When Everything is Breaking News, Nothing is Important.

March 22, 2020

In the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic, history will not (should not!) be kind to news media. And a wholesale inventory needs to be made about the role news media should play, and how it’s currently corrupted.

I’ll start with the Good News and kudos:

News media — all outlets — have on balance done a great job of getting the word out about the Coronavirus sweeping the world. There have been numerous alarms sounded and warnings issued for people to be prepared. Sure, there’s been a lot of bad or misleading information bandied about, but all of it (I hope?) was well intentioned and meant to help or offer solace. In this crisis, our news media organizations (TV, print, web, left-leaning, right-leaning, whatever) have been and continue to be fulfilling the role society needs them to fill, getting and spreading important information to help us through the pandemic. This is fantastic.

And now the Bad News:

The problem is, nobody listened until it was too late (…and some still aren’t).

Why?

The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

For the past decade or two, no doubt spurred on by the internet age of clickbait-y sensationalism of anything and everything, the media has lost our trust.

When EVERYTHING is a BREAKING NEWS! headline, every winter storm is given a name, every 4% drop in the stock market inspires “Markets in Crisis” special programming, and when serious journalism is replaced by shouting matches on live TV between two (or more) opposing opinions, we all have become desensitized to everything.

When every Hurricane is “The Big One,” when every Gold bug is given air time to shout about the collapse of Western Civilization any time Gold commodity prices trend up for two days in a row, when every random terrorist attack by some isolated nutjob is reported like it’s part of a coordinated global conspiracy to kill Americans, when every school shooter is made out to be anything other than someone who got this idea because he/she knows the media will make some kind of macabre celebrity out of him… we all just tune out.

Then we get U.S. Presidents and conspiracy theorists convincing half of the nation that everything you see or read in the news is “fake.”

And then when there IS real news, news that doesn’t need to be sensationalized because it’s “sensational” all on its own and it will help us all be better prepared and safe — it gets ignored. Or worse, mocked.

I wish I knew the magic solution to get us out of this predicament. This is my attempt to help start a long overdue national conversation. We need the media to earn our trust back. We need them to knock off the sensationalism. To kill the fear mongering. To stop the spread of anxiety — the worst virus — that marinates in every live shouting match on TV. We need business models to evolve beyond click-rates and ratings. We need smart, fair, balanced news to be front and center. And trusted.

If America (regardless of your political affiliation) trusted our news sources to deliver us urgent messages when they are urgent, we — as a nation — would’ve been far better prepared for this epidemic. Instead, we’ve only just begun to see reality set in for the vast majority of our population. About two extremely valuable months too late.

We’re better than this. And we will be better than this. And one place to start is with this conversation on how and where we get our news.

~ @chicagosean