Media need to answer this question: What do we know to be true about COVID safety, especially masks? | COMMENTARY

·4 min read

There have been few stories as big and complicated in my lifetime as the pandemic, and we in the media are once again at a point in covering it where clarity and exactitude are needed perhaps more than ever. For the most part, though, we are not following through on that, especially on wearing masks and relaxed mandates.

There is a lot of talk on TV news programs about masks and when and where they need to be worn, and I think a lot of people are confused about it.

Sunday on the CBS show “Face the Nation,” Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said he thinks it is time to relax requirements on masks indoors.

“In the states where prevalence is low, vaccination rates are high, and we have good testing in place and we’re identifying infections, I think we could start lifting these restrictions indoors as well on a broad basis,” he said.

Sunday, Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the White House, told ABC News he thinks it is time to start scaling back on indoor mask requirements, as well.

“I think so, and I think we’re going to probably be seeing that as we go along and as more people get vaccinated,” he said. “We do need to get more liberal as we get more people vaccinated.”

To the average viewer, that might sound like it is OK to ease up on wearing masks indoors, but while the CDC did relax its advice in April on wearing masks outdoors, it still recommends that even fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks in indoor public spaces.

Leana Wen, former Baltimore City health commissioner, said on CNN on Monday that she thinks “it’s a bit soon for relaxing indoor mask mandates overall when there are people of unknown vaccination status.”

As she put it: “How do you know if someone else is vaccinated? So, if you are going to a store or a restaurant or some other setting especially in communities where there are high levels of community transmission, I think it is just too soon in those settings.”

An anecdote that CNN anchor Victor Blackwell shared Monday with viewers about a weekend trip he took to Baltimore, his hometown, is indicative of the confusion about masks.

“I was in Baltimore over the weekend visiting my mom for Mother’s Day and I was outside without a mask on, and I got the stink eye from so many people,” he said, pointing out that he was vaccinated and following guidelines.

The interview Mr. Blackwell and co-anchor Alisyn Camerota did with Dr. Wen was a good one. Acknowledging that “people are so confused,” Ms. Camerota pressed Dr. Wen for clarity, and the public health expert provided some.

But we need more of it. Like many, I admire Dr. Fauci. But it is not enough to have him on your show and not challenge him. Dr. Fauci has great expertise and outstanding communication skills, but he has become a kind of likable TV character who gives good soundbites. That can be a comforting distraction rather than a help at this point in our struggle with COVID.

Yes, we should celebrate the vaccines and what they have accomplished. We should encourage people to get them, two things Dr. Fauci should rightfully be praised for doing in the media.

But before we start talking about “back to normal” as he did Sunday in his interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, we should try to help viewers understand how profoundly the experience of the pandemic has changed us and the culture. Like so many other elements of American life, public health information has become politicized. Think Tucker Carlson telling his Fox News audience that wearing a mask is a sign of “shame and submission” or making children wear masks is “child abuse.”

It was further politicized when President Trump’s White House pressured the CDC to withhold information and alter recommendations for political reasons. Thankfully, that no longer appears to be happening. But the damage to public trust has been done.

Straight talk and hard facts are needed more than ever to combat the confusion, distrust and fear. Let’s focus on trying to find out what is true about how best to keep ourselves safe during this pandemic and then try to figure out the most effective way to share that with the public.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.