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News media challenged to meet demands of COVID-19 story

Published on April 10, 2020 12:12 PM
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American news consumers are displeased with the news mediaâ??s performance in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. That was a little-noticed component of a recent Gallup survey. Well over half of all citizens disapprove of the news mediaâ??s handling of the crisis, the worst performance of the various institutions measured. Even Congress and President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans go on attack as loans for small businesses start to run out Warren: If Biden asked me to be VP, I would say yes NFL considers playing in empty stadiums with 2020 season set to start in September: report MORE did better.

This lousy result for the news industry got little attention, of course. There are more important matters for public focus at this time, not to mention that the news media seldom covers its own dismal news.

No doubt the leaders of the journalism industry want to dismiss the Gallup finding as generalized public grousing. Indeed, public opinion polls do give just a glimpse of an issue and often with insufficient underpinnings. Right-leaning respondents, the apologists say, just donâ??t like aggressive reporters â??just doing their jobs.â?쳌 And left-leaning survey respondents criticize the media for giving Trump so much air time. Thus â?? as the rationalizing from media execs usually goes â?? if the news industry is taking heat from both sides, it must be doing just fine.

But news industry executives should not so easily dismiss this public vote of no-confidence. The publicâ??s lack of confidence in the press is part of a yearsâ?? long decline. A national crisis could have been a time for journalism to shine and re-convince news consumers of the pressâ??s essential role as public surrogate during times of peril. After all, people are desperate for information about the virus and have plenty of time to follow the news while cooped up. The media, by failing to rise to the occasion, are missing a great opportunity.

Covering the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged journalism in new and complex ways. The industry had no handy template to implement from past crises. Journalism schools could hardly have prepared this generationâ??s reporters for such a complex and overwhelming story. And letâ??s face it, science and medicine are not areas of expertise for the scribes walking around with microphones and laptops. Further, the nationâ??s news agenda-setters were ill-prepared for COVID-19 coverage, in part, because they had been so distracted for months with Ukraine and impeachment.

It must be noted that much good work is actually being done by reporters around the country, from small town newspaper and radio reporters to many of the big names at major dailies and cable news channels. They are having to work through their own anxieties and fears, including whether their own jobs will be downsized as news outletsâ?? revenues dip.

Unfortunately, however, the public assessment of journalismâ??s performance in the COVID-19 crisis is not being defined by these news troopers trying to serve the public interest. Instead, the publicâ??s evaluation is being driven by the mistakes and excesses, such as CNNâ??s Jim Acosta interrupting Dr. Deborah Birx of the COVID-19 task force as though he were her intellectual equal. Then there was CBSâ?? Weijia Jiang badgering Trump with a long-winded debate over the meaning of the word â??our.â?쳌 Such grandstanding for a viral moment makes sense only if the journalistic objective is to drop a spark in Trumpâ??s hair. But for serving the information needs of a nation in crisis, such hectoring is misplaced. Add this kind of drama to televisionâ??s on-screen scoreboards, foreboding music bridges and flashy graphics. It is easy to see why a Morning Consult poll last month showed the public perception that the media was hyping the virus story rather than reporting it.

The COVID-19 story has a long way to go, and the news media will have to adapt/fix its coverage mistakes on the fly. Providing the necessary perspective and context wonâ??t be easily accomplished with the currently normalized media strategy of turning every story into a narrative of confrontation. Thatâ??s been the case so far as stories have been framed, for example, to pit the states against the federal government, the scientists in the White House against the economists, or second-guessers trying to decide if Trump is falsely promoting optimism or is too dire in ...

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