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21. The pandemic’s numbers and stories

Everywhere since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, we have seen an endless array of numbers and been told an endless series of stories.

Numbers and stories are among the greatest inventions of humankind.

Stories have been told around campfires, from pulpits, from stages and via technology. Stories, told in spoken word and music and art, have existed from the earliest days of humankind.

Numbers are measurements. In allowing progress to be measured, numbers allow progress to happen.

Stories predate numbers. The first calendar was devised in the time of Julius Caesar, a generation or two before the birth of Christ. The number zero did not arrive in Europe until more than a thousand years later.

Both numbers and stories contain extraordinary power. Numbers, and numerical calculations, have allowed humanity to define gravity, harness electricity and see into black holes. Stories can liberate races and individuals, or just as easily tie us in chains.

Both are essential aspects of what it is to be human.

Stories allow us to make sense of the world of incessant progress that numbers make possible.

Over the past year or so, numbers — of positive tests, of hospitalisations, of occupied intensive care beds, of deaths — have been almost impossible to avoid without tuning out completely from all consumption of mainstream news media.

A controversy surrounded CNN, one of the world’s largest and most recognisable news organisations, after an employee was caught on secret camera revealing that there was an insatiable appetite for on-screen death numbers among both station executives and station viewers alike.

(This hunger was for compellingly different reasons on either side: the business executives were hungry for such coverage, because they could see viewing figures drop every time the number ticker of cases and deaths disappeared from the screen; viewers were hungry for it, because they were involuntarily, unconsciously drawn to the horror contained in those ever-increasing on-screen numbers.)

How the news industry works

There’s a saying in the news industry: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Tragedy, horror, catastrophe, bloodshed are one staple diet of the news business. Such eventualities engender the oldest emotional responses deep within our ancient brains. We feel fear. We feel fury. We might even feel relief that the suffering on the screen is the suffering of others and not us.

During the United States’ so-called “War on Terror” during the George W. Bush years, there was an unmistakable thirst from the 24-hour rolling news media for acts of and reactions to terrorism. On occasions, there was even a discernible air of disappointment among the TV anchors when an incident that looked like terrorism was revealed to have been merely an accident.

Two things are at play here.

Firstly, the very human yearning for drama that plays out among the on-screen presenters and reporters and the off-screen viewers.

Second, the very human yearning for safety and security that underlies the business model that underlies the reporting.

The media business model relies on paying customers to stay in business. The paying customers are the advertisers who will routinely fork out thousands of dollars for every 30-second slot. The value for the advertisers, of course, comes only from the certainty that the TV can attract the attention of enough viewers. And so the primary driving motivation behind the TV company’s behaviours and attitudes is to attract and keep that attention. Therefore, if it bleeds, it leads.

How the Internet has turned over the news applecart

Into this mix over the past two decades has come the Internet, and the obliteration of mass attention that has accompanied it.

Those of us above a certain age — say, 35 or 40 — can easily remember moments in time when the attention of a large percentage of the world was trained on a single event: the moon landings,  Live Aid or the wedding of Princess Diana. (Indeed, Diana’s death in a traffic accident in a Paris tunnel in 1997 might be the last time a single event attracted the majority of the world’s attention.)

Now, technology has scattered us to the four winds. It is extraordinarily powerful, in our favour if we possess the strength of mind and character to use the tools and platforms for our own benefit, but to our cost if we allow ourselves to react and react and react in an endless sequence of emotional responses driven by algorithms built with the help of behavioral scientists and neuroscientists.

One outcome of this atomisation of attention is that the biggest news and media companies, which grew so relentlessly by their status as the primary channels of information flow, have seen the need to reinvent as the entirety of their decades- or century-old business models collapsed.

The best of them — the Financial Times, say, or the New York Times — have been able to leverage the reach of the Internet to build a global base of paying subscribers, offsetting the fall in old paper-based ad revenue.

Others, though, are struggling to remain afloat and sustainable in this new world order. They thrash around from crisis to crisis. Crisis becomes both their internal day-to-day and external stock-in-trade. They firefight within the business while showing pictures of firefights out in the world.

There are many who would argue that the arrival of a new and rapidly-spreading global illness into this media environment has been a blessing.

Questions about the reliability of basic PCR test numbers are swept under the carpet, where all other nuance and complexity is sent.

It is here that both numbers and stories are letting us down.

Exposed to daily numbers, we become numb to the numbers; 500 new cases, 22 new hospitalisations, 12 new deaths, such numbers contain none of the living, breathing reality of what each of those cases, hospitalisations or deaths means.

Exposed to simplistic narratives, we find we are unable to find and tell the compelling story about the more complicated truths.

From the media, we need brave and courageous editors and reporters to ask better questions, to interrogate mainstream narratives, to uncover more meaningful numbers and to tell the compelling true stories behind them.

From ourselves, we need to adopt a position of positive scepticism in our consumption of news media. We need also to cultivate an awareness both of how our emotions cause us to react, and what  exactly might be the source of those emotions and emotional reactions.

The numbers we see and share, and the stories we tell and are told, are not an endpoint in our understanding. They are merely a starting point for a better understanding of the confusion all around us.

Only with a better understanding can we hope to live and breathe again and look ahead to making a better world on the other side.

This essay is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email as each one is published.