By:
August 2, 2021

Everyone, let’s just take a moment.

Stop. Take a deep breath. And let’s really try to figure out what’s going on.

Last week shook our country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told those of us in COVID-19 hot spots to start wearing masks indoors again, even if we have been vaccinated. That recommendation goes for most of the country.

We hear a new frightening phrase: delta variant. Then we see scary numbers again — the number of new COVID-19 cases, people being hospitalized, people dying, breakthrough cases of those testing positive for the coronavirus after having been vaccinated.

Just when you thought we had turned the corner and we all came out of our cocoons ready to return to something close to normalcy, we see these numbers and hear these warnings, and you assume that we’re going backward.

But these horror stories and numbers are often presented without context, without nuance, without all the facts. The media, perhaps even unintentionally, often isn’t telling the full story in the fight against COVID-19, and this is leading to confusion and panic.

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” anchor Brian Stelter said, “The problem starts with the CDC and its absolute failure to communicate clearly and effectively. Sloppy news coverage makes a bad situation worse.”

The coverage has been sloppy. We’ve seen news organizations play up the number of new cases. We’ve seen news outlets suggest that vaccinated people can transmit the virus as easily as unvaccinated people. We saw several media outlets cover a story in Barnstable County, Massachusetts — where Cape Cod is — that showed a high percentage of positive COVID-19 cases were people who had been vaccinated.

But again, context is needed.

For example, that county in Massachusetts with the high percentage of breakthrough cases? Not one death among the vaccinated, and less than a handful of hospitalizations. And the reports that vaccinated people transmit the virus as easily as unvaccinated people is misleading because vaccinated people are far less likely to get COVID-19 to begin with.

The New York Times tweeted that an internal CDC report claimed, “The Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated.” But Ben Wakana of the White House COVID-19 response team retweeted, “VACCINATED PEOPLE DO NOT TRANSMIT THE VIRUS AT THE SAME RATE AS UNVACCINATED PEOPLE AND IF YOU FAIL TO INCLUDE THAT CONTEXT YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.”

(The Times followed up with a more clear tweet.)

The bottom line, based on the numbers, is the vaccines are working. That doesn’t mean vaccinated people still can’t get COVID-19. No one ever claimed the vaccines made you 100% immune — and perhaps health officials and the media should have emphasized that when vaccines were rolled out. But the numbers show that severe illness and hospitalization are extremely rare among the vaccinated.

So what should the media be concerned about when it comes to COVID-19? Stelter suggests it should be hospitalizations and not cases. Then again, hospitalizations alone do not tell the story either because hospitalizations are mostly made up of unvaccinated patients. Again, that’s the context that needs to be added to tell the full story.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that the Biden administration is reaching out to news organizations to make sure to include context in their reporting about COVID-19.

One Biden official told Darcy, “The media’s coverage doesn’t match the moment. It has been hyperbolic and frankly irresponsible in a way that hardens vaccine hesitancy. The biggest problem we have is unvaccinated people getting and spreading the virus.”

Want an example of how it’s done? Check out this clip from CNN’s Jake Tapper, who used facts and numbers to say, “Less than .001% of those fully vaccinated have experienced a fatal breakthrough case. Less than .004% of those fully vaccinated had to be hospitalized. In other words, the vaccines work. The vaccines remain the best way to protect yourselves from this virus. Period. Full stop.”

That needs to continue to be the overriding theme at this point because that’s what the numbers say. Those are the facts. Let’s stick to those.

Not just the media

President Joe Biden last Thursday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Let’s not just blame the media for the confusion about COVID-19.

Axios’ Mike Allen and Caitlin Owens write, “The Biden administration’s handling of the Delta surge has left Americans confused and frustrated, fueling media overreaction and political manipulation. … The past year and a half have left Americans cynical about the government’s COVID response, and — in many cases — misinformed or uninformed. We’re getting fog and reversals when steady, clear-eyed, factual information is needed more than ever.”

