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Shared blame for an uninformed citizenry during COVID-19 crisis


Today’s society swims in information readily available to every citizen. Yet, even with access to bountiful “information” that can be instantly retrieved, many Americans still lack the knowledge needed to collectively deal with the COVID-19 crisis. The nation is failing to effectively navigate these troubled times because citizens have no agreed-upon base of knowledge. The media establishment and government leaders share responsibility for this sad condition.

The turmoil the nation now experiences is largely because nobody knows whom or what to believe. The scientific models on which shutdown policies were based turned out to be questionable. New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently expressed surprise that 66 percent of new COVID-19 hospitalizations had been people who had followed Cuomo’s own mandate implemented weeks earlier to stay in their homes. A poll by Axios indicates a wide majority of Americans don’t trust the death tolls being reported. Even esteemed White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx has admitted that the number of asymptomatic cases was underestimated. And this is just the tip of the confusion iceberg.

A self-governing democracy hinges on a knowledgeable, well-informed electorate. With the internet, countless media outlets and social media all contributing to the “conversation of democracy,” one would think that Americans should have sufficient accurate information on which to base socio-political decisions. Instead, American society is being bombarded and confused with gibberish spread through a high-tech information establishment. The irony, of course is that tech creators and boosters convinced the nation it would enlighten and elevate the citizenry.

Today’s citizens stagger in darkness, unable to fully understand a crisis of huge magnitude. They distrust many sources of quality information and insight, be those sources governmental or the news media. News consumers are in no position to do their own information-gathering, so they have no choice but to hope that a First Amendment-empowered free press will serve as their surrogates. But the press has largely abandoned this surrogate role.

Many news media have swamped the news agenda with misguided, unhelpful narratives. Examples include President Trump vs. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Trump vs. Gov. Cuomo, and the ever-false choice of science vs. the economy.

The nation’s crisis has been framed largely through the perspective of New York and New Jersey, areas that sadly have been hard hit — but which also suggest a situation more severe than is being experienced in the other 48 states. A death in Arizona caused by consuming fish-tank cleaner sent the media into a tizzy. Mainstream media were in a panic about a lethal COVID-19 spike when the Wisconsin primary was held in early April, but subsequent analysis showed that the supposed jump in cases failed to materialize. Noted statistician Nate Silver has criticized the media for not putting into proper context the relationship between increased testing and case numbers reported.

The public has now figured out that it is getting worked and expresses that sentiment abundantly in various polls. It is hard to trust an institution that is more interested in itself than the people it should be serving. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reports fewer than half of Americans believe the media have provided a clear view of the COVID-19 dangers; an Associated Press-NORC poll showed less than a third of Americans have a great deal of trust in media handling of COVID-19 news. Pew Research Center reports that half of Americans have difficulty determining what is “true and not true about the outbreak” and two-thirds report seeing news they perceived as “made up.”

The news industry collectively created a polarized audience when it left the realm of objective reporting, instead pandering to niche audiences that could carve out cultural hideouts. That framework now harms the citizenry, especially during a time of national crisis, leaving a skeptical public with nowhere to turn for real understanding.

Perhaps it is just impossible to forge a common knowledge base in a huge nation where people are spread out by regional, cultural and ideological fissures. 

Gone are the days of colonial America when people gathered in town halls and everybody had access to the same information and claims, whatever those were.

The COVID-19 story may be too big for the press to report or for news consumers to absorb, but there are consequences for this failure to forge understanding. The societal confusion caused by lack of knowledge will be playing out for months. It’s turning a challenging situation into a cultural nightmare.

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.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Anthony Fauci Coronavirus coronavirus death toll COVID-19 Donald Trump Mainstream media Rasmussen Social media Trust in Media US news media

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