Use universal principles to balance pandemic news

A sign reading "Heroes work here" is shown outside MountainView Hospital in Las Vegas April 2, 2020. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It is springtime during the coronavirus and the news is saturated with accounts of indignity, falsehood and violence — journalism mainstays since colonial America, especially in election years.

As I write, society is dealing with the indignity of COVID-19 deaths necessitating “the lonely reality” of online funerals in some states. We continue to hear false reports associated with vaccines, including conspiracy theories. While crime rates generally have dropped because of sheltering-in-place orders, gun violence continues across the United States, especially in Chicago.

Stress levels are at an all-time high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus has caused fear about family wellbeing; changes in sleep and eating patterns; increased use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs; and worsening of mental health conditions.

News viewership is on the rise, with print and online articles about coronavirus making up more than 10 percent of consumption.

That, too, has heightened stress levels — so much so, that many of us have forgotten that 2020 is an election year. Sooner or later, we will be inundated with political advertising based on false claims and ignominious depictions.

Every president has suffered the indignity of being a newspaper caricature. One of the first such cartoons, “The Entry,” took aim at George Washington in 1789 as he rode into New York City for his inauguration. No copy exists, although accounts of it are well-documented.

A later New York Times article described “The Entry” as ill-natured, coarse and unfilial:

“It represented the President riding on an ass which his aid, Colonel David Humphrey, was leading. Out of the latter’s mouth this hosanna was issuing: ‘The glorious time has come to pass/ When David shall conduct an ass.’”

“The Entry” was resurrected in the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, depicting him as a laggard donkey. Jackson, however, had the last laugh.

Jackson reportedly embraced the donkey as it depicted his dedication and stubbornness in advancing his policies. The symbol and those attributes came to represent the Democratic Party.

The GOP symbol of an elephant traces back to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Soldiers used the expression — “seeing the elephant” — as having experienced combat.

Many of us feel the same in the war against coronavirus.

How can living our ethics help in this stressful situation? How can they guide us to the best selections in the voting booth, come November? How can we select news sources that provide a balanced view of politics and society?

First of all, indignity, falsehood and violence may be journalism mainstays but fail to provide a balanced portrait of humanity. We might benefit by pondering beliefs and desires that actually define us.

A comprehensive 1997 study identified these tenets shared by cultures worldwide:

  • Well-being
  • Civic order
  • Pleasure
  • Freedom
  • Integrity
  • Dignity
  • Commitment
  • Trust

Clifford G. Christians, renowned professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, has written extensively about universal values. He condensed the ones above and others into a concept he calls the “protonorm.”

In his “Handbook of Global Communication and Media Ethics,” Christians writes: “The primal sacredness of life is a protonorm that binds humans into a common oneness. And in our systematic reflection on this primordial generality, we recognize that it entails such basic ethical principles as human dignity, truth, and nonviolence.”

The pandemic has decimated populations across the globe. But it also has elicited epic accounts of dignity, truth and nonviolence.

Emergency room personnel have been legends of living ethics. Here is one account out of thousands: At Scripps Memorial Hospital in California, nurses practice dignity and grace to help the recovery process.

An icon of truth is the whistle-blowing physician who first reported COVID-19 and then died from it: Li Wenliang. His sacrifice is living testament about ethical criteria to guide us during this crisis: information based on science free of editorial or political opinion that helps prevent its spread.

The non-profit organization Common Dreams, which has been documenting “Love and Nonviolence in the Time or Coronavirus,” challenges us to reflect on the pandemic to help bring about world peace.

If you are a news consumer, you might balance the daily reports of the “anti-protonorm” — indignity, falsehood and violence — with its ethical opposite of dignity, truth and non-violence.

If you are a news outlet — and this includes the Iowa Capital Dispatch — you might analyze your coverage to see how many reports fall into the anti-protonorm vs. the protonorm. And then make a concerted adjustment.

When we balance our consumption and dissemination of news, we will take the first steps toward realizing an authentic recovery of health and wellbeing.