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  /  Inspiration   /  Who’s Really Responsible for the Coronavirus Fear and Frenzy?
Media Behind the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Fear and Frenzy

Today, I asked myself a question that I’ve never asked.

“Is it too heavy? Is the freezer drawer going to break?”

You see, I am not a “prepper.” I don’t go buy tons of groceries with every new threat. I’m not afraid of germs. (I taught preschool and kindergarten for 11 years — need I say more?)

However, while grocery shopping early this morning, I hit a tipping point. I usually try to arrive at the grocers in the 7:00 a.m. hour. This allows me to have a quiet, peaceful shopping experience and take advantage of all of the sales.

This morning when I arrived, however, the parking lot was already filling with cars. Although our local grocery store clerks were working overtime to keep the shelves stocked, many of our favorite (and not necessarily common items) were out of stock.

By the time I finished my rounds and went to get in line, there were people stretched as far as my eye could see. This was at 8:15 a.m. The lines were packed, and people were stocking up on everything from canned goods to toilet paper. I was astonished . . . and completely annoyed. My usual peaceful shopping trip suddenly looked like a last-minute holiday race around the supermarket.

A stark reality hit me. I live in a rural town in Southwest Colorado. This means that if our grocery stores run out of food or household supplies, it could take twice as long to restock. (Sorry, Durango. We’re really just not that important in the grand scheme of things.)

I am proud to say that I did not over-prepare. However, I did find myself going against my principles by buying a few non-perishable and freezable items that weren’t on sale. My logic was simply that, if our stores run out of food, it could be a while before I can get these items again. Since my family has a plethora of food allergies and special dietary needs, I didn’t want to be caught off guard.

At any rate, all of this got me thinking. Why is everyone so terrified? Why is the world suddenly turning upside down?

It all came down to one word: media. Now, I don’t have television service, and I only monitor news updates from a distance.

Yet, even for a seasoned news-avoider like myself, COVID-19 has been impossible to ignore. Since December, the virus has been the headline story nearly every day on nearly every news media outlet.

This started me thinking about responsible journalism. What is responsible journalism, anyway? At its core, isn’t responsible journalism not only about how to report something but also what to report and when? Why has the media latched on so tightly to this issue, and why have they refused to let go?

A little perspective.

Please note that I am not, in any way, trying to make light of the fatalities experienced across the world. My heart is deeply saddened for those who have lost loved ones to death, disease, illness, and other circumstances. I’m merely using these numbers to illustrate the media’s intense focus on this one issue.

According to the CDC, the Ebola epidemic had 28,652 cases, 15,261 laboratory-confirmed cases, and 11,325 deaths globally. While this was a hot topic in the news, it was certainly not a global headline story every day for two years. If we calculate the average number of fatalities compared to the 730 days it was considered an epidemic, it equates to 15 fatalities per day for two years.

The CDC also tells us that the preliminary estimates for the 2017-2018 flu season show that there were approximately 45,000,000 symptomatic illnesses, 810,000 hospitalizations, and 61,000 deaths in the United States. If cold and flu season lasted for, say, 6 months, it averages out to 338 deaths per day in the U.S. alone. How many American news stories did you read about the flu in 2017-2018?

According to the National Safety Council, 38,800 people died in car accidents in 2019. This averages out to 106 deaths per day for an entire year. Yet, I am sure that vehicular fatalities were not the headline story of national news 106 times per day for an entire year. Had this been the case, I think we would have fewer drivers on the road in 2020. The sheer volume of national headlines would have terrified most drivers.

Fast-forward to today. According to the World Health Organization’s Situation Report on March 12, 2020, there are currently 125,048 confirmed coronavirus cases and 4,613 deaths globally. In the past approximately 82 days since the virus broke out, this averages out to 56 deaths per day around the world. In the United States, we have had 40 deaths due to the virus (according to ABC News). This equals less than one per day.

I’m not trying to make light of the illness, and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take it seriously. It is spreading quickly, and we all need to do our part. It’s important to wash our hands, stay home when we are sick, and take extra care of those with fragile health during this time. I completely agree with all of those things.

However, statistically speaking, it seems like the media has allowed this situation to be blown entirely out of proportion. The media hasn’t covered other illnesses and fatalities to the extent that it has covered coronavirus. People aren’t used to seeing so many headlines on one topic (except maybe elections), and the intense focus on COVID-19 is creating a state of panic.

Based solely on news reports, you would think that this virus had taken the lives of more people than the flu or vehicle accidents. In fact, it has been responsible for only a fraction of the number of deaths.

The power of information.

I recently heard a true story about an elderly woman whose family found out that she had terminal cancer and was only given six months to live. The family feared this would crush her spirit, so they decided not to tell her. Three years later, she is still alive. This is such a powerful reminder about the power that news and information can have over our lives.

When will news media outlets start to realize the tremendous power that they wield over people’s lives? When will they look at the impact that their stories are having on the public?

At what point will they say, “This topic is scaring people enough. We won’t let it die, but let’s move it to the back-burner for a while. There are, after all, other things happening in the world.”

At the end of the day, we know that it’s all about money. The more drama and hype that the media can create, the more people will tune in to their channels. If more people tune in, they can charge more for their commercials. They win. We don’t.

Perhaps, as everyone is looking to the government for answers, it’s time to look at the ones who have created the fear and frenzy that are spurring this pandemic. After all, if someone can sue McDonalds because their coffee is too hot, maybe it’s time for someone to sue news media outlets for “emotional damages.”

I’ve been hearing stories of the elderly who are sitting at home, watching the news, and literally, freaking out. They are terrified of the virus and the fact that the stock market has taken such a hit (which greatly affects their retirement savings).

My heart aches for these poor people. This virus, while serious, has been turned into an enemy that has brought our economy to a halt, virtually overnight.

Holding the media accountable.

Maybe it’s time to start holding the media responsible for what they report. Maybe it’s time for them to move on and talk about other things and let us return to our daily lives. Unfortunately, that will never happen. There’s just too much money on the table. But, that doesn’t mean we are powerless.

Here’s a novel idea: maybe it’s time for us to turn off the news. Walk away. Go outside and play hide n’ seek with your kids. Sit down and jam some tunes on your old guitar. Read a book. Buy that kayak you’ve been dreaming about and learn to use it.

Sometimes, ratings are the only language that massive news media outlets understand. By simply turning off the news and refusing to listen to the hype, you can affect what stories the media chooses to tell.

This is what I plan to do, and I hope you will join me. It’s time to limit the media’s influence on our lives and take control of what information we are willing to hear. If ever there was a wakeup call, it’s now.

In the meantime, my freezer drawer will remain heavy for the next few weeks. Maybe it will save me a trip or two to the grocery store.


Laura Christine Ritz is The Durango Wordsmith. As Durango’s premier content writer, editor, and writing coach, she can help you write words that attract customers and grow your business.