As the coronavirus first started to spread in the United States, platforms like Facebook and Twitter were littered with complaints that the epidemic was being blown out of proportion by the media.
And with President Donald Trump’s statement Tuesday — hoping to ‘get the country back to work by Easter’ — it’s clear many of us still feel the same way.
But no matter what ‘next step’ the country takes, one thing the coronavirus has done is peel back the curtain and expose some of the behaviors our society has become accustomed to — behaviors that we might not even realize we’re doing.
One of those, is how often we blame the media.
In the last few years, trust in our news institutions has plummeted.
A recent poll by Columbia University ranking Americans’ confidence levels in various institutions found that “the press” is nearly as distrusted as Congress, whose approval ratings have hovered below 25 percent for over a decade.
The term ‘fake news’ has become a staple of the American lexicon, and we often blame reporters and journalists for ratcheting up fear, blowing stories out of proportion, and telling half-truths in order to perpetuate an agenda.
And if you believe that, you’re not wrong. It seems that more frequently, members of the media are sloppy. They’re inaccurate, they don’t tell the whole truth, or act like they’re trying to hype up fear and anger. It’s almost as if the media industry has been overrun by amateurs.
And it has. Why? Because if you’re reading this, you’re likely one of them.
Now, my point isn’t to call our readers “amateurs” or blame them for the sad state of journalism these days. What I mean is this:
We don’t tend to think of ourselves as members of “the media”, but the reality is that anyone who has a Facebook account or a smart phone in our pocket or computer at home is just as much a member of the media as Walter Cronkite was when he came on the CBS Evening News all those years ago.
Think about what the term “media” refers to — it means any mode or method of broadcasting a message.
We tend to think of newspapers, TV and radio stations as the “media” because for most of the previous century, those were the only people who had the technology to broadcast a message. So the term “media” became attached to them.
But that is a 20th century definition, and we live in a 21st century world.
Think of where you are at this very moment. How long would it take you to put a message out there for the world to see? All you have to do is open up your email, or write a post on Facebook, or hit ‘like’ or share an article online, and you’ve just made yourself a member of the “media”. You’ve broadcast a message to the world.
Technology has given anyone with internet access the ability to shape society and influence those around us, and this has real implications on our day-to-day lives.
Think about how the panic-buying of toilet paper likely spread across the country: Someone went to their local supermarket or grocery store, and posted a picture of an empty shelf where TP once sat. All their friends and followers online saw that, and thought “well, I better go to my local supermarket and get toilet paper before it all runs out!”. And before you know it, more instances of people scrambling and fighting over the last roll on the shelves start popping up all over social media, and society has effectively convinced itself that butt-wipe is going extinct.
It would be silly to assume that all across the country, Americans woke up one morning and coincidentally thought they needed to stock up on the same exact thing all at the very same time. No, one store had to run out first, and then people had to see and hear about it before the second store could run out of it next.
While the amount of toilet paper available is a trivial problem at best, the same concept applies to issues that do matter. What we post and share online, other people will see. As members of the media, we have a responsibility to each other to be honest, accurate and truthful with what messages we send out to the world.
Even the “professionals” in the media still screw up — and they’ve got editors, proof-readers and if they’re good at their job, will have fact checked and double checked the information they are broadcasting. (Let’s be honest, most of us aren’t that diligent with stuff we post and share online).
Technology has given us tremendous luxuries and advantages, but with that comes greater responsibility. We could be more cognizant of the role we play in society. We could ask ourselves, “is this article fair, honest and accurate?” before we hit ‘like’ or hit ‘share’.
And with a little more respect for the roles we now play as members of the media, there just might be plenty of toilet paper left for everyone.