During any moment of panic and fear, many rely on local, national and international news coverage for clarity and information. Through this pandemic, not onlythe the public, but journalists themselves, have realized the importance of fair and accurate information. It is fair to say, the media has gone above and beyond to report daily on COVID-19, keeping the public informed on the most important information daily – sometimes hourly.
As more millennials in North America are relying on social media to ease COVID-19 anxieties, sometimes these outlets can lead to mass misinformation. This is when trusted news organizations have stepped in to weed out the lies and to focus on reporting the truth.
The Poynter Institute has drawn attention to the undeniable truth that before COVID-19, more and more of the public had lost trust in journalists, adding it was “easy for journalists to get discouraged about their profession.”
Internet usage is up, and that means people from around the world are logged into their Twitter, Facebook, Instagram on an hourly basis. Even through the use of social media, there have been a number of shares of articles about COVID-19 from trusted news organizations, signifying media is making a difference to the public’s perception of the news.
Fox News, an overtly biased news organization, has been recently criticized by both the New York Times and CNN for initially broadcasting that the coronavirus is a hoax created by the democrats to question, and eventually, impeach President Trump. However, in the past few weeks, The Poynter Institute has pointed to Fox News for their exemplary COVID-19 reporting, stating that they are “stepping up their coronavirus coverage.”
Pandemics have created fear and anxiety worldwide, as in each instance, globally we have seen death toll numbers rise daily. The news media has learned from past reporting on pandemics to know when and when not to provide information to the public.
We can learn from some news organizations, such as The New York Times, when they reported on the Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1968. According to Debra E. Blakely in her article, the New York Times reported “influenza as a natural occurrence, not a deadly disease, and focused on the potential for future research instead.”
Other times, the news media became unreliable in their coverage on pandemics. In 2009, when the swine flu, or more commonly known as H1N1, became a worldwide pandemic, it had been less serious than what we are seeing now with COVID-19. However, news organizations had made errors in judgement by focusing daily, sometimes, hourly news coverage, on those who were dying, rather than the many more that were living.
According to Phil Harding, news stories during the H1N1 outbreak had caused mistrust among neighbours, with many fearing those they were closest to were infected. In his article, Pandemics Plagues and Panic, he quotes Shaun Ley from BBC’s Radio 4:
“SARS, avian flu and now swine flu – the mention of the first two of those is perhaps a reminder that the amount of media attention is not always a totally reliable guide to the seriousness of a disease…”
But, COVID-19 is serious. And news organizations globally have played their part in making sure the public is informed about important social distancing measures that need to be implemented to make sure we are all safe.
Coverage of COVID-19 by reliable news organizations has also proven to work collaboratively with politicians to ease public hysteria. In the past week, we have seen Prime Minister Trudeau on our television screens speaking daily about the effect of the disease on Canadians, in friendly conversation with journalists from different outlets asking questions.
This is a complete turn-around from when Canadians could not escape nasty election coverage featuring the Prime Minister just five months ago – a great way for private news organizations to capitalize on viewer interest.
There is also a different atmosphere to the journalism industry. Just in the past few weeks, journalism outlets have distanced themselves from the hard-hitting money-making business image that has been a key factor for the public to lose trust in them.
Now, news organizations are proving once again they are the watchdogs, making sure information is accessible to the people. For example, the Globe and Mail, a news organization known to profit off of reader subscriptions, has made all coronavirus stories on their website free. Broadcasters, such as CBC and CTV, have made their television channels free to watch worldwide for coronavirus news updates by calling cable providers for access.
The accessibility to the news is essential to understanding what is going on across the world, but more importantly, what is happening in our own communities. Local news has become a principal form of journalism during COVID-19 and local news organizations have delivered. Regional journalists have answered public questions pertaining from death tolls to how to wash your hands properly, as well as any key decisions made by country officials.
Journalists themselves are also feeling a new sense of love for their craft. Michele Matassa Flores, executive editor at The Seattle Times, said in an article, “In my 35 years as a journalist, I can say I’ve never felt so keenly the importance of local journalism to our community.”
The Columbia Journalism Review also believes this is a wake-up call to the journalism industry, stating, “This crisis may, eventually, help us realize that finding a financial support system for local journalism is critical to the way we live.”
Not only may COVID-19 coverage save local journalism after many years of uncertainty and lay-offs within the industry, it may allow for the journalism industry to completely rebuild from the ground up. With readership going up daily as public interest skyrockets, journalism organizations will be able to profit from this.
Some are even hopeful that this will become a new normal. Matassa Flores also writes online readership at The Seattle Times has increased dramatically with “triple our normal volume – even 10 times the volume at key breaking-news moments. And despite the fact that we’ve made our coronavirus stories free as a public service, this coverage has drawn new subscribers at record levels.”
Large companies have also recognized the importance of journalism during this time. Facebook reported to have donated $100 million to journalism for information related to COVID-19, realizing the hindrance that is misinformation, could lead to mass hysteria and panic.
But, are we receiving too much information? While we may see similar numbers of coronavirus cases daily, these statistics are important in understanding the weight of this disease in our region. The Poynter Institute recognizes this, stating the more reliable information provided to the public, the more we can keep ourselves safe and informed. This does not mean watching the news every minute of every hour, but once in a while trusting journalists to supply us with news updates.
On Mar. 25, the Government of Canada also released a statement, stating the public should be relying on trustworthy news organizations during this time: “The media is an indispensable communications link between different levels of government and the public.”
As a journalism student, one term that has been used extensively throughout my j-school career has been “solutions journalism.” Treating journalism as a way to find a solution for the public, rather than leaving them asking more questions is more important than ever. Another way of describing it, as said by Linda Shaw from the Solutions Journalism Network, is “in-depth, rigorous reporting on what’s working.”
Journalists during COVID-19 coverage have been taking this more seriously. In a recent press conference with Prime Minister Trudeau, reporters asked questions related to finding out projections for the end of social distancing and the coronavirus, which most of the population has been wondering about, but have not received a definitive answer. The difference is, they are not just trying to find an answer to an issue affecting a small group of Canadians, but for all Canadians.
Rather than just pointing out the issues, journalists are now addressing how to fix them. Shaw addresses this in her article, saying reporters can go further by addressing “stories about other aspects of this crisis, too, such as what’s working to protect the economy, education and workers’ rights.”
How can journalists do this? By utilising online resources such as infographics and data sets to explain in an engaging way rather than with just words. As much as the public appreciates reliable information, it needs to be told in a way that everyone can understand. As the weeks go on, analysis of coronavirus projections will be released to the public, and journalists are tasked with the role of explaining what it all means.
We need to appreciate journalists during this unprecedented time, especially because they are putting their own health at risk for the rest of the nation to receive the information they need to keep informed.