A coronavirus pandemic would test the resilience of a number of institutions: hospitals, transit systems, global supply chains. We can add the mainstream media to that list. Objective news reporting is built on two bedrock principles: report the truth, and don’t pick sides. Trump’s unprecedented commitment to saying what is plainly untrue makes it hard to honor both principles at once. This puts news organizations into a terrible bind, especially when many conservatives—and the president himself—are ready to pounce at even the slightest whiff of liberal bias. That has always been true, but the stakes are suddenly higher. The coronavirus response is the first time Trump has been personally in charge of managing a crisis that is likely to cause a large number of American deaths. There’s no way around the fact that this is a political story as well as a public health one. If the mainstream press is ever going to figure out how to provide responsible reporting on Trump’s job performance, now's the time.
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The first pitfall to avoid is stenography: uncritically relaying what the president said without giving readers the relevant context. As the media blogger Dan Froomkin wrote over the weekend, an egregious example came after Trump blamed the shortage of tests on a rule adopted by the Obama administration that Trump has since overturned. You’ll be shocked to learn that there was no such rule. That didn’t stop headlines like “Criticized for Coronavirus Response, Trump Points to Obama Administration” (NYT) and “Trump Blames Obama Decision for Coronavirus Test Kit Shortage” (Bloomberg). Each story took several paragraphs to push back on Trump’s claim, and then only mildly. (“Experts on lab testing said they were unaware of any Obama-era rule that would have hindered the administration from authorizing lab-developed tests for the coronavirus in an emergency,” murmured the Bloomberg piece, nearly 500 words in.) Froomkin recommends pulling political reporters off the coronavirus story altogether, since they are the ones most trained to not pick sides.
But the problem won’t be solved just by quarantining political reporters. Even when a New York Times health reporter followed up on Trump’s claim about tests, it was framed as a conflict between the president and his advisers, rather than between truth and falsehood. It took until more than halfway through the health reporter’s story to learn that there may not be enough tests available—and even then it was depicted in terms of he-said, she-said: “Doctors and patients across the nation have painted a much different picture of availability, clamoring for tests they believe are in short supply.”