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News media challenged to meet demands of COVID-19 story

News media challenged to meet demands of COVID-19 story
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American news consumers are displeased with the news media’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 media’s handling of the crisis, the worst performance of the various institutions measured. Even Congress and President TrumpDonald TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress 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 don’t like aggressive reporters “just doing their jobs.” And left-leaning survey respondents criticize the media for giving Trump so much air time. Thus — as the rationalizing from media execs usually goes — if the news industry is taking heat from both sides, it must be doing just fine.

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But news industry executives should not so easily dismiss this public vote of no-confidence. The public’s lack of confidence in the press is part of a years’ long decline. A national crisis could have been a time for journalism to shine and re-convince news consumers of the press’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 generation’s reporters for such a complex and overwhelming story. And let’s face it, science and medicine are not areas of expertise for the scribes walking around with microphones and laptops. Further, the nation’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 outlets’ revenues dip.

Unfortunately, however, the public assessment of journalism’s performance in the COVID-19 crisis is not being defined by these news troopers trying to serve the public interest. Instead, the public’s evaluation is being driven by the mistakes and excesses, such as CNN’s Jim Acosta interrupting Dr. Deborah Birx of the COVID-19 task force as though he were her intellectual equal. Then there was CBS’ Weijia Jiang badgering Trump with a long-winded debate over the meaning of the word “our.” Such grandstanding for a viral moment makes sense only if the journalistic objective is to drop a spark in Trump’s hair. But for serving the information needs of a nation in crisis, such hectoring is misplaced. Add this kind of drama to television’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 won’t be easily accomplished with the currently normalized media strategy of turning every story into a narrative of confrontation. That’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 his forecasts of national pain.

It would behoove citizens to take charge of their own information needs. News consumers need to put together their own news mosaics after seeking out information from multiple outlets and platforms, including ones they don’t normally consult. This era of stay-at-home restrictions gives people plenty of time to become their own news editors.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.