Journalist Soledad O’Brien reflects on the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media’s role in dispensing enough legitimate information, and lessons she learned about what’s most important.
COVID-19, vaccines, social isolation, media, social media, people of color, misinformation
The first Christmas after COVID-19 emerged, my husband’s parents, who are close to age 90, asked to spend the holidays with our family. There was no vaccine yet and tens of thousands had died. The media, social media, and public platforms around the country were a toxic mix of information, disinformation, and speculation. Because we live in the northeast, the gathering would be inside. Just my husband and four frequently tested children, my increasingly isolated in-laws, and me. Yet, I had to say NO.
That decision seems like a lifetime ago, but the pain feels fresh. It was undoubtedly sad for Granny and Grump to spend the holidays alone, just the two of them. But sadder yet would have been the possibility of any of us unknowingly having contracted the virus and infecting them, or worse, causing a family virus swarm.
The months following that decision taught us how right it was. Death counts rose rapidly after the holidays. By February 2021, the seven-day average of deaths was more than 3,000, substantially higher than it had been when the pandemic had seemed to peak in April of 2021. Facetime goodbyes were excruciating to read about. Nursing homes in particular began to feel like death traps.
Then there was the secondary effect of COVID-19, the physical distance between the dying and their families. When my parents had died two years before the pandemic, I was at their bedside. I held my dad’s hand as he passed, and I kissed my mom goodbye when she died soon after my father. That gift was out of reach for these family members losing relatives, particularly parents and grandparents, to COVID-19. I knew I had done—and must continue to do—all I could to keep all our family members and friends safe.
But the isolation wasn’t limited to those who got sick and died. So many older people didn’t see family and friends for a time that stretched to a year. Those who lived alone often had it even worse. Like many, we doubled down on the little things that are the connective tissue of a family. We embraced technology with Zoom meetings, we sent texts with photos of ordinary, everyday happenings, and made sure to Facetime just to say “hello.” Luckily, the elders in our family are somewhat tech-savvy and our kids helped everyone, including me, with tech support. During the early days of the pandemic, my teen sons helped produce my news program in our home. Among other tech tricks, my daughter showed me how to upload my vaccination card to my cell phone. But if you're aging without sufficient tech skills and lack people to help you, and teach you, not knowing technology becomes a barrier to breaking isolation.
'In the quest to be “fair and balanced,” the press has handed out some half-baked ideas presented by people who are themselves half-baked.’
People of color suffered all these ills disproportionally—fast transmission, escalating deaths, and isolation. Blacks and Latinos also saw entire communities dying around them, filling the local hospitals, which some used as primary care facilities. We know the COVID-19 virus over-indexes in Latino and African American communities. People in these communities are more likely to know others who have died from the illness, more likely to end up in an emergency room with COVID, and more likely to have buried someone who has died from COVID-19. Just think what that psychological impact must be.
During the late summer months of 2021, I was happy to see that the number of vaccinated Black and Latino adults had increased. Much of this was due to more access to vaccines and more fact-based information disseminated by the media. Community activists have also pushed hard to ensure that communities-of-color have easy access to vaccines. In many neighborhoods, anyone may go to their local drug store pharmacy and get a vaccine for free. But the dearth of factual information in these communities hinders herd immunity, and many still doubt the vaccine’s safety.
The Media Bears Some Responsibility
As a member of the media, I wish our community would have doubled down on helping people of all colors get the facts they need to stay healthy and break the isolation. Mostly everyone has a television set. We could have taken the lead in teaching elders, particularly those who lack education, more about transmission and prevention methods, vaccines, smart phones, and the internet.
I get it. People are stressed. People are afraid. Some are worried about contracting the virus, but may not completely trust the vaccine, may still lack access to factual information, or are skeptical of the medical community based upon past experiences. In communities of color, some recall incidents like the forced sterilizations Latinas and Black women underwent for decades without proper translations or explanations. I think it is absolutely logical for one to say, “As a Black person, as a Latino, I have questions about the history of vaccines. I have concerns that our community has been taken advantage of when it comes to vaccines and medical care.” That’s where the media holds great power—to allay fears and encourage vaccination.
