The Media's Impossible Job

| 09 Mar 2020 | 09:58

    The media have an impossible job right now. Put simply, it is doing their job.

    The coronavirus scare has overtaken every other story lately. It has been so all-encompassing that it is has taken our eyes off national politics – if only for a little while.

    Except for specialists, reporters tend not to know the nuances of science, medicine and health. So, trying to make sense of the coronavirus is especially challenging.

    But that's not the half of it.Thorny questions abound. Perhaps the biggest one is: Can reporters stay on top of the quicksilver story without fanning the flames of our citizens' paranoia?

    Critics on All Sides

    We all know that journalists can't win. No matter how they present the news, someone is bound to feel aggrieved by their coverage and recitations of facts. Now that the stakes are so high, the public is bound to complain about some aspect of the reporting.

    President Trump has accused the media, one of his favorite punching bags, of exploiting the corona-mania to make him look bad, and weak, and indecisive in a time of crisis. He insists that their goal is to hurt his chances of re-election. And topping it off, he says the media are hand in glove with his Democratic Party foes.

    No matter how you might want to respond to that charge, it has been making the rounds, fueled by conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters. And you know how it is: If you repeat the same line enough, people start to accept it as the truth.

    Beyond Health

    The media's job of informing the public in a timely manner about developments in the coronavirus story has been complicated, as the conversations have exploded beyond the usual health considerations.

    Sports teams may have to cancel games, to guarantee the safety of the players. What if March Madness has to take place this year in empty arenas? That would be, well, madness. Imagine Opening Day at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field with attendance in the dozens, instead of tens of thousands.

    The media must chronicle all of this – and in real time. No doubt, as the virus methodically kills more people, it will become as much of an issue on the campaign trail as immigration, Russia, taxes, North Korea and infrastructure.

    The threat to journalists is the age-old charge of having a bias. If journalists come down heavily on the government, they will be called "anti-Trumpers" by the usual suspects on conservative media outlets.

    Sometimes, it is more risky to try to do the right thing, because you can't please everyone, and you wind up making everybody angry.

    Don't Take It Personally

    Sadly, the inevitable judgment of the media will, once again and as usual by now, fall along party lines. If you support the current administrations, you'll lash out at the media for being unfair. If you support the other party, you will complain that journalists have equivocated, in the name of "balanced" reporting.

    Journalists must be careful to maintain a sense of proportion at this difficult time. Not taking yourself too seriously is job one.

    When I was writing a column called Media Web, earlier in this century, my publication also included a postage-size head shot of me to go with my (brilliant) prose. One day I received a comment from an agitated reader who lived in Kansas City. She wrote: "I've been reading your column for the past 10 years. The column stinks – and boy, are you ugly!"

    I immediately wrote back: "THE COLUMN DOES NOT STINK!"

    My attempt at self-deprecating humor worked. She was amused and we became friends – well, friendlier. (Who wants to hang out with an ugly columnist!)

    My message to the media: When people rip you and your work, don't take it personally.