Pandemic and the Media

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected over 46 million people across the world as of now, has re-established the relevance of credible journalism in this era of information abundance. At a time when most media organisations are corporate-backed, a number of issues such as economic slowdown, budget cuts, and technical challenges has put reporting during a raging pandemic to test. The current public health emergency might be unprecedented for most people living in the world right now, but the media has certainly seen a few before – the most prominent one being the 1918 Spanish flu.

News in 1918

Analyses of the 1918 Spanish’s flu coverage illustrates that one of the reasons the influenza virus spread widely was because newspapers downplayed the outbreak of the flu. This skewed public perception about the dangers of the virus and led them to ignore necessary precautions. An article in The News Republic by Walter Sharpio notes, “Only after trudging through the classifieds, on the final page of the paper, would a reader have arrived at a one-column headline, ‘Grip Now Sweeping Forty-Three States’ and the subhead, ‘Drastic Steps Taken Throughout the Nation to Check on the Epidemic.’” Reports also indicated authorities’ denial of the disease, much like the President of the United States Donald Trump’s denial of coronavirus. In retrospect, such levels of self-censorship would certainly have undermined the importance of being vigilant about an epidemic.

Where Indian media stands now

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a meeting with the press, just before announcing a 21-day nationwide lockdown March 24, and asked the media to cooperate with the government in combating the pandemic and to present “positive news” related to COVID-19. Since the spread of the pandemic, the television media was dominated by questionable coverage of certain issues at different points of time. A religious gathering by the Tablighi Jamaat sparked a communal blame-game in April, distorting the focus from COVID-19 to spreading hate against the Muslim community. After enough damage was done, the government and media decided to refer to the cluster of cases as a “single-source event”.

This was followed by an inadequate, stigma-inducing reporting of the migrant crisis. An article in The Wire, said, “At best, this type of coverage allows collective sympathy and mourning, and perhaps encourages relief work undertaken by civilians, but it completely absolves the state.” The government’s poor response to the migrant crisis could perhaps be attributed to media’s meek coverage of the issue.

Next came mainstream TV media’s sensationalized coverage of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the consequent intrusive, tasteless reports of his actor-girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty. All through these incidents, actual reporting on the pandemic took a backseat in mainstream TV media.

Media trends and challenges

Digital news consumption further soared during the pandemic. Online media outlets saw a boom in COVID-19-related newsletter subscriptions. With advertising revenue falling down, many traditional media outlets struggled to stay afloat. This led to layoffs and salary cutbacks in organisations across the world. However, according to a recent survey conducted in India, print media is still held in high regard by people. About 65 percent of the respondents agreed that print media was more useful to them.   

The demand for hyper local news increased as people wanted to keep abreast of the coronavirus situation within their city. The New York Times, on the increase in search of news updates, noted, “Among the biggest beneficiaries are local news sites, with huge jumps in traffic as people try to learn how the pandemic is affecting their hometowns.”

Journalists covering other specialised areas also turned to reporting on the current public health crisis. At a time when newsrooms are bleeding staff and are reluctant to invest in health journalists, the pandemic has underlined the need for journalists to have a basic understanding of the science behind viruses, the public health structure of a country, and general epidemiology. As drugs to treat COVID-19 and vaccines are coming up, reviewing journal papers without giving misleading information is also vital.

Challenges faced by journalists in these unprecedented times are high per se. Adding to the burden, critical coverage of the pandemic was hindered by governments in several countries through crackdown on journalists, censorship, and restrictive laws.

Taking credible journalism to the public that not only informs but also clearly counters the huge amounts of pseudoscience, fake news, instigative and politicised spin on the effects of COVID-19 is crucial in these times. While the pandemic exacerbated the fragility of the news industry, it could also prove to be an introspective moment for the media to rethink its core value of speaking truth to power.

Also in this Dossier:

Journalists & the COVID-19 pandemic

Panel discussions by media experts on the role of journalism during a pandemic

Best Practices, Guides, and Resources to work during COVID-19 crisis

(Researched and written by Geetha Srimathi Sreenivasan)