As the infectious coronavirus travels the globe, claiming more than 3,000 lives so far, public health professionals have urged people to learn the facts.
Meanwhile, a White House official had a different message for Americans: Stay uninformed.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on Feb. 28, claimed the press was overhyping the virus and blamed that week’s stock markets’ nosedive in part on the coverage, which he said was an attempt to make President Donald Trump look bad.
“What I might do today to calm the markets is tell people to turn off their televisions for 24 hours,” Mulvaney said during remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
His comments came as Americans were becoming increasingly concerned about the coronavirus, which has infected more than 100 people in the United States and killed six, according to The New York Times, which built a database to track U.S. cases. The number of states where the virus has been detected grew to at least 15 by Tuesday, March 3, according to The Times.
News organizations play an essential role during such crises, producing stories, graphics and other researched materials to address questions people might have. Local newspapers and TV stations ran tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for halting the spread of the virus, CNBC was among several news outlets that told travelers how to reduce chances of infection on airplanes, and the Times published a story on how to talk to kids about the virus.
This type of coverage is common during such times, and it helps public health organizations get out accurate information amid a barrage of misinformation and conspiracy theories found on social media, the Internet and network news shows featuring uninformed commentators.
The World Health Organization, in a Q&A on its website, suggests people “Stay aware of the latest information on the COVID-19 outbreak,” referring to the illness caused by the virus.
This is the opposite of Mulvaney’s recommendation.
There were other White House missteps, including one from Trump, who called the coronavirus the Democrats’ “new hoax” during a rally in South Carolina. He attempted to clarify the next day, insisting he was using the term to refer to assertions from Democrats that the administration’s response has been inadequate. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say whether the coronavirus is a hoax when asked directly by U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu during a congressional hearing.
Americans are cynical about the press, with just 41 percent saying in a Gallup poll last year that they trust it — a precipitous drop since the mid-1970s, when news media trust was near 70 percent. Sloppy reporting and some high-profile egregious mistakes and ethical lapses are among the contributors to this perception.
But Americans also need to be able to trust their government. They need to trust that those who run it will give out clear, reliable information, particularly in times of crisis and when seeking guidance on potentially deadly matters.
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists.