Inheriting the wind: We're experiencing the result of years of news hype

Inheriting the wind: We're experiencing the result of years of news hype
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Years of hype are coming back to haunt us.

A new survey shows Americans do not trust the news media to give them correct information about the coronavirus crisis. It is a failing that will most likely cause infections to mount.

Fault lies with the usual suspects, of course, especially President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE’s continuing attacks on journalists as “the enemy of the people,” supposedly disseminating “fake news.” But there is another culprit that doesn’t receive as much attention: news hype.

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That same study, from Morning Consult and The Hollywood Reporter, reveals that 50 percent of Americans believe the media is “overhyping” the epidemic — in coverage that features breathless anchors speaking over dramatic music and bold graphics. These results cannot be waved off as just another populist revolt against elites and experts. After all, the Morning Consult survey indicates that 81 percent of those polled actually do trust “a lot or somewhat” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); 83 percent say the same about the World Health Organization (WHO). Another study shows that 84 percent of Americans trust their public health officials.

There is no mystery here. Viewers sitting through years of cable news channels flashing constant chyrons trumpeting “Breaking News” or “Developing Story” learn to treat the shouting — no matter the topic — with skepticism. Burdened with the need to fill airtime 24 hours a day, cable news too often stretches the smallest story into hours of programming — often featuring half a dozen panelists competing with each other to offer worst-case scenarios, a kind of horror-movie promo campaign designed to make sure you never change the channel.

While the Trump administration has had more than its share of legitimate scandals, wary viewers also recall manufactured outrage over, say, the message on Melania TrumpMelania TrumpMelania Trump: Ginsburg's 'spirit will live on in all she has inspired' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - You might want to download TikTok now Warning label added to Trump tweet over potential mail-in voting disinformation MORE’s jacket (“I Don’t Care, Do You?”), or the time the president tweeted out the previously unknown word “covfefe.” The relatively scandal-free Obama years saw endless hours of blather about his tan suit, or Michele Obama’s “terrorist fist bump.”

No section of the media puts up astounding numbers in the Morning Consult study, but news organizations that hype less are trusted more: only 13 percent trust cable news a lot, newspapers do better at 15 percent, and the just-the-facts, chatter-free approach of national network newscasts polls best, at 18 percent. In fact, in the latest ratings, ABC’s World News Tonight was actually the top-viewed program in all of broadcast television.

And here’s a special irony. While trust in journalists was low in this survey, President Trump’s numbers for the crisis were not much better — only 20 percent trust him a lot. In fact, the combined amount of people who trust him “a lot or somewhat” (43 percent) was actually lower than similar totals for nearly all forms of news media.

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Viewed through the lens of hype, this makes sense. Like the cable outlets he consumes, the president is no stranger to self-promotion. His language is typically filled with words like “ever,” “never,” “greatest,” “best” and “worst.” So when a crisis arrives that actually matches his exaggerated vocabulary, people are understandably suspicious.

Both sides of the hyperbole coin — Trump as well as the news channels — are trying to dial back as the crisis deepens. TV is now filled with sober specials that deliver facts and sound advice; Trump sometimes even addresses the White House press corps with a thoughtful tone.

Still, old habits die hard — sometimes you just can’t help but, for example, attack the media in the middle of an otherwise straightforward news conference, or hype the unproven potential of a miracle cure. And, obviously, the political polarization of news audiences into red and blue tribes means media skepticism will never completely go away.

Nonetheless, the news channels are trying to meet the moment. Rebuilding trust will take time. Viewers hungry now for straight information minus the exaggeration hope it won’t take too long. 

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.