The Media’s Coronavirus Failures

President Donald Trump takes questions during a coronavirus task force news briefing at the White House March 16, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
If the current crisis has taught us anything, it’s that mainstream outlets still struggle with giving audiences what they need in addition to what they want.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE B attle: Los Angeles, a sci-fi action flick released in 2011, depicted what would happen if the U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton had to respond to a sudden alien invasion. Though the film wasn’t terribly original, it was fun. (A diverse band of Marines and civilians, led by Aaron Eckhart and his perfect chin, fleeing and fighting their way through a hastily evacuated Los Angeles while dodging alien drones, could hardly not be fun.) And there was one sly bit of social commentary tucked in: On the news channels shown throughout the movie, the stock tickers kept running at the bottom of the screen, showing that the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down roughly 4,847 points in response to the fact that aliens were taking over the world’s coastal cities. Bad news for humanity, and think of the toll on your 401(k)!

Like the Internet commentators who offer habitual gripes during an alien invasion in a Mitchell and Webb sketch, some people cannot change their mental habits, even in a severe crisis. And the global pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 is a bit like an alien invasion. Green spheres with little red spikes have landed, and they are floating around, invisible to the naked eye, trying to sneak into our lungs. They’re more threatening to some of us than to others, but no one is immune, besides (thankfully) most children and those who have already fought off an infection. Our best scientists are developing ways to mitigate the invasion’s damage, but we haven’t yet found an unstoppable superweapon or an impenetrable shield.

Some corners of our media world have done an excellent job covering this invasion; others, not so much. We’ve seen journalists offer confident early predictions that the coronavirus would be less dangerous than the seasonal flu, journalists insist that the public should not wear masks before insisting that it should, and journalists continue to take Chinese government statements on the pandemic at face value. Even worse, some media have continued to give their audiences the equivalent of the stock numbers — obsessing over whether it was racist to use the label “Wuhan virus,” relentlessly covering reporters’ fights with the president, giving us in-depth coverage, dissection, and criticism of Chris Cuomo’s coronavirus diagnosis and recovery, informing us of the latest virus-related celebrity controversies.

In short, this crisis has revealed that our largest and most influential media institutions are well-prepared to cover some stories but are barely able to cover others. Events in New York City, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles are covered the most, because the most media institutions are based there. Covering a story like the unprecedented disruptions to our food-supply chain requires paying attention to what’s going on in places such as Pasco, Wash., Logansport, Ind., and Waterloo, Iowa. The national media is much more interested in celebrity chefs than in where and how we produce the food we eat.

Cable-news networks really like covering a politician’s latest pronouncement and then having a roundtable of commentators argue about what he said. This is relatively cheap, easy, and quick. Donald Trump has been a godsend to cable news, because he’s always saying or tweeting something outrageous, and it is easy to find talking heads willing to declare his daily statements or actions the best or worst thing ever. American media institutions love stories about big personalities, and stories with binary conflicts, because those stories have an instinctual, visceral appeal for viewers.

Of course, not all issues can be adequately explained and explored in a binary, personality-centric template. The coronavirus is not Kim Kardashian, Michael Avenatti, Elon Musk, Diamond and Silk, or Colin Kaepernick. But that hasn’t stopped the media from attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. It’s telling how quickly the coverage of the pandemic began to focus upon Dr. Anthony Fauci, and how little time it took for pollsters to begin asking about Fauci’s “approval rating,” a metric which, insofar as he’s not an elected official, doesn’t matter at all. Ditto that for the past month, much of the coverage of the coronavirus has tried to boil it down to a clash between those who “believe in science” and want to continue ongoing lockdowns, quarantines, and business closures on one hand, and those “anti-science” dunderheads who want various steps taken to reopen the economy and society.

Almost anyone who isn’t blinded by ideology can see that the choice between public health and the economy is a false one; we must protect both, as best we can, which is not so well. Keeping all nonessential businesses closed indefinitely will continue to have ruinous economic costs; reopening everything will rapidly spread the coronavirus, the precise outcome that the shutdowns were meant to prevent. Policymakers are going to have to muddle through with careful and gradual re-openings of society. But a roundtable of wonky health experts concluding, “This is complicated, state governments are probably going to make mistakes, and a lot of people will be dissatisfied no matter what” does not make for particularly entertaining television — particularly given an audience that’s been conditioned for a few decades to expect every issue to be settled by a Team Red pundit and a Team Blue pundit going at it like a pair of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

This isn’t entirely the fault of dim news producers, executives, and reporters. The American news media evolves in response to audience demands. The rise of the Internet meant people didn’t feel as much need to subscribe to a newspaper. They developed the expectation that news should be provided to them for free, on demand, in an easily digestible way at all times. That expectation in turn meant that much more of news institutions’ revenue had to come from advertising, which meant that the audiences had to be huge, which meant that the stories had to have as wide and simple an appeal as possible. And here we are.

Before the Internet, when a newspaper was sold, the only way a publisher knew what sections and stories got read the most was from commissioning reader surveys or reading letters to the editor. Once the Internet came along, every publisher could see exactly how many people read each article and feature, and it simply didn’t make sense to continue to invest resources in the sections that attracted the least readers, even if the coverage in those sections was an invaluable public service. To one extent or another, outlets all had an incentive to dumb things down and pitch as much of their coverage as possible to the lowest common denominator.

This is an obvious problem, because what you need to know and what you want to know are not always the same, particularly when the news of the day is bad and upsetting. Right now, the public’s need for good, accurate, reliable information on the virus is particularly vital, and the news media has done at best a hit-or-miss job satisfying it. Mainstream outlets adapted to the Trump presidency by becoming mono-focused on the president and preparing to cover every bizarre off-the-cuff utterance and raging tweet with a full-court press. They’ve been doing that for so long that when something more important came around for them to do, they couldn’t do it. They kept right on fact-checking the president without bothering to fact-check the Chinese government’s propaganda.

They’ve made sure that the stock tickers remain on our screens, but they haven’t done much to help the fight against the aliens storming our beaches.

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