On March 19 2020, the following meme (“I wonder why the cameraman didn’t need protective clothing”) was shared to Facebook:
A still photograph included the wording about the cameraman lacking any personal protective equipment (PPE), as a reporter just a few feet away appeared as though they had stepped out of a film like Contagion or Outbreak.
The post did not elaborate further, but the implication was very clear: The media was lying about the risks of COVID-19 and novel coronavirus, obviously evidenced by whatever was going on in the photograph.
One day earlier, video from which the still shot was apparently taken was shared to Twitter:
Earlier in #Beirut: example of bad media coverage that contributes to panic and sets wrong example. 1. If your photographer doesn’t need that, then you definitely don’t. 2. Save masks and protective gear for medical workers who actually need it. #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/RT7DQrkhKH
— Michael Downey (@mgdowney) March 18, 2020
In a tweet, Michael Downey (@mgdowney) criticized the media in general:
Earlier in #Beirut: example of bad media coverage that contributes to panic and sets wrong example. 1. If your photographer doesn’t need that, then you definitely don’t. 2. Save masks and protective gear for medical workers who actually need it. #COVID19
Downey characterized the nine-second clip as an “example of bad media,” claiming the disparity between the cameraman and reporter was of the sort that “contributes to panic” while setting a poor example for viewers. Downey informed the reporter they obviously didn’t require PPE since their crew didn’t, and chided the person to save PPE for essential medical staff.
Unlike comments on the Facebook iteration linked above (mainly memes), Downey’s tweet received a response from Al Arabiya UK bureau chief Rima Maktabi. Maktabi provided context for the image, and chided Downey for spreading disinformation under the guise of sensibility:
Your tweet is bad media too! @GhinwaYatim was filming a story at a factory that does these outfits for those who deal #Corona patients. Which she also explained on air! If only you heard her before writing this tweet. She has been doing a great job! #COVID19
According to Maktabi, the reporter shown, Ghinwa Yatim, was not wearing PPE as part of her generalized reporting; instead, she was covering a factory that was producing protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing it herself as a demonstration to viewers. Downey then amended his position, going on to maintain it was unnecessary to demonstrate PPE to the audience watching a segment about the factory:
The context is not an excuse. You don’t need to get dressed up in the gear simply because you’re doing a story on it, especially in the street. We know TV news is a visual medium and it provides drama. But it also raises fears and adds nothing to the story.
Yatim also responded in Arabic, explaining that those watching her segment were well aware the PPE she was wearing in the segment was unnecessary, and there was explicitly no cause for panic.
خلال المباشر أكدت انه لا شيئ يدعو للهلع في بيروت وان هذه البدلة كنت قبل ساعة اعد تقرير عن معمل يصنعها لمن يتعامل مع المرضى و لاحقا للمواطنين في حال طالت الأزمة.كان من الأفضل أن تعطيني النصيحة وجها لوجه بدلا من استراق الصور https://t.co/L3jPRchtGB
— Ghinwa Yatim (@GhinwaYatim) March 18, 2020
Although Downey’s tweet on Twitter was automatically threaded with a response from Maktabi debunking his claims, the Facebook post spread unchecked without that important contextual information — clearly leading more than 30,000 users not only to wonder why the cameraman didn’t need protective equipment, since the reporter was covered from head to toe. The image was used to further advance the claim that COVID-19 is not a serious threat, which continued to be spread by people attempting to advance that fallacious and dangerous falsehood.