Journalists are encountering numerous challenges as they report on the coronavirus outbreak.
One is the president of the United States.
President Donald Trump spent the early days of the virus’ arrival on the homeland denying it would have much impact here. He even predicted the handful of cases at the time soon would be down to zero. Four weeks later, there are more than 41,000 reported infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and more than 500 deaths in the US.
Despite a recent change in his approach, addressing the pandemic with glimpses of sobriety, Trump continues to discuss curtailment of the outbreak with far more optimism than his own experts. And lately he’s sniped at journalists who asked accountability questions.
Now, more than ever during Trump’s presidency, we need straight talk. Journalists are trying to deliver factual information about the virus to worried Americans and dispel misinformation, some of it coming from Trump.
Rather than allowing the words of scientists and medical professionals to stand, Trump insists on delivering his own words, even if they contradict the views of his experts. On Feb. 26, he contradicted a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who had warned a day earlier about the inevitability of the virus spreading throughout the country.
“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Disruption to everyday life might be severe.”
Trump’s contradiction was the only thing clear in his convoluted response:
“Well I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Trump said. “It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level.” He also said, “Now, it may get bigger, it may get a little bigger, it may not get bigger at all.”
His confusing language is the least of the problems. By downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak, he may have convinced scores of Americans it was unnecessary to take precautions that might have slowed the spread of the virus. He apparently hopes his positive, encouraging words will make people feel better, reflect positively on his administration and calm the volatile stock markets. He admitted a piece of this Friday during an exchange with NBC News White House correspondent Peter Alexander.
“What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” Alexander asked the president.
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.”
Then came Trump’s rationale for being perpetually, if not unrealistically, optimistic:
“The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope,” Trump said.
It’s human nature to want only good things to happen. But that’s not how the world works. Sure, reporters should report on the good things happening in communities across this vast, diverse country and the good things the Trump administration has done.
But with a pandemic forcing millions of Americans to make major changes in how they live in hopes of protecting themselves and others, journalists have a responsibility to report reality. It’s not helpful to try to convince people things are OK when they’re not.
Americans deserve answers — honest answers about the availability of testing, the likelihood of finding a quick cure and a realistic assessment of how long we may be fighting the virus. The president has given incorrect or misleading information about each of these.
If, as he says, this crisis has turned him into a wartime president, it’s time for Trump to act like a commander in chief. The nation desperately needs leadership, not rosy depictions that quickly turn out to be shortsighted.
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists.