Omicron media coverage is overloaded, but there is still so much we don’t know ::

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

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

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

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

Author and podcaster Derek Thompson, one of the smartest voices on media and society, said on Sunday that “the gap between information and meaning at this point in Omicron’s history is immense. It is deeply impressive but also bewildering to have access to so much genetic and virological data, the takeaway being “we don’t really know what all of this means yet.” And the only reasonable thing is to * don’t not * draw conclusions from an abundance of facts. “

It is true, but it is difficult to do when the information seems alarming and is repeated over and over again in all the media.

A two week wait

“Wait two weeks” seems to be the consensus at the moment. Moderna chief medical officer Dr Paul Burton told CNN’s Paula Reid on Sunday: “We have to go through a few weeks here of uncertainty.” The White House reading 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 although it will take about two weeks in addition 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 offer some degree of protection against severe cases of Covid. So in the meantime, boost yourself if you haven’t already. “There’s no reason to panic, but it’s a great reason to be boosted,” NIH director Dr. Francis Collins told Dana Bash on “State of the Union”.

Biden administration is in “an email link”

Dan Diamond of the Washington Post observed on Sunday that “in interviews, officials continue to admit that Omicron (and the current lack of data) has a messaging link.” No one wants to sound the alarm unnecessarily, said Diamond, “but failure to warn of potential risks is a bigger public health sin, especially if actions can now protect people.”

Alex Thompson of Politico told CNN’s “Inside Politics” that he spoke to a White House official on Saturday night, “and the phrase they kept using is” We’re not going be caught off guard. “That’s why Fauci and Collins covered Sunday’s public affairs shows, from ABC to Fox, from CBS to CNN. But what was left unsaid, said Thompson, c “is that” they were caught off guard by Delta “last summer. The risk now, he added on Twitter, is” that they are overcorrecting. “

Let’s inform, don’t speculate

Oliver Darcy writes: “When there are information gaps – coupled with the need to fill cable news airtime, to have eyes reading news stories and to please the SEO gods – there can be tempting to dive into the arena of speculation. It’s pretty clear. over the past few days. Actual data has been rarer than speculation on what the variant might mean for the world in the future. But journalists, especially leading editorial staff who set the tone for the cover, should resist the temptation to guess. very little knowledge of what the new variant might mean to the world. Disturbing audiences by playing out the worst case scenarios in stories and amplifying the scientific community’s worst fears in chyrons and headlines is not the way to go. The public deserves better. “


– When I asked CNN medical analyst Dr Jonathan Reiner if Omicron should be the main story right now, he said no, “because it’s a story that’s based entirely on speculation. We will have data from very hard-working scientists over the next few weeks that will help us understand 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 the data is early and the societal implications are important – scientists have a duty to do not oversell. And that’s exactly what we are doing. Shame on us…”

– Dr Peter Hotez, a regular on cable news, told MSNBC that “my biggest concern” is not Omicron, is that “we are about to experience another great Delta winter wave … “

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

“Two years after this horror show”

New York Times reporter Stephanie Nolen left South Africa on Thursday after spending time with scientists there – and ended up reporting live from a plane that was quarantined on the Amsterdam tarmac. She wrote that “Europe apparently panicked” about the new variants “while I was somewhere above the Sahara; by the time we landed we were told that we would not be allowed to get off the plane ”. She eventually tested negative and was allowed to continue to Canada.

On Sunday afternoon, Nolen ended her multi-day Twitter feed by saying that she “chose to self-quarantine, in an AirBnB, and continue testing, after the exposure at the airport that I I had with the permission of the Dutch authorities “. She expressed her frustration with the Dutch and British authorities, as well as the people on her flight who did not wear masks, “even when I pleaded and we knew people were already testing positive”. She wrote, “Two years after this horror show started, we just need to be smarter and better manage. I don’t know how you make people care about each other.”

“Covid is everything”

On “Trusted Sources” Sunday, I spoke with Chris Arnade, the banker turned photographer who now walks the streets of American cities and writes about what he hears and learns. He noted that Covid was the main drag on voters’ perceptions of Biden: “Covid is everything.” Those three words obviously apply to more than Biden’s approval rating. Covid continues to be the common thread in every story, in every struggle.

And people who feel forgotten, who feel exploited by “elites”, feel that the policies of the Covid era have benefited the Zoom class and punished them, Arnade said. “There is enormous cynicism towards the institutions,” he added, “and Covid has compounded this cynicism”.

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