Matthew D. LaPlante: A story is not the story, and we are not divided

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) University of Utah student volunteers McKenna Hunt and Max Schultz set out throughout Park City neighborhoods on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, to tag households with a flyer or door hanger explaining a new project to test for COVID-19 and coronavirus antibodies. The Utah HERO (Health & Economic Recovery Outreach) program is a new undertaking beginning with randomized testing of 10,000 Utahns across four counties. The data gathered will inform decision-makers in the state as they work to help keep residents safe and get people back to work.

Armed men storm a state capital. People fight over toilet paper in grocery stores. A security guard is killed in an altercation that begins when he asks a customer to put on a mask.

It’s understandable if the news has you feeling despondent, or feeling as though — as The Salt Lake Tribune’s Washington D.C. bureau chief, Thomas Burr, recently put it — that you are witnessing “an us vs. them attitude taking hold across the United States and the world at large.

Burr is one of my dearest friends and one of the smartest journalists in Washington, but his well-reported article was mostly focused on division and, in journalism, framing is everything. When one goes looking for examples of division, that’s exactly what they’ll find.

That critique is not the same thing as decrying Burr’s work as “fake news.” Nothing he reported was inaccurate; there is no end to the examples of divisiveness that have been sparked by the COVID-19 crisis.

But there’s a bigger picture we need to see. In local communities, states, the nation and the world, the evidence is very clear: The vast majority of us are being led by, and acting upon, the better angels of our nature. We have indeed come together — perhaps more in the past three months than at any time in human history.

How do I square such a grand contention with the very real divisions that are regularly highlighted in the news I consume? By remembering what news is.

News, as I teach my students and often remind my friends, is centered upon a shift in the status quo. (Literally, it is “what’s new.”) So when you read about people who hack into school Zoom sessions to expose themselves to school children, openly defy laws meant to protect vulnerable people or respond to these stressful times with intolerance or violence, it’s not because any of those sorts of things are common.

Indeed, these are incidents in which individuals or groups have acted out of accordance with what most people are doing.

We should not blame the messenger for delivering these stories to us. We need to highlight those who stray from a shared paradigm. Only then may we follow those who offer a better path, or work together to reject those who have abandoned the values we hold most dear. But throughout this process, we must remember that while the outliers are a story, they are not the story.

The story is one in which a majority of Americans — 8 in 10, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll — have embraced social distancing guidelines. It is one in which a majority of people from all major political groups support stay-at-home orders, even though the vast majority — 84 percent — say their lives have been disrupted.

These uber-majorities exist despite the fact that most Americans do not appear to have anything to fear from a virus that, according to a recent study in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, likely has a fatality ratio of just about 1 in 72 people among the overall population, and far less than that among all but those over the age of 60.

Consider what this means: Nearly all of us have made some sacrifices, and have even embraced those sacrifices, to protect the vulnerable among us. Sure, we could do better. There are some real jerks among us. Despite any of that, we achieved something absolutely laudable in the first months of this outbreak: We “flattened the curve” to ensure that hospitals would have the resources to save as many people as possible. We did this across most of the world. We united with a common plan to combat a common enemy.

We should not ignore the failings of our leaders, which in the United States can be measured in tens of thousands of lost lives, a disproportionate number of those deaths falling upon minorities. That is a reflection of national leadership, but it is also a reflection of obstacles we’ve built over many generations and ideals we’ve failed to achieve over many centuries. If we can look unflinchingly upon these deaths, we are not looking hard enough. Anger is an appropriate emotion.

But we would do well to remember that leadership is not just political. Across our nation and across this planet, business leaders, religious leaders, social leaders and scientific leaders are working across tremendous divides, often against their individual best interests, to control the spread of this virus, identify treatments and therapies, work toward a vaccine, and begin building the systems that will allow us to do better the next time around.

And yes, there will be a next time around. And yes, when that happens, there will be division. There will be infighting. There will be plenty on the news about what is going wrong.

But we’ll have learned a thing, or two, or ten thousand, by then. And we’ll act on that knowledge — because we went through this together. For the overwhelming human experience in this crisis has been one of patience and compassion, of shared sorrow and sacrifice, of systems that work and leaders who unite, and of people coming together to save one another. And that is our status quo.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Professors Matthew D. LaPlante makes a comment, during the "Fake or Fact: What is News?" forum, at the Salt Lake Public Library, Wednesday, March 22,2017.

Matthew D. LaPlante is an associate professor of journalism at Utah State University and the author of Superlative: The Biology of Extremes. He lives in Salt Lake City.