Allen then gets to the heart of the matter by writing, “Administration officials are awkwardly dancing around the fact that they’ve run out of politically palatable ways to try to convince people to get their shot. … Delta is getting out of control, and becoming angry or coercive with the unvaccinated could go badly.”

Best advice

The smartest comments I heard over the weekend about COVID-19 came from Dr. Celine Gounder on “Reliable Sources.” Gounder, an infectious disease physician, is host of the podcast “Epidemic.” Asked what we can expect moving forward, Gounder said COVID-19 will be something we vaccinate against along with all the other diseases.

“I really do think that we need to steel ourselves for the idea that we’re not post-pandemic,” Gounder said. “I’ve heard many people in the media say to me over the course of the summer, ‘Oh, COVID is over.’ I’ve even heard some public health officials … who are declaring ‘mission accomplished’ much too soon. This is going to be with us for a long time, really indefinitely and we have to learn to live with it. And vaccines are how we learn to live with it.”

COVID-19 stories

Some COVID-19 coverage of note in recent days:

One more story …

What a chilling headline on this story from The Washington Post’s Hannah Knowles: “‘I should have gotten the damn vaccine,’ woman says fiance texted before he died of COVID-19.”

Micheal Freedy’s fiance said Freedy was not an anti-vaxxer, but wanted to wait a year to see how the vaccine affected those who got it. Freedy’s fiance, Jessica DuPreez, has given several interviews since Freedy died of COVID-19. Freedy left behind five children.

She told CNN, “My kids don’t have a dad anymore because we hesitated. … I would take a bad reaction to the vaccine over having to bury my husband. I would take that any day.”

Mayer’s latest investigation

Jane Mayer’s latest piece for The New Yorker, out just this morning, is an eye-opener and looks at who is funding the election-fraud myth. As The New Yorker describes it, “Mayer investigates the network of well-funded conservative groups and dark-money organizations that have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.”

Mayer writes, “Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives.”

One such leader is the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. According to Mayer, it has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislators on ways to impose new voting restrictions. Mayer reports that the Heritage Foundation plans to spend $24 million over the next two years in an effort to promote what they call “election integrity.”

Important work on a troubling story by Mayer.

A pay-per-view Super Bowl?

Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Tom Brady in last season’s Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File)

How much would you pay to watch the Super Bowl on TV? You might find out someday. Former ESPN president John Skipper, who is now working with former ESPNer Dan Le Batard at Meadowlark Media, thinks we’re headed to a day when the Super Bowl will be a pay-per-view event.

During an appearance on Le Batard’s podcast, Skipper was talking in generalities and brought up the possibility of the Super Bowl being on pay-for-view.

“I mean that’s how they’re going to replace the money someday,” Skipper said. “Because there’s not gonna be enough money in the advertising.”

As Skipper noted, if sports fans are willing to pay money to watch a boxing match, they certainly would pay money to watch America’s premier sporting event. Skipper also said viewers might have the option to pay for a lifetime subscription to the Super Bowl.

Again, Skipper was more spitballing than anything, but this isn’t outlandish. We already pay for things we really want to watch — movies, TV shows and other sporting events, such as MMA fights and professional wrestling specials. Maybe a Super Bowl PPV won’t happen anytime soon, but is anyone willing to bet it will never happen?

Media tidbits

  • Regular network TV ratings for the Olympics might be down, but NBC is doing a sensational job covering the Tokyo Games. Among the best coverage is swimming, led by play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks and, especially, commentator Rowdy Gaines — whose excitement builds and celebrates the drama, increases interest and is simply infectious. His style has made the already intense and competitive swimming competition all the more enjoyable.
  • Fans of LeVar Burton are excited about the job he did as “Jeopardy” guest host, but I still think the best job has been done by Ken Jennings, and he remains my leader in the clubhouse as the next permanent host. CNBC’s David Faber is up next as guest host, followed by Fox Sports’ Joe Buck.
  • Stunning: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-C.A.), who was shot during the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, compares cult leader Jim Jones to former President Donald Trump in a CNN interview.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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