As the world faces another COVID variant, the Washington Post’s headline is, “Omicron Mutations Alarm Scientists, but New Variant First Must Prove It Can Outcompete Delta.”  What follows is a ping pong game between staid scientists repeating that they don’t know enough about the variant to make a proper prediction and hyperbolic conjecture that this is the one that ends us all.
Coronavirus is a serious and potentially deadly disease. While vaccine hesitancy seems to have abated somewhat, there are still millions more concerned about the cure than the disease. These are established realities, and ones that are not helped by sensational headlines more akin to click-bait than serious journalism.
Observers could almost sense the giddiness of the media at the potential of a new COVID variant; it was like Christmas came early. Suddenly, there was something to fill the hours of empty space that looms at the start of each 24-hour news cycle. Plus, Omicron sounds so much sexier than Delta. So Americans are fed headlines worded more like a Bachelor Show update speculating if Caitlyn or Lyra can outmaneuver the other to earn a rose from Bryce.
This phenomenon is not limited to left leaning media. Fox News has been alight in lead stories ranging from the flippant “Here We Go Again” to the messianic “Doctor explains how omicron variant could speed up end of COVID pandemic” to discussions on Fox & Friends that suggest variants are nothing more than a Democratic hoax. If the left side of the media is salivating at the thought of filling hours with end time predictions, the right is letting loose with conspiracies and dismissals.
Not all of the blame for this can be laid solely at the feet of the media; they are competing for attention in an ever-increasingly crowded space. YouTube videos are easy to digest and memes shared on social media put the communicability of COVID to shame. Fast food news masking its dubious quality with bright colors, fatty fanaticism, and salty retorts is everywhere. So the legitimate news has become like a salad from McDonald’s drowning in Ranch dressing. Sure there are vegetables in there, but that’s not what they’re selling because what readers really want is that side of fries.
While some may scoff at the claim that people have “done their own research,” what is the alternative? Without the benefit of years of experience or training, the public must navigate the fire swamp of news never knowing if their next step is safe or will explode under their foot. Mix into this quagmire fear and mistrust and it is unclear if there is any hope of finding a path out of ignorance and into understanding.
The fact that people are confused by this new variant and what it is going to mean for our seemingly never-ending pandemic life is not helped by media outlets trying to out-clickbait modern day yellow journalists. While “we don’t know what this means” may not make good copy, it is in fact where we are right now. To state otherwise is pure conjecture.
Ideally, the media, and anyone sharing information would do so in a manner that is helpful to the general public and not just to their bottom line. However, knowing that the media is a for-profit endeavor, money must be made. Nonetheless, perhaps they could try to hide their glee at the prospect of a potential new variant and the probability that they will be able to fill hours of tv and many column inches of space exploring this possibility.