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Coronavirus and the media: keeping it in check

A hallmark of the past month at home is that, every few days, I sink into an uncontrollable panic, specifically about our fall semester. I’ve developed a ritual where I Google “colleges reopening fall 2020” or “when will social distancing end.” For the first few weeks, this would not help my nerves. It would only make it worse. And little wonder, because the news is really letting me down these days — not because so many bad things are happening, but because many media outlets seem intent on making things even worse than they appear to be. 

For example, news outlets pounced after Boston University announced that they hoped to reopen their campus in the fall, and that only in the “unlikely event” that public health guidelines prevented them from doing so would they consider a January 2021 opening. Most of the headlines I saw, however, did not reflect this; instead, they all made it sound as if B.U. had already made their decision and had become one of the first universities to publicly announce a virtual fall semester. The Boston Herald said, “Coronavirus could keep Boston University campus closed until 2021,” while Times Higher Education said, “Boston University admits classrooms may stay empty in autumn.”

The misrepresentation was so severe that B.U. had to issue an editor’s note to their initial announcement saying that “media reports … are false.”

It was to little avail, because the media reports had already sent many of my friends into an unmitigated fatalistic depression. After one domino, surely others would fall.

It certainly does not help that these same media outlets cite a recent Harvard study in their headlines blaring that COVID-19 will stretch into 2022. With these headlines, these articles falsely imply that social distancing will last in its current form for almost three years. When read more closely, however, it becomes clear that within the Harvard study, this is just one projection of many and is essentially the worst case, wherein we see no improvements in treatment, critical care, and testing.

Further, as explained by FiveThirtyEight, there is no consensus when it comes to modeling, which, at the end of the day, relies on a number of variables with uncertain values and is not a clairvoyant science. Yes, it can be incredibly useful in directing public policy and response, but I think what should become clear after the flood of information we’ve received over the last few weeks is that nobody really knows what’s truly going to happen.  

And we must remember that purportedly objective news is not the only thing adding to this chaos. As a case in point, Princeton released a statement on April 23 regarding its plans for the fall semester. Nothing concrete was said, essentially only that the University was doing its best, but immediately people began to speculate.

On the popular Facebook page Tiger Confessions++, someone posted they “would lose their mind if [Princeton makes] the fall online, like they’re implying in their new announcement.” While I see this perspective, I personally did not come to this conclusion at all after reading the announcement.

As opinions are largely split over the likelihood of a return to campus in the fall, it makes complete sense why we as readers interpret vague announcements in different ways. In one of the most uncertain and terrifying times we’ve ever experienced, people will naturally gravitate towards one another, airing their concerns online and in public as they seek comfort and companionship. Yet, doing so contributes to the sense of confusion and uncertainty all too often.

Posts like the one in Tiger Confessions++ are numerous and far-reaching. They latch onto you, bringing pessimism into your day. The people who post these sentiments are not wrong; it’s not their fault that they are afraid and unsure. But where do these uncertainties come from?

We look to the news to understand what is happening in our world. Many of us trust it. And most of the information being circulated today is, dare I say, factual. However, the headlines, which people are most likely to read before only skimming or skipping the details below, are powerful, and right now, they are not accurate. They shade the truth, coloring scientific studies that are obliged to analyze worst-case scenarios, mishandling official statements from universities, and spreading like wildfire, sowing despair through screenshots and word-of-mouth. Do we really need more despair right now?

The state of our world is not always improving, and sobering news must be reported. But it is absolutely imperative that our current state of affairs is not exaggerated for clicks or sensation. If they continue to be, I urge you to read past these headlines and analyze the content for yourselves. Don’t let your conclusions be made for you.

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As for me, I continue to Google my search terms every few days. But my panic attacks have gone away, for the most part. The news is not always good, but it’s important to read past the headlines, hoping and waiting for a better tomorrow.    

Richard Ma is a sophomore from Kirksville, Mo. He can be reached at richardma@princeton.edu.

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