Good evening to you! It’s a pleasure to join you to discuss the news media’s performance during this year’s COVID-19 pandemic.
As you heard, I am a senior advisor to the International Media Association for Peace or IMAP.
This new project of the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) was launched this February at a large, global peace and education summit in South Korea. The Washington Times (of the United States), Segye Ilbo of South Korea and Sekai Nippo of Japan were the three media co-sponsors.
The global summit was led by Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, who founded UPF with her late husband, Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon. Part of the summit was to celebrate his long life on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
IMAP is being launched, at Mrs. Moon’s behest, on the deep and strong foundation of the World Media Association, which some of you may remember. The World Media Association was renown for its large, international conferences on topics such as media ethics, media’s mission and media best practices. And, to assist journalists in their craft, the World Media Association held many fact-finding tours all over the world to provide journalists with opportunities to personally meet and interview important leaders in their countries and learn firsthand what was going on — and especially in trouble spots.
IMAP’s mission is to provide leadership and networking opportunities to media practitioners around the world and address the current crises in media leadership, media credibility, media standards and ethics, and the seemingly never-ending industry upheavals and innovations.
IMAP will encourage development of a responsible global media industry that is highly trusted, independent and prosperous, and accessible to all people. And, as the “peace” in IMAP's name suggests, there is also a strong desire to assist news media to shine a light on dialogue, collaboration and conflict resolution as way to promote human development, human rights, social well-being, freedom and happiness.
In my last few minutes, I would like to offer a few thoughts on media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, using the four core missions of the media as my markers.
First, news media is supposed to gather eyewitness information. In any other crisis, reporters would be swarming the bombing site or the towns hit by a hurricane to get firsthand stories from victims and follow leaders around to hear what they are hearing from experts on the ground. With COVID-19, human relationships were virtually shut down. How many reporters could get into hospitals or nursing homes or even families’ homes to see and hear what was going on? Any news-gathering happened at arm’s length.
Also, tell me if this is true in your news organization – didn’t COVID-19 atomize your newsroom? How many of you had in-person collaborative strategy meetings on how to cover this massive, unprecedented pandemic? Or was everyone trying to coordinate on cell phones and email? It’s no wonder wires got crossed on how best to tackle this monster of a story.
Second, the media is supposed to vet or verify information to make sure their news articles and broadcasts present the fullest, most accurate truth possible. Again, in a world where everyone is supposed to stay home, media had to fight to identify and then connect with desired experts and get live interviews, live videos and photos that were independent of what the government was saying.
And when it came to finding reliable sources, how many reporters and editors have covered a pandemic before? Or know medical issues well enough to know what questions to ask — and what information to push back on?
When U.S. public health officials said “between 1 million and 2 million Americans could die” in the next three months, without mitigation, who knew how to push back on that jaw-dropping prediction?
I will say I never believed that number, and I have yet to meet anyone else who did. And yet, that prediction of 2 million deaths was a big part of why we shut down the United States.
So vetting information was often quite difficult and led to confusion.
And speaking of confusion, the media is supposed to “make sense” of complex streams of information. With COVID-19, the virus may not have mutated, but the experts’ advice sure did.
First, they said the virus is NOT transmissible among humans. Then they said, wait, yes, it is transmissible.
Then they said COVID-19 causes mild illness, like a cold, in people. And then, it’s no, no, COVID-19 is deadly and can kill even healthy people in a week.
And about surface transmission – first, COVID-19 is not transmissible on all those Amazon delivery cardboard boxes.
And then, it’s whoa -- COVID-19 lasts 24 hours on cardboard, so don’t touch that package!
And now, as of June 2, the U.S. CDC says it is “unlikely to spread by domestic or international packaging.”
How on earth can any media keep their stories straight and accurate when experts are jumping around and changing their tunes almost every week?
Finally, a hallmark of media is its brilliant investigative reporting, but with COVID-19, I’m not sure any of us acquitted ourselves very well on this.
Even the experts the media depended on didn’t understand the virus for a long time – they thought it was like other respiratory infections.
The truth is that this virus attacks people’s blood vessels and causes deadly blood clots. So while reporters were clamoring about the lack of respirators, they didn’t learn until much later that they were chasing the wrong problem — they should have been asking about anti-coagulants and blood plasma injections with COVID antibodies!
Pathologists were seeing blood problems by early March, and good reporting could have brought that to light sooner.
I pray investigative reporting now will focus like a laser on COVID cures, as well as prevention technologies.
So, I hope I have set the table for a lively evening, and I am glad to turn it back to Mr. Zoeher for our next speaker!
Author: Cheryl Wetzstein
Senior Advisor, International Media Association for Peace (IMAP); former Washington Times National Reporter
Cheryl Wetzstein is an award-winning journalist with 40 years’ experience, beginning as a metro reporter in New York City and then 33 years at The Washington Times. Her newsroom positions included feature writer, assistant business editor, biweekly columnist and national reporter in Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, and state legislatures. Later, on the Times’ business side, she developed award-winning special sections, plus multiple sections around faith. She is currently Senior Advisor to the International Media Association for Peace.