Part of coronavirus crisis will be how we tell the story

by | Mar 15, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 1 comment

I went to the hospital Friday. No. Not for that. My appointment had been made months earlier. The doctor offered to do it digitally, given the COVID-19 situation, but I prefer to be examined in person, rather than contort in front of a computer camera.

So I went to the hospital, University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, which was not as busy as usual. Some folks wore masks. Some didn’t. Most simply went about their business.

In the exam room, my doctor greeted me and smiled. Then she said, “Listen, I want to ask you a favor.”

I couldn’t imagine what I had to offer a doctor. A book? An appearance at a kid’s sports banquet?

“Can you tell everyone to stay calm?” she requested. “To be kind to each other, and not panic?”

She knew I wrote a column and had a radio program. She politely implored me to spread the message that we will get through this crisis, that there is no reason for hysteria, that the situation is being portrayed — at least in certain media outlets — as far worse than its reality.

“People in your position can make a difference,” she said.

I thought about that after I left. And I realized she was right. During this crazy time, when the world feels like its hurtling forward and screeching to a halt at the same time, people who have columns, microphones or TV cameras should not be above the message of “we all need to pull together.”

We should be part of it.

This means balancing the stories we tell. Checking the facts. Putting them in perspective. Recognizing that none of us are experts. And yes, thinking about the emotional effect of what we do — not just slapping every incendiary story, theory or “expert” into a headline.

Because we must be concerned with more than just our bodies in the coming months.

We need to protect our minds.

Roll back the panic

As we pull up the covers on our lives, staying inside, eschewing gatherings, skipping work, schools, churches and parties, we will become more and more dependent on the media to reflect our outside world. Television hours will increase mightily. Internet time will zoom. People may actually read the newspaper front to back.

And if we only do stories about how bad it’s getting, how many more new cases have been detected, how unprepared this institution or politician was, how this or that expert is predicting this many deaths and that much contagion — well, we will quickly become a very depressed nation. And a dark national mood is dangerous. For society. For the economy. For the future. 

It will lead to more panic. More anger. More people grabbing every roll of toilet paper for themselves.

As much as we need to control the spread of the virus, we need to control the spread of hopelessness. It is every bit as debilitating. Two weeks ago, I did an interview with a coronavirus patient named Carl Goldman. He had been on a cruise ship in the Pacific and was eventually quarantined in Nebraska. At 67, he said the illness wasn’t harsh, a high fever at first, then some coughing, but now he felt pretty good and was waiting to be cleared. He is still waiting. He went public with his status, starting an internet blog because he thought “sharing information would be of value to people.”

And while many people were indeed receptive, a small group was vicious. Goldman said he “started getting death threats, people saying we needed to stay (away) and not come back to the States … they wanted us to die.”

Goldman’s wife, Jeri, who did not have the virus, went home to Santa Clarita, California, where they have lived for decades. And even though she had not tested positive, she was shunned in certain places. A local nail parlor wouldn’t allow her in. A young man who had been watching her house was fired from his job because he’d had contact with her. Currently, while her husband recovers in quarantine, she basically goes to work and goes home, unwelcome in parts of her hometown.

And this is someone who doesn’t have the virus.

Balance the fear

I share that story to show how misinformation can lead to fear, and how fear can lead to cruelty. And I return to the idea that we in the media — particularly editors and producers who decide which stories go where — need to think as part of the American society, not a detached, unfeeling entity.

This means, for example, if we are going to blast headlines every day of how many new cases of COVID-19 have been discovered, we should put, in equal display, how many people have recovered from the virus and will be fine. That number globally is around 70,000. Did you know that? It’s a critical piece of information. But how many recovered people have you seen interviewed? Likewise, we read plenty of critical stories of how unprepared we were, or who fell down on the job. But there are people working on testing, distribution, vaccines, and emergency shelters. News about their progress would provide some optimism.

We need that kind of balance. We need perspective on numbers, not just numbers. People who have columns, host radio shows, or have opinion segments on TV news should think twice before blathering on about how awful this President is, or how magnificent this President is, or how unprepared we were, or how other countries are to blame, or how a new “expert” is now predicting this kind of death count or that kind of stock market collapse. We should consider what segments like that do to the national discourse and the national mood, not what they do for our ratings or internet clicks.

This isn’t a time to be self-righteous, a false expert or a know-it-all alarmist. How we handle ourselves the next few months will determine what our nation looks like for the next few years. The dangers of the virus should never be ignored. But neither should the hopefulness of surviving it. I have learned, through decades writing about the subject, that most people can’t really envision death. But they react mightily to the threat of it. Fear and depression quickly rise. Anger. Isolation. Doing and saying things they never did before.

We who shape this oncoming narrative will be largely responsible for that, like it or not. I guess this is why my doctor, in her wisdom, asked me to urge calm, compassion, reaching out instead of pulling in.

Finding the negative may be the media’s inclination. But finding the positive is now our obligation. We are citizens and humans before we are reporters and commentators. And my doctor’s “favor” should be granted by all of us, for all our sakes.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. Theresa Ramus

    This a needed thing to do and people are still in quite a panic. Most things we are out of and hopefully we get some of them back in on truck day this week. Some people have that anger and fear and it is very apparent by their comments. I am a positive person and with all the anxiety and negativeness going around I find it difficult to listen too when there are so many. I do hope that we get things under control sooner than later. They just need to calm down and think positively that things will get better. This week it will be a bit warmer and it will remind us of Spring on its way. Have a great week



  1. Bear with me while I turn this into a blog. | NOT a blog - […] […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!