Finger Pointing in the Eye of the Coronavirus Storm

During Most Crises, Media Coverage Quickly Turns from Breaking News to Assignment of Culpability               

4/6/2020 – – In the first hours of a crisis, news organizations are pretty good about sticking to the facts. There’s plenty of breaking news to report. Viewers, readers and listeners want to know what’s happening, who’s involved and what dangers may threaten them personally. But in the typical life cycle of a high-profile crisis, fact-based, event-driven media coverage quickly becomes secondary as reporters turn their focus to assigning culpability.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment media finger-pointing began during the current coronavirus crisis. What is clear, however, is that right now — even as our nation enters what federal and state health authorities fear will be the pandemic’s deadliest few weeks — headlines are dominated by blame.

In Chapter 5 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Culpability and Crises: Proclaiming Villains and Victims”), we focus on this phenomenon:

Let’s face it, occurrences that are ‘nobody’s fault’ are not as interesting or newsworthy as screw-ups for which somebody important can be blamed. It may not be fair, but reporters believe it’s their job to identify winners and losers, good guys and bad guys, villains and victims. Take all the lessons you learned in grade school about not pointing fingers at other people and throw then out the window. The best journalists I’ve worked with are highly opinionated, judgmental people. Those traits help them get to the bottom of a story.  

One problem with this predictable pivot from reporting to prosecution is that once a news organization settles on its bad guys, news decisions become biased to support its verdict. If CNN determines that President Trump is the villain, it may not investigate stories assessing the Chinese Communist Party’s questionable behavior at the start of the outbreak. If FOX News determines that past presidential administrations are most to blame for a lack of preparedness, they may dismiss legitimate questions about the current administration’s actions. Like the most effective criminal prosecutors, they work hard to present only one compelling side of the story.

Of course, that’s not the role or responsibility of a free and independent press. So, the accuracy, timelines and usefulness of media coverage suffer at a time consumers are most in need of unbiased information. And there is a temptation for leaders faced with ugly (often unfair) charges while they’re doing their best to address pressing concerns to expend too much energy defending themselves. It takes extraordinary discipline to stay focused on the task at hand while under fire. Over-reaction only adds to the embattled picture biased reporters are trying to paint. 

Watch for this unfortunate characteristic of crisis reporting — common in media coverage of corporate crises as well — as you tune in or go online to navigate this unprecedented situation. There will be plenty of time to assess blame once our hospital emergency rooms and morgues are less taxed.

My next post will focus on recovery: How can your company or organization, while still in the eye of the storm, prepare for a post-coronavirus-crisis world?  

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