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As media set out to mark the year of COVID-19, there is still much work for all of us to do | COMMENTARY

A blanket is pulled to cover the body of a patient after medical personnel were unable to to save her life inside the coronavirus unit at United Memorial Medical Center, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A blanket is pulled to cover the body of a patient after medical personnel were unable to to save her life inside the coronavirus unit at United Memorial Medical Center, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (David J. Phillip/AP)

This is not a year that a lot of us are probably going to want to remember. For the millions who lost loved ones to COVID-19, it is likely to be especially painful. For better or worse, many of us will never forget how our lives have changed since last March.

One of the primary functions of media is to sift through the deluge of developments and events in our national life and decide which are worth collectively remembering and how we should go about doing so. Think 9/11 or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for examples of that. The process of shared memory kicks into gear this week for COVID-19.

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March 11 is the day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. Leading up to that date, 11 days of special coverage titled, “Covid One Year Later: Life After Lockdown,” launched Monday on “NBC Nightly News” with interviews that ranged from National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins on the scientific road ahead to patients hoping for relief from their long-term symptoms from the virus.

The “Life after Lockdown” programming will continue on NBC, MSNBC and other network platforms concluding on March 11 with a live prime-time special from the Lincoln Memorial anchored by Lester Holt of “NBC Nightly News” and Savannah Guthrie, of the “Today” show. The program “will take a sweeping look at how everyone’s lives have changed this past year, as well as the path forward to regaining a sense of normalcy,” according to the network.

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NBC is not alone in its pandemic coverage. All the networks and cable channels will be offering such programs this week and next. They will be hard to ignore, especially with a president in the White House who believes in commemorating the happy and sad moments in a nation’s life as he did with the grim milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths recently.

But even as I welcome the special programs looking back at this deadly dark year and know I will watch many of them, I have some concerns about how they might affect viewers and even some of us who work in media.

Media can be great catalysts, signaling us to the importance of certain moments and the value of remembering them. Media can also connect us to the civic life of the nation, showing us what others are feeling and thinking, and offering symbolic events that we can participate in vicariously for a sense of catharsis or community. That’s a good thing, but we shouldn’t let media tell us what to think and feel.

Television, for example, is inherently superficial. Having covered and championed it for more than 30 years, I feel I can say that. When done right, it can also be profound as anyone who has watched a Ken Burns documentary or an episode of HBO’s “The Sopranos” knows. But its tendency is toward superficial.

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So, don’t let TV control what you think about COVID-19 and the year we have survived in its deadly grip. Let the one-year TV shows trigger reflection, but let your heart and mind, not something created for the screen by others, drive your personal reflection on this existential moment. If you need a spark to start the process, read a thoughtful op-ed or listen to a moving podcast from someone who has reexamined her or his own mortality this year because of the virus. If you want an example of such a reflection, consider this op-ed from The Sun last month headlined: “Doctor expected to get COVID-19, but didn’t expect it to change his life.”

And to my media colleagues, don’t let the process of looking back across the year lead to a sense that the worst is behind us. That is particularly easy to do with all the hope vaccines are engendering.

There is still heavy lifting to do in covering how those vaccines are or are not getting into the arms of people who need them. Here in Maryland, we all need to pitch in to chronicle the chaos of the system set up by Gov. Larry Hogan and press as hard as we can for something better from his administration immediately ― not sometime down the road later in March. This is too serious and deadly for his public relations games.

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

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