I’d like more “news” with my “media” please

March 09, 2021

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I talked last time about my frustration with what passes as “news” these days and how we no longer seem to get the full story, regardless of where we turn. It begs the question: Why do we watch the news? Why do we tune in to talk radio, podcasts and to cable news shows? It’s simple – we want to know what the heck is going on! But why? Why do we care? I think it’s because we crave connection.  We want to know what others in our human family are experiencing. Could it be something we would experience some day, and should be prepared for? Is there something we can do to be helping our fellow humans? We are after all, all connected in this relatively brief moment on earth together (in the same boat, so to speak).

Therefore, every day, we seek answers. And we look to the media to bring us the “news” and to help us navigate the events of daily life. Problem is, the media is letting us down. Not because news outlets are not full of smart or well-meaning people. Not because they are sinister or evil. But because one of two things may be true: they suck as communicators and/or they are more focused on profit than on informing the public. On the first point, the media often isn’t articulating what they mean or what we want to know. And that’s because of the second point — media companies have become so dependent on ratings and click throughs that they have compromised their integrity and fidelity to being intellectually honest communicators. They have become more “media” and less “news.” The result is where we find ourselves today — with a culture that is angry, mistrustful, skeptical and full of media stars posing as purveyors of the news.

Let’s throw caution to the wind and go straight for the most controversial and politically charged current example – the coronavirus.

Even a year into an international pandemic, we still have so many seemingly unanswered questions. Exactly how dangerous is the coronavirus? How worried should we be? When exactly can I get a vaccine? What’s going on with the new variants? Can kids safely be in school? How can the economy survive?

Like everything in our American culture these days, the answers to these questions have become political dividing lines. Which, honestly, makes no sense. The virus does not ask for your political affiliation before infecting you. We are truly ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Despite that, there are political fault lines.

Here’s is what I see being depicted in the media:

Democrats = Be as cautious as humanly possible. Listen to Dr. Fauci; wear a mask everywhere, even outside and in your car; don’t allow kids in schools because there is a possibility someone will contract the virus; when cases spike, close everything down. Everyone deserves the same level of protection.

Republicans = Don’t over-react. Wear a mask if the situation warrants it (lots of cases in your community), but try to keep everything as normal as possible; allow kids in schools as risk of transmission and infection has proven to be low; make closures strategic to keep people working.

Here is my interpretation (translation if you will) of what is actually being said by both sides:

Democrats prioritize minimizing risk. They believe risk as a collective undertaking that is fundamental to preserving equality – we all do this together and it protects everyone. The response should be standardized and consistent as that is the only fair way to approach this and keep everyone as safe as possible. They look to the Federal government to set the rules and do what is necessary to financially to keep everyone afloat during the disruption – despite how long it may last or what it might cost.

Republicans prioritize individual freedom – in this case to assess and choose their own level of risk. They believe decision making should be based at the local level and resist things like blanket mask mandates and mass state-wide closures. Local officials should be allowed to manage closures matched to the level of risk. If the local Walmart is deemed “essential” and therefore open, then so too should the small family-owned jewelry and gift shop on main street. They trust people to do the right thing, without dictating behavior from the government.

The dirty secret here is that both the views on the right and left are legit. Neither is wrong. They are just based on different, equally valid foundational values. We should be saying this out loud so that people understand the underpinning of the two points of view.

That is not happening because the media prioritizes ratings and clicks over informing the public. They fan hysteria over extreme behavior or partisan fights rather than getting out the dull information that people need to determine their personal standard of risk. As a result we are having a virtual political war over pandemic response, where wearing a mask becomes a litmus test for your political views.

This is a communications failure. It is the job of the “news media” and our public leaders to do what I’m doing here – to sort through the breathless exaggeration and try to present what’s really going on. Or put another way, to communicate about boring facts within the context of differing foundational values and being intellectually honest about the legitimate perspectives on both sides. But that doesn’t get ratings. So they promote the loud voices of outrage that keep us divided. The result is all of us simply being pissed off about the whole business.

The media has a lot of work to do to regain trust – to get back to the purpose of public service rather than entertainment. To be more news than media. All of us need to keep the pressure up – because honestly, our expectations have been too low.