Fear factor: Press and politicians should help pause the panic
Most people have heard of the news-business truism, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Sensational or alarming news stories have proven a profitable attention-getter since the dawn of newspapers — and, later, of radio and television — and preying on our various anxieties has been a staple of the news business ever since.
The same is true of politics: Fear and anxiety are among the surest provocations to get your political base out to vote or to support your campaign. Politicians have used those successfully since the first elections were held.
Knowing both, it sure seems as if the nonstop frightening, even terrifying news and political rhetoric being spread across the globe regarding the newest coronavirus, COVID-19, could be the mother of all cash-cows for some in the news business and in the political world.
Just as a very recent example, we have this news item: “Quarantined couple die of coronavirus two hours apart in Italy.” If the editors were looking for cheap, easy online clicks, then mission accomplished. When I saw the story as it ran this past Thursday morning, it already had well more than 200,000 views.
Those who actually bothered to read the story accompanying the sensational headline would learn that, although the couple did indeed tragically pass within hours of each other, the husband was 86 years of age and the wife, 82. For those who didn’t get that far and only consumed the headline, it was just one more fear-inducing straw being piled upon the thousands of others now sitting atop our troubled minds.
That same newspaper and many others now feature daily charts which highlight (often in blood-red) the countries around the world that have the coronavirus, how many humans are infected worldwide, and how many allegedly have died from the virus. Within many of the charts are “Subscribe” buttons, so that the reader can sign up for daily updates.
Not surprisingly, the media don’t put forth such charts for the annual flu season, which can claim the lives of 20,000 to more than 60,000 Americans alone. Fear-inducing charts are great for delivering desperately wanted clicks, but they are increasingly detrimental to our mental and emotional well-being.
Which begs the most critical question: When and which will be the final straw that not only succeeds in breaking our minds but in tipping the dangerously teetering scale of world survival toward oblivion?
This is not a game, and that is not a rhetorical question. Because of inflated panic, we are on the brink of unimagined catastrophe.
The news business is, in fact, a business, and one that is shrinking or suffering in the best of times. As such, during normal, stable times, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any news site featuring a sensationalized story or two, guaranteed to capture those clicks, newsstand sales, viewers or listeners.
But things are far from normal or stable, and some in the news industry have played a large role in destabilizing our world. The industry now needs to come together as one to undo some of the damage inflicted by some in their business.
Simply by reporting the positive aspects of the current pandemic. Stories that speak to the tens of thousands who have already recovered, such as the infected passengers on two cruise ships who survived the infection and are now back home. Stories explaining that this virus will run its course and that, as deadly or as infectious or as fast-moving as this coronavirus may be, it still pales in comparison to the yearly deaths in our nation and around the world from flu.
They don’t need to downplay or dismiss the dangers and the legitimate concerns, or ignore the disruptions occurring all around us as a result of this pandemic. They simply need to provide some balance and a recognition that life on Earth is not coming to an end this week as in some sci-fi movie.
Positive stories such as these may not be as attention-grabbing and profitable — but they would go a long way toward calming people and stopping the panic.
Beyond the media, our politicians need to come together — immediately — and literally stand shoulder-to-shoulder to remind Americans that, no matter our political party or ideology, we are all in this together and that panic, partisanship, selfishness and hoarding are the surest ways to bring us all down.
Having reached a deal on emergency aid, and declared a national emergency, either President Trump needs to travel to Capitol Hill to stand with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to deliver that message, or they need to join the president in the White House Rose Garden.
There will always be time for partisanship and political rage. But this is not that time. The welfare of millions, perhaps billions, of humans hangs in the balance.
The purveyors of greed, hate and partisanship have worsened the most turbulent, most threatening storm of our lives. Knowing that, the “adults in the room” from the media and political classes need to step up immediately to calm those troubled waters by speaking as one and emphasizing not just the frightening but also the positive and the hopeful aspects of this crisis.
Beyond that desperately needed fix from the media and our politicians, each of us can and must play our own roles by acting responsibly and altruistically within our own communities.
The opportunists using the coronavirus to feed their greed and hate must not be allowed to tip the world toward oblivion. There is still time to stop them.
Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.
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