The media could be forgiven for making the odd misstep right now — after all, we are living in ‘unprecedented times’ (as they like to remind us on a near daily basis). Yet, the regular failings of the media in covering this pandemic are hard to look past, especially considering that even their pre-COVID news courage hardly provided a case study in journalistic integrity. As American deaths continue to rise and lockdown orders begin to be disobeyed, a significant portion of blame for the current situation belongs to the media.
An entire media ecosystem and it’s failings have been exposed by the Coronavirus
As inexcusable as flotations of lockdown orders are, it is hardly surprising that a significant minority of Americans are dismissive regarding the seriousness of the current pandemic. The media’s tendency towards sensationalism has long existed, but has become heightened during the Trump era — the result being a population suffering from outrage fatigue. Throughout the Trump era, outlets like CNN and MSNBC have floated far-fetched ideas like both Trump and Pence being impeached and Pelosi becoming President and, they have consistently suggested that any given news event — be it Russia, tax returns or Stormy Daniels — could lead to Trump’s removal from office.
Moreover, every development in such stories is greeted with anger-filled, oversized panels, dramatic graphics and hyperbolic rhetoric. This makes every news event — even something as inconsequential as Trump’s Twitter typos — seem hugely consequential. After years of telling viewers that ‘this’ (whatever ‘this’ is) will change everything, it’s hardly surprising that when actually faced with an event that really could change everything, many people just aren’t listening.
In the face of dwindling public trust, the media could have taken the Coronavirus as a chance to re-calibrate their approach to covering news, yet this virus has exposed their failings more than it has stopped them.
One of the main criticisms of the media during this pandemic has centred around their coverage of Trump’s press conferences. In airing the entirety of Trump’s live conferences — often without live fact-checking — they have effectively given the President millions of dollars worth of free advertising. Trump’s clearly caught onto this too; using one of these events to air a campaign-style video. Many networks cut away from the video (others didn’t), but the reason Trump played the video in the first place was because he felt empowered to by the media — who have long been comfortable giving Trump free advertising; dating all the way back to 2016 when networks would spend up to thirty minutes airing Trump’s empty podium before giving wall to wall coverage of the ensuing rallies.
CNN’s clapback chyrons aren’t designed to make viewers more informed, they’re designed to go viral
CNN’s chyron’s during Trump’s press conferences are a perfect example of journalistic failings during these times. Their clapback chyrons, blasting the President’s rhetoric as “propaganda” and “false”, aren’t designed to make viewers more informed, they’re designed to go viral; to win the plaudits of online liberals and outrage conservatives, including the President — perhaps even earning CNN an angry tweet from Trump (that would be great for ratings!).
The chyrons are clearly designed to give the impression of journalistic ethics without requiring CNN to make any hard, risky decisions. Blasting the President’s rhetoric as untrue from the bottom of a TV screen isn’t an effective way to fact-check the President, as it doesn’t actually tell viewers what the truth is and it doesn’t prove that what’s being said is a lie. Even if extensive fact-checking is done after the press conference, a large number of viewers will have tuned out. Despite CNN’s attempts to prove otherwise, there is simply no way to responsibly cover this crisis than to make the hard decision to stop covering the President’s speeches live, unedited and in their entirety.
There is no greater example of the false-promise of CNN’s provocative chyrons than in the one they ran just days earlier, which stated both Trump’s claims and Dr. Fauci’s contradictory claims, without any commentary. As designed, the chyron gained strong reactions (both positive and negative) online, yet it was deeply unhelpful (and misleading) for the masses of people across America who were tuning into CNN to help make sense of the evolving crisis and the Government’s response to it. Unlike, the reliable partisans on Twitter, many of them didn’t inherently trust Trump or Fauci more than the other. For them, this chyron didn’t represent a bold assertion of the truth, it represented yet more confusion, more uncertainty and more anxiety at a time where they are struggling to put food on their family’s table. CNN’s famous (or infamous) chyrons are not helping their viewers and neither are they meant to. Like much of the media’s coverage of this crisis, these chyrons are self-aggrandizing ploys; designed to bring praise and high viewership, even if at the cost of journalistic integrity.
Unless the mainstream media suddenly change, their legitimacy will continue to fall — and if that happens, they will have nobody to blame but themselves
The media — particularly CNN’s — coverage of both Andrew and Chris Cuomo has exposed the self-obsession and New York centric attitudes that they have long been accused of holding. While New York has been hardest hit by the virus, nearly three-quarters of cases have come from outside the state — yet, you’d have little idea of this if you only tuned into mainstream media. The extensive coverage of the New York Governor stands in stark contrast to the limited coverage of figures like Governor Newsom and Mayor London Breed. Even though, their response to the virus was arguably better, even if just because they chose not to cut Medicaid in the middle of a crisis — like the New York Governor did.
Meanwhile, the rolling updates given by the media on Chris Cuomo’s situation as he battled the virus seemed somewhat out-of-touch, given that the vast majority of people with his symptoms wouldn’t even have been able to get a test. Like with celebrities singing Imagine or Madonna waxing poetic from her bathtub, few were a receptive audience to the COVID-inspired reflections of Cuomo, especially when many of them were desperately waiting for their stimulus checks or were begging their landlord for rent forgiveness. At a time, where millions of Americans would kill to have a job — any job — there was little sympathy for Cuomo’s talk of hating his powerful, well-paying career. This lack of sympathy for the CNN anchor was only worsened when Cuomo made a dramatic, reality TV style video claiming to show him exiting his basement for the first time in “weeks”, despite having admitted to breaking quarantine just one week earlier.
But, this isn’t just about Chris Cuomo, or Andrew Cuomo, or even CNN alone, it’s about an entire media ecosystem whose failings have been exposed and exacerbated by the Coronavirus. As is true with so many aspects of society, COVID-19 is exposing existing flaws more than it is remedying them. Well-respected, independent, non-partisan, mainstream media networks are needed more than ever right now. Yet, a look at the aforementioned mistakes of CNN, or the Trump cheer-leading of Fox News, shows how far away we are from reaching that goal. Unless their approaches suddenly change, the legitimacy and respectability of the media will continue to fall during this pandemic — and if that happens, they will have nobody to blame but themselves.