"A crisis like COVID-19 is big enough to suck the oxygen out of all other news events. ALL OF THEM."
Although we are not there yet, there is a point of saturation for readers, viewers or listeners in the lifecycle of a news story. The point where the angles have been exhausted, the facts shared and the commentary analysed. The news media are doing a great job of informing their audiences of the facts and unfolding news while dispelling the wave of fake news spread mainly on social media. Presenters have the challenge of taking the hard news and facts and humanising them by telling stories the audience can relate to and finding the natural caveats and links to other stories. Unfortunately, most presenters stop at the first idea in the process of planning and conceptualising the telling of these stories. This is why you hear the same jokes with the same punchlines, or the same heartfelt story ripped from a news site with no unique angling.
When the world is talking about the same topic, and a big one at that, more attention needs to be focused on finding a unique angle and cutting through the clutter.
A quick scan of the news sites and channels leaves no doubt that the world is going through a once in a lifetime event - wall-to-wall Corona stories! And, while these are rightly aired and written about for immediate dissemination, once the reality of being stuck at home for 21 days sinks in, audiences will need their spirits lifted (especially since no spirits will be sold). Much like Forces Radio (as seen in Good Morning Vietnam) or entertainers that are sent to military camps in war time, broadcasters are on the frontlines for audiences. Reporting on the mundane, using the weapon of words to inform and entertain the listeners who have become the troops whose frontlines are their living rooms, and whose war is against media boredom as much as the virus.
Newsrooms have become smaller and juniorised in the last decade and resources are spread thin at the best of times. A crisis stretches these resources to breaking point. Imagine the professional panic should an elder or statesman suddenly pass away amidst this pandemic. Not to mention the ability of media houses to produce and execute more, yet different breaking news content. I recall meetings years before the ultimate passing of President Mandela: planning and curating the content needed for the announcement, the period of mourning, the funeral and the weeks post his passing. Are programming and news managers, currently swamped by Corona, ready for another seismic event? I hope we will not have to find out. Perhaps the next 21 days are an opportunity for media managers to think about team configurations, reaction plans, rollouts and contingencies. It’s always easier to look at others working in a crisis and offer them 20/20 hindsight vision. To this end I’d like to applaud the media houses working tirelessly on the COVID-19 project.
As the virus dominates the lead, the ticker and the headlines, let’s not forget that there are other issues, news events and stories that are being dropped or ignored. As media, print and broadcast, we should be able to take the temperature of our audience and know when the environment is ready for other stories. Let’s offer audiences relief from the pandemic when they are ready to change the channel or flip stations.
Our content mix needs its blood pressure taken and monitored constantly to make sure that our broadcasts and prescribed content are the right tonic for these strange times.