The media freaked out during Thanksgiving weekend over the discovery of the omicron variant. The New York Stock Exchange dropped 900 points. Both were irrational, exaggerated responses based on little information.

The World Health Organization on Friday put out a balanced statement, advising, “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other [variants of concern].” The WHO promised to keep member countries updated about this “detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology.” That was it.

Columbia Journalism Review recounted with a hint of exasperation:

Despite the massive uncertainty, the world’s media instantly swelled with content: “What we know about the Omicron variant”; “The Omicron Variant: We Still Know Almost Nothing”; “Opinion | The Omicron Variant Is Creating a Lot of Anxiety,” and so on and so on. Over the weekend, a debate took shape, among experts and journalists, as to whether all the coverage was too much. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, accused fellow scientists of shamefully overselling fears about Omicron despite the paucity of hard data on the variant; Erin Biba, a freelance science journalist, tweeted that it is “completely and utterly exhausting” when “doomsday headlines and uninformed reporters create mass hysteria before we even have any details or information.”

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top coronavirus adviser, patiently explained in TV interviews over the weekend that we really did not know a lot about the variant. It would take a couple of weeks, they said, to answer questions about its severity and ability to spread. The WHO on Sunday also explained that we did not know much about the variant’s transmissibility, severity and the degree of protection afforded by existing vaccines.

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Such nuance and caution were shoved aside. The cable TV news, mainstream news headlines and social media devolved into wild speculation and near-hysteria. Nations “scrambled” and “panicked,” we were told. The variant “stoked fear,” others relayed. Breathless reporting announced each new country in which omicron appeared.

A few voices urged restraint:

But that admonition was widely disregarded. Reports on Monday trumpeted the WHO’s warning of a “very high global risk” of spread while burying the qualifications that we did not yet know much and, even more reassuring, that the existing PCR test would pick up the variant. As countries issued travel restrictions, some in the media portrayed the news as a return to the dark days of 2020.

President Biden gamely added his voice to the adults in the room, explaining on Monday that the travel bans were intended to buy time to study the variant. He assured the public, “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic. I’m sparing no effort at removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.” He noted that existing vaccines and masking will continue to provide some degree of protection. He urged all Americans to get vaccinated and boosted, the best protection against coronavirus variants.

The New York Times described the speech as Biden “trying to project an image of calm, and to keep the country from panicking, while also ensuring that Americans get vaccinated and take other precautions.” Perhaps he was calm, and the panic was largely due to frenetic reporting.

Social media is (rightly) blasted for spreading fear, anxiety and misinformation. But the mainstream media is nearly as bad in some instances. The hunt for clicks and eyeballs is turning them into pale imitations of social media, where the loudest, scariest voices receive the most attention. Maybe senior editors were away for the holidays. Perhaps the slow news days generated more pressure to hype the omicron story. Whatever the cause, the mainstream media must do better.

Whether it is the pandemic, the end of the Afghanistan war, inflation, legislative negotiations or presidential poll numbers, the media outlets that we expect to be responsible continue to indulge in catastrophic speculation and premature, unwarranted certitude. This does real damage to our capacity for rational debate and to our national psyche, repeatedly stretched to the breaking point after four years of an unhinged president, a violent insurrection on Jan. 6 and 18 months coping with the coronavirus.

On many fronts, the mainstream media could benefit from some self-reflection. Fortunately, we have put an adult in the Oval Office; now we just need some in newsrooms.