We need to mourn coronavirus losses, not just track the grim tally of deaths

Media coverage seems clinical and for-the-record when it needs to be somber and shared, like reading the 9/11 names or the ones on the Vietnam wall.

We need to mourn coronavirus losses, not just track the grim tally of deaths

The counting comes easily: More Americans have died from the coronavirus than during the entire Vietnam War. Total U.S. fatalities would overflow Dodger Stadium. More people are infected than live in the state of Delaware.

So why is the grieving so hard?

The enormity of the pandemic death toll is wrapped in a wall of silence, not connecting with our politicians, the media nor the public. Thankful applause echoes nightly for nurses and caregivers, but there are few candlelight vigils for the dead; churches are shuttered; most families cannot even hold funerals.

Doesn't our national loss deserve more than just checking the number on CNN every hour, and shaking our heads as the death toll tops 50,000, then 67,000 and beyond?

Media coverage of the death toll seems clinical and for-the-record when it needs to be somber and shared, like the sounds of John F. Kennedy's horse-drawn caisson clambering down Pennsylvania Avenue, or the tearful reading of the names on the anniversary of 9/11 every year.

Human cost isn't coming across

In contrast, newsrooms today are struggling to convey just how deeply the nation has been wounded. Offering only local or selective obituaries online, in newspapers or on TV doesn't measure up when hundreds more are dying every single day.

This surprising strategy of avoidance only deepens when President Donald Trump in his endless hours of press conferences barely mentions the dead, looking forward instead to resuming raucous political rallies. Or when his son-in-law Jared Kushner declares that 1 million Americans infected and more than 60,000 dead is a "great success story."

Compare that calculated stance of whistling past the graveyard to June 27, 1969, when LIFE magazine bravely published "Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam," showing the photos of 217 of the 242 U.S. soldiers who died in a single "average" week in the late 1960s.

Veteran at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall on June 8, 2000.

LIFE's decision to print the names and faces of fallen soldiers was bold and unprecedented. And like the 57,939 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall that followed 13 years later, LIFE's editorial embrace of the human cost drew outcries from hawks even as it helped turn public opinion against the war.

The magazine's yearbook approach was "not just numbering, not just a list of names, but a picture of each one of these people, it had an incredible impact," Hal Buell, former photo chief for the Associated Press, told The Washington Post on the anniversary of LIFE’s issue last year.

Also compare today's at-a-distance approach to The New York Times' "Portraits of Grief" in 2002 and beyond, an earnest and ambitious decision to print obituaries of the almost 3,000 who died on 9/11, no matter how long it took.

The Times acknowledges that a full accounting of the deaths this time is near impossible, but has launched a “Those We’ve Lost” series by an expanded team of obituary reporters.

“The purpose was to convey the human toll of COVID-19 by putting faces and names to the growing numbers of the dead, and to portray them in all of their variety,’’ wrote Daniel J. Wakin, an obituary editor at the Times.

All newsrooms know that obituaries have extraordinarily high readership. Highlighting each of the victims of an average commercial airline crash, for example, affects readers and reporters like nothing else in journalism.

Worth the effort to chronicle this loss

Admittedly, dealing with obituaries in the tens of thousands is beyond daunting. Names are being released sporadically, if at all (some coroners in Florida are being advised not to report figures). Many victims are very elderly; not all nursing homes or hospitals release names and reporters often must rely on families for information.

The logistics are dizzying. When I was an editor at USA TODAY we once squeezed 100 mug shots onto a single page. (We did it to show each senator's vote during the 52-48 confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991).

By that measure, displaying small photos of 70,000 coronavirus victims 100 to a page would require a special section of 700 pages, a thick tombstone of tragedy.

To compile anything approaching a definitive list of the dead would likely require a combined effort of federal, state and local health agencies, and cooperation by national and local media outlets across the nation. With newsroom employment cut by 50% since 2004, it is a challenge unprecedented in the news business.

But it is an effort, community by stricken community, worthy of the disaster facing us.

One of the media's challenges in a post-pandemic age will be to reveal many more of the faces behind the cold statistics.

David Colton is a former executive editor at USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @dcoltonnow

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/05/05/coronavirus-death-toll-needs-mourning-not-just-counting-column/3075334001/

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