There has always been a thin line between news and sensationalism, but as The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz notes, our nation’s media coverage of the Virginia earthquake was closer to farce.
The 5.8 earthquake that shook the eastern seaboard on Tuesday didn’t do much structural damage – but had you tuned into MSNBC, you’d think the Big One had just hit.
The cable channel cut into its coverage of rebel forces in storming Gaddafi’s compound in Libya to air live coverage of…confused peopled standing outside buildings and eye-witness videos of file cabinets rocking back and forth. Of course, this is the same network that spent all weekend airing pre-taped news magazines of bears while journalists were trapped and history was unfolding in Libya.
MSNBC wasn’t alone in this lack of judgment. As Politico reports, CNN and Fox both cut away from Tripoli, with only the New York Times holding firm with Libya coverage front and center. It took 42 years to end the tyranny of a dictator, but only 15 seconds of a light tremor to send the U.S. media into crisis mode.
News should reflect the pulse of the people, and in the case of the earthquake, many East Coasters heart rates were certainly up. But there is also a responsibility to give context. The only record broken by this earthquake was in velocity of Twitter and Facebook messages, the former reporting more than 5,500 tweets per second, more than after Bin Laden was captured in May.
In the media’s desperate attempts to stay relevant, they’re losing the trust of their audiences. The goal of any good news organization should be to balance both.
That’s not to say a rare seismic phenomenon that impacts millions of Americans doesn’t have news value. But the context is often more important than the content. For example, those of us on the East Coast didn’t hear much about a similar earthquake in Colorado the night before, yet Middle America was inundated with coverage from the East. Little was mentioned about earthquakes that have had actual devastating consequences, like in Japan, or the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti more than a year and a half ago, which continues to leave millions homeless and at the mercy of tropical storms.
As any crisis communication specialist will tell you, the first rule of a crisis is to admit when you have one. Perhaps a second rule for today’s cable networks is to accept when you don’t.