I tell my friends the following. Your doctor can put your concerns about the vaccine to rest. Your primary care physician also will tell you if there is a viable reason for you not to have the COVID vaccine. You would go to your doctor if you had a rash or took a fall down the stairs. You take vaccines for other diseases without knowing much about their content. You would ask your doctor for advice if you wanted to change your medications. Why turn to Instagram or Facebook and allow a random person to dole out medical advice or information? Go to your primary care physician and say, “I have questions.” And I would say to primary care physicians, please do not discount questions like this, especially from older patients.
There has been much misinformation spewed by some who don’t have the scientific expertise necessary to discuss this disease. I blame the media for much of the COVID-19 misinformation offered for general consumption. In the quest to be “fair and balanced,” the press has handed out some half-baked ideas presented by people who are themselves half-baked. This is a big failure of all media, including social media.
To present anti-vaxxers or non-maskers as experts, placing them on the same level as an epidemiologist is just plain wrong. Dr. Jones, with a Ph.D. in epidemiology, and Angry Mom Jane Doe are not equal in expertise and should not be viewed that way. Both deserve to have their points of view heard in some capacity, but they’re not equal in terms of expertise and should not be presented as such. Too often, media outlets pit one against the other as if a non-masker has equal credibility to discuss epidemiology as the expert epidemiologist.
‘During this chaotic time, we’ve been given the gift of time to rethink our life’s possibilities.’
In these times of complex science, this “presenting both sides” approach is a mistake. The media’s primary job is to get to the truth with fact-based information and tell that truth. It is not the media’s job to give anyone and everyone a soapbox to intentionally or unintentionally offer inaccurate information. Quite simply, if one is feeling overwhelmed by conflicting information, again, I suggest going to the person who is an expert on health, and that is your doctor.
Learning What We Value
I asked a doctor what it was like to treat people who hadn’t wanted the vaccine and now were ill with the virus. He spoke of being compassionate and of understanding that people make bad decisions. He believes that to help people he must not judge them. His first job is to get them better, then help them to make better decisions.
This led me to realize that what we as a nation lacked during this pandemic was, simply, caring: caring about poor people, caring about unhoused people, caring about people who don’t have access to medical care, caring about those experiencing loneliness. To be compassionate requires a little bit of grace, a trait of which we could all use more.
I’m a nauseatingly optimistic person, and I believe when you come through a difficult time, you learn a lot: It’s a kind of post-traumatic growth versus post-traumatic stress. Although this has been a tough time for everyone, I know there’s a lesson to learn. What’s the take-a-way? Epidemiologists predicted this pandemic would happen, and most believe there will be another in our lifetime. We must ask ourselves what we can apply to the next global health event, particularly those of us in the media.
The dramatic shifts we’ve experienced in this time of COVID-19 also have allowed us time to contemplate our lives. What do you want your life, and your family’s life to look like in the next few years? Perhaps you want to change your career or revise your retirement path. Maybe you want to adjust your work schedule to work at home. Maybe you want to leverage technology to widen your social circle. During this chaotic time, we’ve been given the gift of time to rethink our life’s possibilities. It’s kind of a cool opportunity.
Over the years, I’ve traveled extensively for my work. During this time, I discovered I don’t want to be on the road as much as I have been. I’m not traveling like that ever again. Never. Just not doing it.
The world as we know it has changed, but the world has always been changing. One of the upsides of being a grown-up, an elder, is that you know this to be true. Today, what I know to be true is this: In every terrible event, you end up making painful decisions—like the one I made to exclude my in-laws. Then, like many, I learned ways to keep in touch, stay safe, pay attention to what failed, what worked, and what I learned from it. Then I passed that along to my audience. Always. I hope you all—and my colleagues in the media—take this opportunity to figure things out going forward. And, please, stay safe.
Soledad O’Brien is an award-winning documentarian, journalist, speaker, author, and philanthropist. She is the CEO of Soledad O’Brien Productions, a multi-platform media production company dedicated to telling empowering and authentic stories on a range of social issues and a thought leader whose public engagement garners wide attention. O’Brien currently anchors and produces the Hearst Television political magazine program “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” which is distributed by Sony Pictures. She also reports regularly for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”