Dear media: Stop using COVID-19 as ratings ploy

As of this writing, news reports say nearly 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 in roughly seven months’ time.

That number doesn’t include people who may have died for myriad other reasons tied to the pandemic, from poverty to deaths by suicide, and we may never know the full number of people impacted.

And people aren’t just dying of COVID-19. Some who contract the virus may heal without any lingering issues, but others certainly aren’t.

Because of the pandemic, sports in America went away for months, and some still haven’t returned. NBA and WNBA players are in bubbles, keeping the virus at bay so they can have their respective seasons. Major League Baseball will hold its postseason in bubbles to minimize exposure. The NCAA decided that Division II and III sports would be shut down for the fall, but that the money of Division I football was too great not to risk the lives of young men.

While social media and news media aren’t nearly as focused on the wide-ranging, devastating impacts of the virus as they should be — some of which can be forgiven, given the endless stream of events that are happening this year — it is not now, never has been and never will be something that should be used as a “tease” to get more viewers or readers.

We saw this again on Sunday morning, when ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted, “NFL’s first notable in-season case of COVID...coming Sunday NFL Countdown.”

It was, to put it mildly, a cringe-worthy tweet.

And given that the person Schefter went on to reveal had tested positive is at an age that makes him more susceptible to the most difficult side effects of the virus, it makes a bad tweet look worse. (Yahoo Sports is not using names of those reported to have COVID unless the person confirms the news publicly.)

Schefter wasn’t the first media figure to use someone else’s positive test as a cheap way to get clicks or garner interest. In April, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer tweeted multiple times about major news he would be breaking on his television show a day later; on radio, he called it “big, big news... I mean, big national news.”

The “news”? The first NFL player known to have tested positive for coronavirus, Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Brian Allen. Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller revealed shortly after that he’d contracted it as well.

The blowback Glazer received for using someone else’s misfortune to get viewers for his show was strong, and warranted.

The mentions under Schefter’s tweet were critical as well, with one saying it was “irresponsible and disrespectful” to try to bait the public with COVID news.

As reporters, our job is to inform the public while also weighing the news value. Yes, we want to break stories, and for many of us, that’s part of the job description.

A related story: Years ago, as a reporter at the Boston Globe, I learned that Myra Kraft, the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, was being treated for cancer. Myra was well-known throughout Boston and beyond for her philanthropic works, once named as one of the most powerful women in the city. Breaking that news would have been a feather in my cap professionally.

After some discussion, my sports editor and the paper’s executive editor decided we wouldn’t publish the news. Myra Kraft’s health status did not impact the Patriots’ fortunes and whether they won or lost. This wasn’t the head coach or offensive coordinator or the quarterback, someone whose health and well-being was integral to the team’s on-field success.

The Krafts told the world of Myra’s fight on their own time, in their own way.

There’s a line between breaking news that must be broken and breaking news for the sake of our own gain, whether it’s a few more viewers for an NFL pregame show or more readers on a website.

Not even COVID-19 should be an impetus to step over it.

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