I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a pandemic going in. It’s not going great. With a virus sweeping across the globe, putting enormous strain on healthcare infrastructure, economies, and — of course — people’s lives, you might be forgiven for wanting clear, calm information about what’s going on and what to do. Enter the US media. In a typical splurge of live death tallies, anonymous inside scoops, and stock market catastrophes, the Fourth Estate has got itself in a right state about the coronavirus. Be it Fox & Friends uncritically platforming the idea that North Korea is behind COVID-19 or New York Times columnist Gail Collins calling it the ‘Trumpvirus’, a lot of early coverage has left much to be desired. Small wonder there’s a near 50/50 split on whether the American public trusts news media coverage of the coronavirus.
Missing the Forest
The last few weeks have laid bare what many have suspected for years: mainstream media does not understand – or does not care – that its main responsibility is to the public. Writing back in August about the state of journalism, Dan Gillmor said: “Today’s short-attention-span breaking news coverage amounts to mini-scoops followed by maxi-repetition and, typically, zero explanation of where the latest bit of news fits in the larger picture — the classic focus on trees while missing the forest.” Unfortunately, this frame of mind is at its most obvious during times of crisis. Faced with a choice between ratings and public service, the choice made by many has been depressing, and wholly predictable. Stoke up fear, play referee in political point scoring contests, and enjoy the windfall for as long as it lasts. Who cares if we make things worse? Money talks, sadly, and when ads pay the bills (or uber wealthy media barons) then it’s no great surprise to see the preference for sensationalism and partisanship. Indeed, some outlets have weighed up the situation and decided to ride to the defence of… the government? Uncritically parroting what the people in charge are saying puts you in no position to hold them to account.
Mainstream Media Spreads Fear for Profit
It is not the role of the media to stir up fear. It is not the role of the media to defend the powerful. When the government is getting things right, fabulous. Spread the word. When it falls short, be the word. The press has to be an authority unto itself, providing the public the information it needs to safeguard its health, its safety, and its freedom. In times of crisis the press is doubly obliged to deliver on these responsibilities. It must inform the public of developments, it must scrutinise the reactions of the state, and it must help. We can’t afford a media that sits back and observes. Airwaves, front pages, home pages, and social media feeds ought to be crammed with the information regular people need to make the situation more manageable. This means giving the unsexy topics their due. Social distancing, bell curves, healthcare infrastructure, emergency legislation analysis, and the bleak prospects of small businesses and paycheck-to-paycheck workers may not be as sexy as Dow Jones averages or ransacked shelves, but they’re a lot more relevant to regular people. Unchecked fear and panic could cause as much damage as the virus itself, if not more. Reducing the coronavirus outbreak to spectacle is negligent, and betrays just how much of a bubble a lot of the media is in. As Gillmor puts it, “You can start by looking at the public’s information needs from the public’s point of view, not just your own.”
If Not Now, When?
To be clear, there has been plenty of great reporting by journalists infinitely better at their jobs than I am at anything. I don’t mean to come off as high and mighty. There has been excellent rolling coverage of Italy’s shutdown in The New York Times. This interactive piece in The Washington Post about containing virus outbreaks and ‘flattening the curve’ is superb – informative and actionable. More coverage should be like this. And yes, there are plenty of countries, the US included, where national leadership is trusted even less than the press. To that I say, all the more reason for the media to step up to the plate. This is not about everyone holding hands and hoping things get better. Coverage should be relentless. Calm and meticulous, but relentless. The public deserves nothing less. More and more outlets seem to be wising up to just how badly the pandemic could go if it’s handled badly. This is good, but I hope there’s room for some self reflection when this is all over. It would be nice if it didn’t take a global crisis for the mainstream media to cut the bullshit and start doing its job.