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National Press Ignites Panic, Fans Flames

Sometimes errors by the press are small.

When this columnist was a newspaper reporter, another reporter wrote in a hilarious April Fool’s Day story that a local library was imprisoning – in its dungeon – patrons with overdue books.

The story understandably omitted mentioning what in all likelihood was obvious to most readers: That it was an April Fool’s Day story. A few readers didn’t get the joke, had overdue books at this library, and unfortunately panicked.

This was a small press error that, in the long run, was harmless.

The press has great power. With this comes great responsibility to get it right the first time and be fair. This includes not fomenting panic, particularly panic all out of proportion to the circumstances. Especially during hard times, this means being a soothing, calming, reassuring presence.

Much of what the national press has done during the outbreak of COVID-19 — which stands for Corona Virus Disease 2019 — has been far from harmless.

Many in the national press have in effect not only ignited panic but also fanned the flames. Instead of conveying the facts while maintaining a soothing, calming, reassuring presence, they have stirred up the public in ways all out of proportion to the circumstances.

Is COVID-19 serious? Of course. Is the national press the only guilty party? Of course not.

However, the press has professional responsibility. The press shouldn’t shirk its responsibility by trumpeting its First Amendment rights. This is about not the existence of such rights but the manner of their exercise.

Consider, as just one example, Fox and Friends, a morning network-television-news program on the Fox News Network.

In the wake of COVID-19, gone is the set featuring the beige “curvy couch” — as the hosts call it — with windows and neutral colors in the background. In its place are split screens with a background featuring fire-engine red. On some days, the capitalized word “alert” has continually been on the screen.

Often on screen are the capitalized words “Coronavirus Pandemic” in red and white, with reverse colors, which emphasize it. So is a stock-ticker-like count of the number of infections and deaths. Similar language and counts have been elsewhere in the press.

Good grief.

Where are the corresponding numbers for the flu? Regardless of whether COVID-19 is more serious than the flu in any one case, the flu numbers are higher than COVID-19’s. Yet no one in the national press appears to be providing any continual update on flu numbers.

Enough already. Fox and Friends — and others — need to calm down, please.

The panic that the national press is fomenting in effect disheartens the public. This is evident in stores. Toilet paper and some nonperishable foods, for example, are sometimes hard to buy. And why? There’s no indication that COVID-19 has any gastrointestinal effects or has any effect on the supply of food to stores.

Whether anyone in the national press intends to foment panic is beyond the point. Regardless of intent, this is the effect. In that limited sense, the motives of anyone in the national press are irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the motives are important. The national press owes the public not only an end to panic-fomenting reporting but also an explanation for it.

Although both healthy and unhealthy competition among press organizations drives them to seek more readers, listeners, or viewers, and although competition has grown with the development of the 24-hour news cycle and with social media, those cannot be the only reasons the national press is behaving as it is now.

Why? Because since the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle and of social media, there have been other serious infectious illnesses. Not once has the national press ignited, or fanned the flames of, panic as it has during COVID-19.

While we’re waiting for this explanation — and not holding our breath — one thing we can do with respect to panic-fomenting press is to ignore it.

Randy Elf is a former Post-Journal reporter.

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