CLIMER: Can democracy survive an incompetent news media?

The existence of a democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry.

Modern democracies have become even more reflective of public thinking due to advances in opinion polling, nearly instantaneous communications and a better-educated public.

But, being better educated does not equal being better informed. If the public is only getting part of the story, they may not be able to process the options and tradeoffs that all public-policy decisions demand.

While TV news and newspapers once traded in facts (who, what, when, where and why), they now have condensed their role to emotional appeals and keeping customers entertained, not necessarily informed.

This current year has illustrated the lack of competence of the media, with the Covid-19 pandemic being a perfect example. During this crisis, the news media have left the public uninformed on essential questions that impact public policy and the health of those readers and listeners.

Throughout the pandemic, the media has focused on heart-wrenching stories. They have satisfied the half of the population inclined to view issues through an emotive lens. Yet, much of the media has ignored the other half of the population that seeks factual information.

Daily, the pandemic stories have illustrated the human and emotional impact of death and disease. If such stories are accompanied by a fact, it is designed to communicate how strongly the emotional impact should be felt.

One of the most prevalent daily statistics is the number of deaths attributable to Covid-19. As of the end of June, that number was around 127,000 nationwide. That one number can make it sound like death is everywhere. 

Based on that statistic, without context or comparisons, members of our democracy are expected to form and express opinions about stay-at-home orders, opening of different types of businesses, the wisdom of seeking medical care about symptoms that do not constitute an emergency, and issues dealing with jobs, home buying, traveling, etc. The inadequately-informed public is influencing governmental policy decisions that have cost millions of jobs, thousands of businesses to fail and people to die, not to mention expanding the national debt.

The single daily death number meets the needs of the news media. It is scary, it fits the storyline with emotional impact and, like the daily weather forecast, it has customers coming back for the latest updates.

How would public reactions to the Covid-19 virus change if citizens knew a few other data points? For example, the 1957-8 Asian flu (also known as H2N2 virus) claimed the lives of 116,000 U.S. residents, and did so out of a smaller population of 180,000,000. 

Or, to put it in really stark and relevant terms, what if they knew that while COVID-19 claimed 127,000 lives so far in 2020, among our current population of around 331 million, normal causes of death for a normal 5-month period in 2017 claimed 1,172,293 lives? According to the CDC, the nation experienced 2,813,503 deaths, or roughly 234,459 a month, in 2017. 

By not sharing relevant facts, the news media has shortchanged the public, who have a democratic obligation to advise their elected followers on policy. Elected officials are followers, even if they call themselves leaders. 

COVID-19 death rates illustrate one aspect of the problem. Other facts of the pandemic, such as 62% of those deaths in NC were among folks over 75, or that another 20% were folks between 65 and 75 with a majority living in communal settings, are typically glossed over in the news. Would the policy preferences of the public change if they were given the whole picture instead of half of it?

Late night TV shows have a lot of fun asking “man-on-the-street” questions about current events and illustrating how poorly informed we are. They never notice that their game is actually a test of the news media, not the poor sap who unwittingly agreed to their quiz game.

Limiting news to emotional stories reflects an incompetence by the media. However, it requires less knowledge among reporters and editors. Grabbing a soundbite, a photo or TV footage of visible emotions is easy; interpreting and communicating complex statistics and contributing facts is hard work. But it is essential if a functioning democracy is to survive.

Jerry Climer was founding president of the not-for-profit Congressional Institute, Inc. in Washington, D.C., and a long-time congressional staff member, before retiring to Edenton.