The Perils Of Pummeling The Press

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY MAY 23, 2020

Like it or not, in times of disaster mass communication outlets and government hold a reciprocal relationship when it comes to informing the public. Even in an age where the barriers between officials and the public feels thinner than ever, it’s important individuals know the trusted places to turn to for news.

That makes it all the more troubling when fights between elected leaders and members of the press become stories unto themselves. We can blame the divisive rhetoric of politicians in the hyper-partisan age, or handful of members of the national press who treat press briefings as their own performance stages. But during a time when citizens must process and weigh data to govern their own personal actions, pettiness must not fog the channels and obscure the transfer of information.

But the past few weeks have seen tension seep into coverage of the pandemic in Florida. A national and undoubtedly out-sized outrage ensued over the fact state government never closed down Florida’s beaches statewide. Fortunately, all of Florida’s beaches are located outside, and they didn’t turn into the breeding ground for COVID-19 many feared. Notably, nearly all of Florida’s coastal counties did close down or impose significant restrictions on beach use at some point over the last few months, but as most of those restrictions lift, each move prompts new howls on social media.

But please remember, social media isn’t mass media. And national cable outlets aren’t government press in the state. Also, it’s the job of journalists to report upon and scrutinize the decisions of government, and I believe we have done so appropriately at the state and local level. I’ve pushed county commissioners and state leaders both on whether restrictions went too far they hurt business and on whether lifting regulations put public health at risk. This isn’t an exercise in narrative building, as keyboard critics frequently assert. It’s called holding the government accountable.

So it’s distressing when the back thirds of press conferences turn into a chance for elected officials to simply bash media (who needs professional wrestling on TV). It’s fair to hold media accountable for fairness. But I grow impatient as officials accuse reporters of intentionally spreading misinformation for merely reporting on model projections (which rarely get things exactly right) or when they accuse us of driving an agenda by quoting individuals suffering while awaiting unemployment checks.

The journalists I know, especially those who cover government, feel drawn to this field for similar reasons as public servants. That responsibility makes journalists cautious about such matters as transparency and accuracy of data. I won’t suggest the desire for a gotcha headline doesn’t bring a strong pull. But by and large, the weight of covering this all-consuming story hasn’t been lost on journalists, and it overwhelms the fleeting desire for a tantalizing scoop. 

I’ve stressed before the respect I hold for elected officials tasked to lead society through the treacherous landscape ahead. It’s apparent now hopes society could be locked down long enough to effectively freeze this coronavirus out have not and will not work. That leaves as the only option finding a course forward for living with the pandemic until modern medicine and mother nature ease the pressure of the epidemic.

Hard decisions will be made, and every single one of them must be studied and challenged. And as we put the microscope on the consequences of government action, we also provide a platform to measure progress. Just as a weatherman reports of a hurricane’s forecast path, its actual one and a storm’s aftermath, reporters too must cover every step of this journey through a modern plague.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ MEDIA.

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