope that it comes here and kills millions of people, so they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning,” as the president’s son, Donald Jr., speculated last week.
Truth be told, in deciding how to cover the outbreak in our newspaper, Trump’s approval rating hasn’t been at the forefront of our minds. We assume that our readers are smart enough to understand that a worldwide economic slowdown caused by an epidemic is a misfortune for which no president deserves blame. And although our president might not believe it, not everything is about him.