Journalists spread misinformation that made coronavirus crisis worse

CTV’s own “science and technology expert,” the aptly-named Dan Riskin, seemed to discourage people from avoiding international travel, claiming that “planes are a really good environment for not spreading disease.”

Anna Slatz Montreal QC

Yesterday, CTV tweeted out a post with a series of “thank yous” directed at the workers who have continued to bravely sacrifice their health and labor on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.

The tweet didn’t sit well with me.

At first, I didn’t know why. And it wasn’t until hours later, when I was tucking myself into bed that the realization came bearing down upon me like a ton of bricks.

“Thank you journalists.”

Sneaking in a pat on the pack, CTV extended thanks to journalists on the same level they did nurses, doctors, grocers, mail workers, and pharmacists—labourers who are either literally saving lives, or ensuring the world continues to function with some degree of normalcy at great risk to their own health.

Beyond being a cringey display of self-congratulations, CTV was demonstrating either innocent or purposeful ignorance of the role journalists and the greater media corpus has played in the COVID-19 pandemic.

I want to first define “contributing to the crisis” so that there is no misunderstanding. Am I accusing journalists of personally releasing the nCOV-2019 strain upon the world? Of course not. But just as coronavirus flourishes in filth and congestion, it also flourishes in editorial environments which discourage premature caution, misdirect attention from the important issues, and spread misinformation.

By this definition, CTV and its journalists are far from deserving of any thanks.

On January 27, CTV’s own “science and technology expert,” the aptly-named Dan Riskin, seemed to discourage people from avoiding international travel, claiming that “planes are a really good environment for not spreading disease.”

In that same interview, Riskin seemed perplexed and dismissive of China’s reports that asymptomatic carriers—that is, people with COVID-19 who are not displaying any symptoms—could transmit the disease to any other people.

Riskin is not an epidemiologist. He is a zoologist. While that is a very respectable field, I doubt zooloists recieve much training in viral pandemics, and the sweeping assertions he was confidently making in the interview were irresponsible and stupid.

This is not the only example of CTV partaking in the three sins of crisis contribution I outlined above. It published multiple articles discouraging people from wearing masks with little input from those who encouraged the practice, potentially turning even more people away from taking preliminary precautions against the virus that may have protected them.

And then there was the misdirection. Turning attention away from the virus and onto those items which should have never been given oxygen.

CTV fired its award-winning investigative journalist Paul Akman for making a joke about coronavirus on January 30. This was around the same time it amplified Theresa Tam’s crusade against “stigmatization.” While racism is unacceptable in any civilized society, CTV’s article downplayed any threat of COVID-19 in Canada, and uncritically repeated the claim that there was “no evidence the virus can be spread human-to-human in situations that do not involve close contact.”

Something to make clear is that CTV is not alone in their irresponsibility. They were simply producing content and acting in a way that reflected the wider media attitude towards the virus.

On March 24, Vox had to announce it was deleting a tweet and article which declared that coronavirus was not “going to be a deadly pandemic.” They did not apologize for the tweet or article, just explained they were going to be deleting it as it was no longer reflective of the current global pandemic.

Twitter users were quick to point out it was only one of several stories they had published which massively underplayed the threat of the virus or misdirected concerns about it onto racism or stigma.

Global News was publishing listicles on “5 things more likely to kill you than coronavirus,” and MarketWatch and CNBC were shrugging off social panic and government action as unnecessary overreactions.

Imagine all of the things that could have been said but weren’t because of political correctness or journalistic smugness. Reading all of these articles now is like stumbling upon a cobwebbed tomb while scavenging for food during a dystopian apocalypse.

While the natural counter argument would be to say “hindsight is 20/20,” the point I am trying to make is that these outlets were never interested in a semblance of truth. They were amplifiers for official narratives—official narratives we now know were incorrect, and put millions at risk. They never asked questions of the officials telling us to not wear face masks, or assuring us that canceling flights from Wuhan were unnecessary. A cursory “are you sure?” was the furthest thing from their mind.

Once the previous official narrative they parroted became obsolete, they moved on to amplifying the next one. And the next one. And the next one. At no point did any of them stop and question why so many of the things they had said had been wrong, and whether the new information they were broadcasting was now correct.

To “thank a journalist” in the context of the COVID-19 situation would be to thank the government for inaction. It would be to express thankfulness for the lockdowns and quarantines we now have to endure. It would be to beam and say “thank you!” to your boss once he’s let you go because his business is shuttering.

I will reserve my thanks for those who deserve it.


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