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Mixed Messages: The TV Optics of Social Distancing

Expert Recommendations about Social Distancing to Slow Coronavirus Undermined by TV News Footage and Ads
Social distancing is our best tactic to slow the rate at which infections occur so that the hospitals and medical professionals are not overwhelmed. We can see what could happen by checking out the experience of China and Italy. Experts say that two weeks from now, without drastic action today, the U.S. could look like Italy today, with critically ill people denied care and people dying at home.

Numbers differ from website to website, We're in a fast-moving phase. For the record:

  • On March 16, 2020, the U.S. has 3,487 confirmed cases, and 68 deaths (every state except West Virginia reports at least one case) [CDC website on 3/16/20 -- numbers change frequently on this page]. On 3/19/20 the same page listed 10,442 confirmed cases and 150 deaths (50 states). Testing was ramping up between these dates.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) coronavirus numbers for the U.S. as of March 16 are 1678 confirmed cases (0 new cases) and 41 deaths; Italy has 24,747 confirmed cases (3590 are new confirmed cases) and 1809 total deaths (368 are new deaths) (WHO) These data also keep changing and I am most interested in Rhode Island, but I will check the WHO numbers for the U.S. and Italy during the next two weeks at least to see what happens.

3/16 Italy  24747 cases (3590 new), 1809 deaths (368 new). US 1678 cases (0 new) , 41 deaths (0 new)
3/17 Italy  27980 cases (3233 new), 2503 deaths (349 new) ,US 3503 cases (1825 new), 58 deaths (17 new)
3/18 Italy  31506 cases (3526 new), 2503 deaths (345 new). US 3536 cases (1822 new), 58 deaths (17 new)

N.B. Countries are not necessarily reporting daily and/or the numbers aren't being processed fast enough. It is impossible to know for sure how many coronavirus cases we have today in the U.S. because testing has been seriously delayed. Clearly, however, community transmission is occurring, which means it is not easy or even possible to identify where and how everyone became infected. The virus is spreading from person to person when in close contact; therefore, social distancing is the best weapon for limiting the spread of the virus. As time goes on and more thorough testing occurs data will be increasingly informative.

I don't watch much television and almost never watch network morning newsy shows, but today I happened to tune in to one of them. The three hosts were carefully observing social distancing, maintaining six feet or so between them. Dr. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has been recommending this. Rhode Island's governor, the mayor of Providence, and especially Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott who heads the RI Department of Health, have repeatedly emphasized how critical it is right now for everyone in Rhode Island to avoid crowds of 25 or more people. Better to stay home if possible.

But what were the optics in a news segment about coronavirus? The hosts introduced a story about the panicked buying of food and toilet paper (why a run on toilet paper, by the way??), empty shelves, and long lines of people obviously closer together than six feet. Do any television news producers think about what the pictures convey to people? Empty shelves lead people to panic. The reporter noted that smaller stores still had plenty of food. Why not feature those stores rather than the big box stores they chose to show? And the reporter should have helped the cause by emphasizing that shoppers should be careful to keep a good distance from other shoppers. News reports ought to be more responsible. At least the story's visuals should not undercut the spacing between the hosts.

Then there were ads. So many ads. It seems more minutes are consumed by ads than by the programs. Given that TV ads are powerful communications vehicles, television advertisers and TV stations themselves ought to make some changes for the public good.  The visual messages of many ads are counterproductive. They often show lots of people gathering together, which  undermines the message the general public needs to hear loud and clear right NOW. For example, one ad for a restaurant shows crowds of people rushing forward in close proximity to each other with their coffee cups, saluting a deal for a month of coffee. Fun in normal times, but this is exactly what our leaders are telling us we should NOT be doing.

If we are in for weeks of social distancing, television stations could do something about this -- perhaps have a scrolling message across the bottom of the screen that social distancing is essential to flatten the curve of cases, spreading them out so fewer people die. If social distancing goes on for several weeks or even months, companies ought to help out by including social distancing somehow in their TV ads. Pictures are worth a thousand words they say. TV viewers are getting mixed messages and lives are on the line. ALL hands on deck! Get with the program.