By Andrew Bowen, APR
In no way am I minimizing the potential final impact of the COVID-19 virus on the U.S. population, or disrespecting the memory of those who have died from the virus worldwide so far. However, after watching many nights of hysteria-laden reporting on all three major networks, including CNN, as a former journalist I feel compelled to share my thoughts on how the television news media have shamelessly ratcheted up the level of fear and anxiety in this nation when they should be the ones trying to sow the seeds of calm in reassuring tone of voice with just the facts.
In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt warned that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Those words are truer today than ever, and I blame the television news media for stoking the fires of fear that are driving the current historic levels of near panic in the U.S.
In my opinion, Nora O’Donnell on CBS has gone shrill, ramping up emphasis on scary adjectives. Normally calm and cool Lester Holt on NBC has fear in his eyes and often a shaky voice. Usually trusted, unsensational David Muir on ABC called the recent deaths of 100 more people “staggering.” Erin Burnett on CNN is the mistress of the loaded, leading question saturated with opinion.
All of them, or their writers, are using descriptors such as “skyrocketing,” “dreadful,” “alarming,” “shocking,” “deadly virus,” “lethal virus,” and on and on. They all have left their composure at the newsroom door. They have succumbed to the journalism profession’s dreaded virus of sensationalism. In my opinion, again as a former journalist, they’ve become merchants of dread. (The exception, of course, is Judy Woodruff and her team of professional journalists on the PBS Newshour. Thank you, Judy.)
Where is Walter Cronkite when we need him? It is instructive to remember his simple words the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In reporting on one of the saddest, most frightening events in world history, one that generated personal and national uncertainty, public displays of fear, and even emotional breakdown, he calmly intoned the following: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
Watching the black and white broadcast very closely, you can barely see his chin quiver and his jaw clinch, the only hint of emotion exhibited by journalism’s greatest-ever professional newsman. That calm, knowledgeable, factual, straight-up reporting is what we need now, but sadly, it may be gone forever.
(Bowen is a veteran of 20 years in the media. He is founder and senior public relations/media relations counsel for Clearview Communications & Public Relations Inc./The Message Masters, a global public relations firm that also specializes in crisis planning, management and crisis communications, in addition to executive media interview skills and presentation skills workshops. He can be reached at [email protected] ).