The COVID-19 health crisis and associated economic fallout have dominated the nation’s news agenda since March. That makes sense, of course, given that the virus has claimed more than 140,000 lives. The crisis has challenged the news industry in many ways, as news editors and producers try to figure out how to keep the public informed as the nation navigates its way forward. The COVID-19 story has a long way to go, sadly, but even now the nation should be assessing whether the news media’s saturated and emotive coverage has been a help or a hindrance to managing a complex, multi-faceted health crisis.
The United States faced a national pandemic, too, in 1968. An influenza A strain showed up in September of that year and swept the country. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the pandemic took the lives of 100,000 Americans. Make no mistake, that episode in American health history was not as devastating as the current COVID-19 crisis. Having said that, however, nobody — including the media — knew that as the 1968 death counts mounted.
The media’s approach in reporting the 1968 health crisis was decidedly different from the wall-to-wall and frantic coverage seen today. Evidence comes from the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive, which has catalogued all television news programs beginning in 1968. The outbreak was known at the time as “Hong Kong flu,” and an archive search for a one-year period beginning late summer of 1968 shows a total of only 59 reports carried collectively by the networks’ evening news shows on CBS, NBC and ABC. Most of those reports were brief “readers” by the anchors, not full-fledged correspondent reports. Further, several of the stories were tangential to the actual pandemic, reporting, for example, that Mamie Eisenhower might miss an engagement as she recovered from flu. By contrast, an archive search of coronavirus for ABC’s evening news broadcasts over the last five months yields 210 results.
Granted, many other news stories of substance dominated the news agenda in 1968, including the Vietnam war, a presidential campaign, and social unrest. Still, it is clear that the major broadcast networks had only moderate interest in covering that year’s flu pandemic as it was taking 100,000 lives. There were no continuous on-screen scoreboards of death counts. President Lyndon Johnson wasn’t accused of health care insensitivity. Government medical experts weren’t media darlings. News anchors weren’t applauding economic shutdowns, and nobody thought for a minute about politicizing whether kids should be in school. Journalists weren’t questioning whether people should go to church. And Trump wasn’t president.
Again, the COVID-19 problem is serious and needs comprehensive journalistic attention. But the proportion and tone of coverage has surely influenced the nation’s emotional temperature, and largely overlooked the many nuances of the big picture. Big journalism doesn’t provide daily death scoreboards of suicides, overdoses, child abuse and domestic violence incidents associated with COVID-19. Scarce has been the reporting of educational deficits caused by school closures. The media demand that science be followed in managing the pandemic, but has little interest in the science coming from Europe about opening schools.
Television news anchors had much different world views in 1968 than today. Walter Cronkite at CBS, Frank Reynolds at ABC, and NBC’s David Brinkley had all lived through the depression and experienced World War II. Brinkley and Reynolds both served in the military, Reynolds earning a Purple Heart. Cronkite was a war correspondent in Europe, landing in a glider with the 101st Airborne and covering the Battle of the Bulge. Journalism served a different function and had different standards in that era. Cable news channels and the Internet hadn’t yet warped the pace of news with minute-to-minute deadlines. News outlets were concerned for ratings then, as now, but it is a sure bet Cronkite and Reynolds wouldn’t have been pandering to social media traffic.
One of the most astute rhetoricians of the twentieth century, Kenneth Burke, wrote that well-reasoned communication can be obliterated by “poor rhetoric backed by nation-wide headlines.”
“Trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement” from the press can negate “exceptional rhetorical skill.” Ultimately, measured and reasoned messaging loses out to the “rhetoric of hysteria” in which paralogical thinking overwhelms a society.
Today, the news industry is a huge player in defining and addressing the health crisis. It is worth pondering whether the media’s approach to covering COVID-19, serious as the virus is, has diminished the nation’s ability to effectively reason its way forward.
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.