With Coronavirus Comes A Shot At Media Redemption

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If any good is to come of the coronavirus outbreak, and just now it is hard to see even a glimmer of good, we might consider this: The media will have a shot at redemption.

Japan is closing its schools. Saudi Arabia has put Umrah on hold. Cruise ships are dead in the water. And yes, the international movie box-office is on or over the brink. (Never mind the Olympics, Comic-Con and air travel almost anywhere.)

Up in Davis on Thursday, medical personnel were tending to a Covid-19 patient who, ominously, had not been abroad. Then again, said patient was from Solano County, where coronavirus evacuees have been quarantined, so the new case might not signal runaway domestic infection just yet.

Here in Santa Monica, things were surprisingly calm at the UCLA Medical Center, where this reporter was checking on the progress of a stupidly broken ankle (slip and fall in a slimy street gutter, don’t ask). Only one guy in the orthopedic clinic was wearing a face mask. The doctor even shook hands, though I’m pretty sure he dutifully scrubbed before moving on.

Things might look different in another week or two, if confirmed cases start exploding like popcorn and a significant number of patients don’t survive. But for now we’re dealing with not just epidemiology, but with a mass communications problem. For news and social media, the obvious mission is to inform, instruct and caution, with an eye toward limiting damage and getting this disease behind us all.

Unfortunately, there is little in the recent past to suggest that our growing army of professional and amateur communicators is up to the task. As the virus was erupting in China’s Wuhan province in late December and early January, our cable channels were screaming, pro and con, about an impeachment conviction that was never going to happen. As Covid-19 drew closer, social media crawled with conspiracy theories (including some about HIV hybrids), while some of our best news organizations—though certainly not ignoring the  epidemic—still had their heaviest hitters trying to decide whether Vladimir Putin was working for Trump, Sanders, both, or neither in next November’s election. And as the disease hit our doorstep this week, it was sucked into the prevailing hysteria—Too Late! Not Enough!! No Hope!!!—before most of us could figure out how best to behave if we indeed caught the bug.

There’s the rub. Coronavirus is a real problem in the real world. It is large, though perhaps not Apocalyptic. Almost certainly, it can’t be solved by Twitter, or Reddit, or cable news chyrons, or snarky bits on SNL.

Solutions demand clear thinking, calm and a certain amount of cheer—all of which were available at UCLA Medical on Thursday morning.

They also demand good information, untainted by hysterics and political agenda. If the media can deliver that, well, some good will have come of this thing after all.

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