Why do our news media assume we're so helpless?

Why do our news media assume we're so helpless?
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Society expects journalists to fill several important functions: check on government power, community watchdog, reliable source of basic information. But there’s one role we really don’t need from the news business — life coach.

And yet, as Americans move out of the pandemic and into more normal lives, reporters, editors and producers are flooding the media universe with a heavy stream of soft stories filled with trite advice on everything from how to hug again to the safest method for dipping back into the habit of gossipy behavior.

In a time of economic challenges for the news industry, this doesn’t feel like the smartest use of tight resources.

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It’s no secret that television and print have always produced their fair share of advice and how-to stories. But these segments routinely focus on practical information, step-by-step guides on topics like parenting or home repair.

This latest genre is something very different — “practical” is not the first word that comes to mind. “Fuzzy,” “generic,” and “unfocused” better describe the phenomenon. Much of it is stuff best left to daytime talk shows, not news organizations of record.

Readers and viewers of respected national outlets, for example, have lately been confronted with articles actually instructing them how to re-learn the art of small talk. Insightful guidance offered included this innovative tip on making conversation: don’t focus “overwhelmingly on the negative.” What about couples who drew closer during lockdown but now must return to normal life and separation? Well, they should “connect on a deeper level” by communicating “in an open way.”

As we get back out into society, we may now feel overwhelmed with too many friends. The life-affirming answer offered by some national news outlets: re-examine your “friendscape” and dump the unworthy by asking yourself, “Who did I miss and who missed me?”

And if you’re worried you won’t be able to handle real life again at all, journalists suggest learning the art of “temporal distancing.” That is, sit there and imagine your world in, say, a year from now — when you are happy and adjusted. This will make you feel better.

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At latest count, America is home to some 20,000 “life coaches,” reportedly the fastest-growing profession second only to information technology jobs. These people make a collective $2 billion a year, part of an overall $11 billion domestic “self-help” industry.

That means our society already has plenty of people with murky credentials ready to take our money in exchange for something less than psychological counseling but more than, apparently, asking your mother for advice. There doesn’t seem to be some massive void out there that reporters need to fill with endless column inches and video segments.

Beyond even the need for any of this from national newsrooms, these articles and segments also seem to reveal something naggingly uncomfortable: The banal subject matter and one-size-fits-all bromides often come across as fiercely condescending, perhaps providing a little window into how top producers and editors really assess their viewers and readers.

Those journalists might very well assume their news consumers are smart, curious people with an interest in complex subjects like international affairs and domestic tranquility. But this recent deluge of pseudo-information tells a different story. It’s as if the media cognoscenti consider the vast majority of their consumers excessively fragile and bewildered, a lost tribe that must be saved with some Hallmark-card version of therapeutic reporting.

Evidently, these are not readers and audiences imbued with common sense, who can be trusted to absorb facts and form conclusions. They are, instead, people who can only function if trusted information sources repeatedly assure them that, well, “hugs are making a comeback.”

Perhaps, as the pandemic continues to fade, this odd and somewhat embarrassing news trend will fade with it. Life, and the people who live it, will go on as always — somehow, humans will work out very personal conflicts and issues on their own or with the close circle around them.

I can’t wait.

In the meantime, I’ll follow the profound and ground-breaking advice offered by one typically indispensable article: “This, too, shall pass.”

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.