Why can't mainstream media stop echoing Trump’s coronavirus misinformation?

In a crisis, people need to be able to trust mainstream outlets for accurate info -- not the administration’s spin

Over the past two months, President Donald Trump has claimed that the novel coronavirus was “totally under control” and limited to only “one person coming in from China”; was “pretty much” shut down; would be gone by April; was “very much under control” and not a threat to the stock market; was limited to just 15 people in the U.S. which would be down to zero “within a couple of days”; will “disappear one day … like a miracle”; will have a vaccine ready within “months”; and will “go away” on its own, along with claims that “anybody who wants a test gets a test” and that Americans were being tested for COVID-19 upon reentry to the U.S.

Every single one of these statements was either misleading or flat-out false, but as this crisis has gone on, many media outlets have been functioning as vessels for Trump’s misinformation to reach the general public. More than three years into his presidency and many, many thousands of lies later, journalists continue to cover Trump in the same ways they would cover a head of state with a far more reliable track record for telling the truth. 

One would hope this would improve as time progressed, but even over the past few days, media have remained committed to broadcasting misinformation.

During Trump’s March 13 White House Rose Garden press conference about the administration’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Trump made a number of false and otherwise dubious claims, just as he does virtually any time he addresses the public.

At one point, Trump argued that he was not at all responsible for the government’s lack of testing for the virus, instead placing blame on the Obama administration for leaving Trump with a “set of circumstances” that slowed the government’s response. Several news outlets would debunk this false claim after the fact, but ABC News tweeted his response word-for-word, despite it being untrue.

On March 13, NBC News and The Hill published headlines parroting Trump’s false claim that the Obama administration is to blame for the lack of COVID-19 tests available to the public. The Hill’s article went so far as to include Trump’s claim that “changes have been made,” as though he took decisive action to fix someone else’s mistakes.

NBC News: "Trump condemns CDC for lack of coronavirus testing, blames Obama"
The Hill: "Trump blames Obama for coronavirus testing issues, says 'changes have been made'"

On Twitter, The New York Times shared another article boosting the president’s demonstrably false accusation, tweeting, “President Trump on Friday again claimed that his response to the coronavirus was hindered by the Obama administration, which left office 3 years ago.” In a pleasant surprise, however, the Times deleted the original tweet and updated the article following online backlash.

Journalists from CNN and NBC uncritically shared Trump’s Thursday claim that “testing has been going very smooth.” Of course, testing has not “been going very smooth.” The lack of available testing has hobbled the U.S. response to the virus. Additionally, ABC News shared Trump’s untrue statement about Americans overseas being tested upon their return to the country.

The Hill amplified Vice President Mike Pence’s lie that “we’ve gotten a lot of people tested.” The U.S. is actually lagging far behind other developed countries in this area.

Days earlier, The Hill eagerly shared Trump’s March 10 statement that testing has been going “really well,” and journalists from ABC and NBC uncritically repeated the president’s claim that the virus “will go away.”

The Hill: "Trump defends US coronavirus testing, says it's gone 'really well'"

By continuing to promote false propaganda, journalists are contributing to a world health crisis. That needs to stop.

It’s not as though Trump is simply being held to the same standards set by mainstream outlets. He’s frequently getting preferential treatment that makes him look more composed than he is, while his political rivals get the opposite. Trump is being graded on a curve compared to that of his Democratic opponents. Joe Biden campaign adviser Symone Sanders called out the Times for publishing an unflattering (but factually accurate) headline about her candidate, while giving Trump unnecessarily positive or neutral looks. 

Many of these same outlets are frequently publishing fact checks of the president's lies about the coronavirus response, which is all the more reason they shouldn't then be amplifying things they know to be untrue on Twitter and in headlines. Last year, Media Matters published a guide filled with tips for journalists to utilize when reporting on false statements from elected officials. Yes, what the president and vice president have to say to the country will undoubtedly be newsworthy much of the time, but there are ways to report what they’re saying without aiding the spread of misinformation.

The Daily Beast provided a great example of how media outlets should approach this in its March 13 headline: “Trump Blames CDC and Obama for His Mistakes Over COVID-19.” Though nearly word for word the same as the frustrating headlines from The Hill and NBC, The Daily Beast’s inclusion of “for his mistakes” makes it clear that Trump was shifting blame for his own mismanagement of the crisis onto others.

There are enough examples of right-wing media pushing outrageous conspiracy theories and misinformation about the pandemic; the addition of misleading headlines from mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and NBC News to the mix makes it even harder to get people the truth at a time when they need it most.