- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Concerns about the coronavirus pandemic are both warranted and understandable, but the media is increasingly coming under fire for stoking a panic mentality that experts decry as both counter-productive and unsupported by the facts.

In addition to the stock market’s daily roller coaster ride, grocery stores and warehouse clubs in some areas have been picked clean of essentials such as toilet paper, paper towels and sanitizing wipes (or have rationed sales to prevent that) as coronavirus coverage dominates social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

The message from public health and infectious disease experts: It’s important to take the coronavirus threat seriously, but it’s also critical not to overreact.

“There’s been a mad rush to go out and purchase all these items in anticipation of the next apocalypse. That’s not what we’re dealing with,” said Dr. Robert Quigley, regional medical director of International SOS. “We’re dealing clearly with a pandemic for all intents and purposes, but the vast majority of us who are going to contract the disease are not going to be significantly impacted.”

University of California, Irvine associate professor E. Alison Holman, who has published research on media exposure to mass-trauma events, said the toilet paper scare appeared to have originated with articles about stocking up before the virus’ spread.

“A week ago, there were a handful of articles in major newspapers saying, here’s what you should do to prepare for the coronavirus. And one of the top things that was listed on at least two or three websites — major media outlets — was: Buy toilet paper,” Ms. Holman said. “I think some of the freak-out about getting toilet paper has to do with that.”

She described the media-fueled worry as “a little overblown,” while others have gone so far as to accuse the press of sensationalizing the virus to juice ratings.

Celebrity internist Dr. Drew Pinsky said Tuesday that media outlets “really somehow need to be held accountable because they are hurting people.”

“I think it was a concerted effort by the press to capture your eyes, and in doing so they did it by inducing panic,” said Dr. Pinsky, who operates a private practice in Pasadena, California, in an interview with DJ Sixsmith on CBS Los Angeles.

He pointed to coverage of the World Health Organization’s estimate of a 3.4% fatality rate, far higher than the 0.1% death rate associated with the flu, which stoked alarm even though WHO officials emphasized that the figure was expected to drop as more cases were reported.

“Every publication from the WHO says 3.4% and we expect it to fall dramatically once we understand the full extent of the illness,” said Dr. Pinsky. “No one ever reports the actual statement.”

Even without the media hype, epidemics by their very nature can easily generate public panic.

“People aren’t sure exactly what’s going on and how and where it’s going to hit. And it’s also invisible,” Ms. Holman said. “That’s the other thing. It’s an invisible threat. It’s not something you can actually see and figure out how to get away from, and so the ambiguity and invisibility of this threat are making it more anxiety-producing.”

Then there’s the political angle. Democrats have slammed the Trump administration’s response to the public health emergency, while President Trump has accused Democrats of “politicizing the coronavirus” in an attempt to weaken his reelection bid.

“Someone needs to tell the Democrats in Congress that CoronaVirus doesn’t care what party you are in. We need to protect ALL Americans,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Wednesday.

The White House lashed out at a Vanity Fair magazine report Monday that Mr. Trump was in “total meltdown” over the coronavirus, citing several unnamed former administration officials, an article blasted by press secretary Stephanie Grisham as “100% fake news.”

The conservative Media Research Center said Wednesday that The Washington Post had 49 separate articles on its homepage on the coronavirus on a variety of virus issues including canceled sporting events, dating protocol, even before WHO made its pandemic announcement.

“Cynics will inevitably suspect the virus overkill is just partisan Posties piling on bad news to hurt Trump’s reelection prospects,” said MRC’s Matt Philbin. “And, as stated above, clicks are king in the news biz and nothing drives traffic like a good crisis.”

Certainly there’s plenty of news to report as schools shutter, the stock market rises and falls, and state and local governments declare emergencies. One byproduct is that every American is doubtless aware of the oft-repeated advice to wash their hands regularly for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water.

“We do have a lot of control here on the way we react, and to the credit of the American people, we are reacting,” former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said on Fox News. “While it’s difficult to hear about the COVID-19 all day long, it is getting the message across.”

On the minus side, the alarming tone and non-stop nature of the coverage is producing overreactions like stockpiling toilet paper, raising concerns that hospitals, nursing homes and other front-line facilities will be caught short.

“There are things the media can do that sensationalize, and also the repetitive over and over and over — you show the same stuff over and over, say the same things over and over — sometimes that actually will breed anxiety and worry in the population,” Ms. Holman said.

Even worse is social media, where hype, misinformation and outright falsehoods about the disease have gone viral, including posts about “cures” such as drinking bleach and snorting cocaine, both of which are false.

Dr. Quigley said he’s been asked if a hot shower can reverse a case of the coronavirus — it can’t — and called social media “a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s a great way to disseminate information in real time, but boy, the information that is disseminated is not filtered, and it does put people in a panic mode,” he said. “So social media, which is now much more prevalent than it was 10 years ago, is probably not helping us.”

For those seeking to bypass the media intermediaries, experts agree that the most accurate sources are the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“My recommendation to people is pay attention to the World Health Organization and CDC,” Ms. Holman said. “Those are the people you need to see who are managing this and really know.”

⦁ Jessica Chasmar contributed to this report.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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