By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
At a time of extreme urgency, public trust in all credible sources of information is vital to public safety.
As the global coronavirus death toll rises, it’s clearly time to set aside petty disputes that divide or confuse us. Yet in the United States, we get coronavirus mixed messages from the Trump administration, beginning a few weeks ago when President Trump called the coronavirus threat a hoax by Democrats and the news media.
That appears to be taking a toll on the president’s credibility.
“Americans have little trust in the information they are hearing from President Trump about the novel coronavirus, and their confidence in the federal government’s response to it is declining sharply,” according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.
Just 46 percent of Americans now say the federal government is doing enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, down from 61 percent in February, writes Domenico Montanaro. According the poll, he writes, just 37 percent of Americans now say they had a good amount or a great deal of trust in what they’re hearing from the president, while 60 percent say they had not very much or no trust at all in what he’s saying.
The president rates worst of all groups tested, according to the poll, and that includes public health officials, state and local leaders or the news media. When it comes to the news media, two-thirds of Democrats trust news media information, independents were split and Republicans overwhelmingly said they do not trust media information. Republicans think the coronavirus is blown out of proportion.
Public health officials got the highest level of trust at 84 percent, followed by state and local leaders at 72 percent. Americans were split 50 percent to 47 percent on whether they trust news media information or not.
“Having significant chunks of the country either not believing their president (who controls the fedral government’s response), the press (which is a gate-keeper for information), or both, could be dangerous in a pandemic,” writes Montanaro.
These divisions rooted in political squabbles does nobody any good, and it’s a good time for President Trump to stop demonizing the media because it does not help his reputation as a credible source of information, and tarnishes the nation’s only real reliable network of information. They should work together against the coronavirus scourge.
The president should quit using coronavirus briefings as a platform for attacks on the media, as he did recently, when he said: “It amazes me when I read the things that I read. It amazes me when I read the Wall Street Journal which is always so negative, it amazes me when I read the New York Times, it’s not even – I barely read it. You know, we don’t distribute it in the White House anymore, and the same thing with the Washington Post. Because, you see, I know the truth. And people out there in the world, they really don’t know the truth, really don’t know what it is.”
How do remarks like that fit into a briefing on the coronavirus, an existential threat to people across the world? It’s pandering to his political base, who can’t seem to let go of their political haggling as though that is more important than life itself.
Erik Wemple, the Washington Post media critic, writes: “Nearly five years into Trump’s nonstop attacks on the media, it’s bewildering to consider the proper way to rebut them, or whether to rebut them. They come in torrents, based on thoughtless, factless presidential eructations. They serve their political purpose: Solidifying a population of supporters who believe Trump over the media even when presented with evidence upending their inclinations.” He quotes a Trump supporter who says you have to live in New York to understand what Trump is saying.
This comes at a time when New York State moved to join California in confining nearly all residents to their homes, as reported by the Associated Press. Governors undertook their most sweeping efforts yet to contain the coronavirus and “fend off the kind of onslaught of patients that has caused southern Europe to buckle.”
“We’re going to close the valve, because the rate of increase in the number of cases portends a total overwhelming of our hospital system,” New York Gov Andrew Cuomo said, as cases in the state climbed to more than 7,000 and the death toll reached at least 38.
The World Health Organization took note of the epidemic’s dramatic speed, the Associated Press reported.
“It took over three months to reach the first 10,000 confirmed cases and only 12 days to reach the next 100,000,” the U.N. health agency said. Across the U.S., governors and public health officials watched the European crisis from afar with mounting alarm and warned of critical shortages of ventilators, masks and other protective gear.
Worldwide, the number of infections exceeded 244,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. More than 86,000 people have recovered, mostly in China.
By comparison, the Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 influenza epidemic, infected 500 million people — about a quarter of the world’s population – from January 1918 through December 1920. The death toll is estimated at anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.