Bringing change to ingrained practices of the news media is slow and difficult, especially if it’s the fundamental premise that journalists should report all the news and let the audience do with it as they wish. But occasionally, when evidence of significant public harm begins to pile up, change can happen.
- Example: National TV networks eventually came to agree that on presidential election nights, immediate, sample-based declarations of state winners before polls closed could affect subsequent voter turnout. Now, they wait.
- Example: A growing number of editors have concluded that repeated and high-profile attention to the names and viewpoints of mass shooters may contribute to the motives of copycats. Now, more organizations practice restraint.
No kind of misinformation from any government official is acceptable. But the news media can blunt some of it with aggressive follow-up questions, prominent fact checking and pointed criticism by designated commentators. With the coronavirus, though, the danger of distortion and inaccuracy is so great that normal journalistic counterbalances are not fast enough or effective enough. President Donald Trump puts some people’s health and even lives at risk when he downplays the spread of the disease, offers premature hope for drugs whose effectiveness and side effects are unproved, and overstates the availability of tests. This nationally broadcast behavior is why some people do not participate in social distancing. Why a doctor had to take to Twitter to warn of the potential danger of using hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin together without a doctor’s consent. Why lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients who need hydroxychloroquine are having more trouble getting it. Why, in part, health officials in hard-hit areas have to ward off non-symptomatic test seekers in order to conserve tests and protective equipment.
Trump’s recent – and false – statements that indirect deaths from a recession would exceed direct deaths from the coronavirus could prompt non-essential businesses to foolishly re-open in geographies where they have that option.
Trump also suggested in a March 4 phone interview with Fox News that people with the coronavirus are able to go to work, demonstrating that he’s reckless in any live forum, not just press briefings.
That much of the nation is at home and watching increases the urgency for TV media to think about their ethical obligations and respond. They have other options:
- Show excerpts, even misleading ones, later, with introductions and elaborations that counter the bad information.
- Post full video online, with visitors having to click through a fact-laden disclaimer to access it.
- Consider emerging artificial intelligence technology that allows live or brief tape-delayed broadcast with instant fact checking in an on-screen side panel.
Offering any amplification whatsoever to Trump’s most mortifying statements, even in the forms just mentioned, is increasingly controversial among media professionals and independent commentators who see a need for radical change. But journalists should not deprive citizens of evidence they need – such as conduct in a crisis – to evaluate the fitness of this or any president. One commentator on the practices of journalism has argued that not showing Trump’s daily briefings live would in essence “protect” Trump by not letting the American people see and judge his behavior. This is a traditional journalistic sensibility. Nonetheless, measurable jeopardy to health and life demands a different strategy.
I hold little hope, alas, for a different strategy by the major national networks. Despite internal and public complaints from some of their journalists, the major cable networks continue their pattern of live broadcasts, no doubt influenced by the high ratings they receive. Their increasing frequency of cutaways – when Trump isn’t speaking – does not solve the problem, even if they devote that time to debunking what Trump just said. Some local media affiliates, such as a radio news station in hard-hit Seattle, have shown more gumption by indeed refusing to show the president’s briefings.
I expect the most resistance to change in any form to come from Fox News, which uses multiple shows to advocate, seemingly conscience free, for Trump, including its journalistic malpractice during the first two months of the virus crisis. And that’s especially alarming, for those viewers are the ones most likely to believe Trump’s words and suffer the harm that may come from them.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published an earlier version of this commentary as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.