Omicron news coverage is in overdrive, but there’s still so much we don’t know

Omicron news coverage is in overdrive, but there’s still so much we don’t know

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Friday’s satirical headline by The Onion said it best: “Nation Nearly Strings Together 3 Good Days In Row.”

The blessing of Thanksgiving on Thursday was followed by a curse on Friday: Urgent news about the new Covid variant named Omicron. The reality is that “we know almost nothing about the Omicron variant,” as this headline on The Atlantic’s website helpfully states. But the abrupt reactions to the news — stock selloffs, travel restrictions, endless Twitter threads — made Omicron the top story of the weekend across all sorts of news websites and networks.

Now the world is in a sort of information holding pattern, as reflected by this banner on CNN Sunday afternoon: “QUESTIONS & CONCERNS BUT STILL SPARSE DATA ON NEW COVID VARIANT.” Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci put it this way: “South Africa has gifted us an early warning with Omicron. But earlier the warning, the less we know.”

Author and podcaster Derek Thompson, one of the smartest voices out there about the media and society, said Sunday that “the gap between information and meaning at this moment in the Omicron story is immense. It’s deeply impressive but also discombobulating to have access to so much genetic and virological data with the big-picture takeaway being ‘we don’t really know what any of this means yet.'” He added, “there’s something uncanny about these sort of news purgatories where information is abundant but meaning is scarce, and the only reasonable thing is to *not* draw conclusions from an abundance of factoids.”

True — but that’s hard to do when the information sounds alarming and is repeated ad nauseam all across the media.

A two-week wait

“Wait two weeks” seems to be the consensus at the moment. Dr. Paul Burton, the chief medical officer for Moderna, told CNN’s Paula Reid on Sunday, “We have to go through a couple of weeks here of uncertainty.” The White House’s readout of President Biden’s meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci and members of his Covid Response Team made the same point: “Dr. Fauci informed the President that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid.” So in the meantime, get boosted if you haven’t already. “There’s no reason to panic, but it’s a great reason to get boosted,” NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins told Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

The Biden administration is in “a messaging bind”

On Sunday Dan Diamond of the Washington Post observed that “in interviews, officials keep admitting that Omicron (and the current lack of data) presents a messaging bind.” No one wants to sound an alarm unnecessarily, Diamond said, “but failing to warn about potential risks is a bigger sin in public health, especially if actions now could protect people.”

Politico’s Alex Thompson said on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that he spoke with a White House official late Saturday “and the phrase they kept using over and over is ‘We’re not going to get caught flat-footed.'” That’s why Fauci and Collins blanketed the Sunday public affairs shows, from ABC to Fox, CBS to CNN. But what’s left unsaid, Thompson said, is that “they did get caught flat-footed by Delta” last summer. The risk now, he added on Twitter, is “that they are overcorrecting.”

Let’s inform, not speculate

Oliver Darcy writes: “When there are information vacuums — coupled with the need to fill cable news air time, get eyeballs reading news stories, and satisfy the SEO gods — it can be tempting to delve into the arena of speculation. That’s been quite clear over the past few days. Actual data has been more scarce than speculation on what the variant might mean for the world moving forward. But journalists, particularly newsroom leaders who set the tone of coverage, should resist the temptation to hype conjecture. We still have very little knowledge on what the new variant could mean for the world. Unnerving the public by playing out the worst-case scenarios in stories and amplifying the worst fears of the scientific community in chyrons and headlines isn’t the way to go. Audiences deserve better.”

Expert assessments

— When I asked CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner if Omicron should be the lead story right now, he said no, “because it’s a story that is based entirely on speculation. We will have data from really hard-working scientists over the next few weeks that will help inform how we can put this new variant into context…”

— Johns Hopkins epidemiologist David Dowdy criticized some of his colleagues over the weekend: “In this situation — where data are early & societal implications are large — scientists have a duty not to oversell. And we are doing exactly that. Shame on us…”

— Dr. Peter Hotez, a regular presence across cable news, said on MSNBC “my biggest concern” is not Omicron, it’s that “we’re about to undergo another big winter Delta wave…”

— “I have come to the conclusion that people love to panic,” science journalist Erin Biba remarked. She called it “completely and utterly exhausting that doomsday headlines and uninformed reporters create mass hysteria before we even have any details or information. Always wait! Before you panic, wait! Wait until you have more info…”

“Two years into this horror show”

New York Times reporter Stephanie Nolen left South Africa on Thursday after spending time with scientists there — and wound up reporting live from an airplane that was quarantined on the tarmac in Amsterdam. She wrote that “Europe apparently panicked” about the variant news “while I was somewhere over the Sahara; by the time we landed, we were told we would not be permitted off the plane.” She eventually tested negative and was allowed to continue onward to Canada.

On Sunday afternoon, Nolen finished her multi-day Twitter thread by saying she is “opting to self-quarantine, in an AirBnB, and keep testing, after the airport exposure I had courtesy of the Dutch authorities.” She expressed frustration with Dutch and British officials, plus the people on her flight who failed to wear masks, “even when I pleaded and we KNEW people were already testing positive.” She wrote, “Two years into this horror show, we’ve just got to be smarter and better at managing. I don’t know how you make people care about each other.”

“Covid is everything”

On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” I talked with Chris Arnade, the banker turned photographer who now walks the streets of American towns and writes about what he hears and learns. He remarked about Covid being the primary drag on voters’ perceptions of Biden: “Covid is everything.” Those three words apply to more than Biden’s approval rating, obviously. Covid continues to be the throughline of every story, every struggle.

And folks who feel forgotten, who feel exploited by “elites,” feel like Covid-era policies benefited the Zoom class and punished them, Arnade said. “There’s a huge cynicism towards institutions,” he added, “and Covid has made that cynicism worse.”

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