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Nursing in South Carolina One Year Later – Part 4: Where Did Your Perspective Come From?

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The pandemic was bad for nurses. Sometimes really bad. But it didn't break the profession, like so many social media posts (and so much breathless reporting) might have suggested.

In the final installment of our four-part look at the state of nursing one year after the COVID pandemic began, South Carolina Public Radio asks what role social media, healthcare agencies, and the press had in shaping what you thought (and maybe still think) the pandemic was really like for emergency care workers.

The coronavirus pandemic was at times brutal. So none of what you’re about to read is intended to minimize the stress, the pain, and the fatigue healthcare workers – especially emergency care nurses – are in some cases still grappling with.

But the information we've consumed about the pandemic might have given us an incomplete picture about how emergency nurses have handled the matter.

Social media posts have a way of getting ahead of reality. And during the worst of the pandemic, the likes of Facebook and Twitter ran thick with reports of shattered nurses fleeing a broken profession, healthcare workers falling into the abyss, and hospitals stacking bodies like cordwood in freezer trucks because they didn't have any room in the morgue.

It isn't that things like that didn't happen. They just didn't happen in South Carolina. Not, at least, to the degree that they happened in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

But the very ubiquity of social media, coupled with the relentless nature of a perpetual and urgent news cycle might have given South Carolinians the impression that things here were as dire as the worst-hit cities. That, says former Wall Street Journal reporter and current University of South Carolina journalism professor Michelle LaRoche, has a lot to do with context.

Or, rather, lack thereof. LaRoche says many news agencies, under the pressure to report during a time of unprecedented chaos and equally unprecedented lack of ability to cover it properly, often relied on those social media posts and existing news stories about the worst moments of the crisis to generate stories.

That doesn't exclude the guy writing this story either.

The problem, of course, is that the genesis of so many pandemic stories came from a stacked deck — disgruntled healthcare workers caught in the grip of exhaustion, horror, confusion, and death frequently were the only voices from inside the healthcare spectrum who were saying anything. Because of COVID restrictions, reporters could not walk hospital hallways and talk to nurses in the fray the way we normally could do, La Roche says.

The result was often a perspective that only highlighted the worst. Yes, the worst needed reporting, but without the proper context, she says — the perspective that the worst of the worst wasn't the norm and wasn't necessarily happening here — could, for some, craft a narrative that didn't jibe with what they were seeing.

It's the kind of thing, LaRoche says, that can lead to people mistrusting the press. We say the sky is crumbling, but how many people could find the pieces on the ground?

Also problematic was that chasing down rumors, myths, and conspiracy theories that independently took off online and got a lot of chins wagging ate up a lot of time — and not just for reporters asking how much of what they were finding on social media was accurate, but for the agencies reporters kept turning to in order to find out.

Schipp Ames, a spokesman for the South Carolina Hospital Association, says his office was flooded with reporters' calls early in the pandemic. He says the situation led to a seemingly endless series of rabbit holes that he and his colleagues had to traverse on a weekly basis.

Ames doesn't blame the press for looking into most of the questions audiences and readers were asking them to solve. It is, after all, the press' job to verify and ask questions. He also admits that his own agency and others in the healthcare information field could have stepped out in front of rumors to dispel them earlier, so that they might have gained less traction in the first place.

But he does hope the press develops its own ways to better vet the information (and misinformation) reporters find, including figuring out the appropriate size serving of salt to take with the things reporters find on social media sites.

LaRoche also recommends that news agencies open their minds to different ways of thinking about stories, even the ugly ones. One question she suggests journalists ask themselves is, what is the kindest and most generous way to tell a story?

It's not as airy as it sounds. What she means is, can news outlets find a way to step back and not spotlight only the worst ends of very bad situations? She says thinking things through a little better can provide news agencies with some needed context, which in turn can help reconnect readers, viewers, and listeners with a press in which they've continued to lose faith.

There are three other stories in this series.
Part One: 'These ICU Nurses Aren't Going Anywhere'
Part Two: 'I Don't Need a Cookie, I Need Systemic Change'
Part Three: 'How To Learn a Lesson from Chaos'