The pandemic was a test for the media. Have we passed?
The pandemic was a test for the media. Have we passed?
Symptoms that chronically torment the media have resurfaced.
photo: Tomislav Klauški/Facebook
The coronavirus pandemic has set a big test for domestic and global media. A test of their credibility, seriousness, professionalism, factuality, ethics... And it is still early to say how they did on the test – whether they passed it or not.
The survey results published recently by the Croatian Journalists’ Association on trust in the media during the coronavirus crisis show that people, on a scale of 0 – 10, trust their families the most (8.35), political parties the least (2.18), while the media are in lower half of the table with a score of 3.39. For consolation, the Catholic Church is just one place ahead. It is a typical projection of trust that has been debated for years, but all the symptoms that chronically torment the media have resurfaced in times of the global pandemic.
Media sensationalism, the struggle with facts, the dependence on the ruling politics imposing its agenda in this crisis, the subordination to the market that inevitably entails subservience to the public, the propagation of conspiracy theories, the influence of fake news, the struggle to raise or silence panic about the coronavirus, the struggle with scientific facts that even eminent scientists are fighting about...
The responsibility of the media in transmitting relevant information on the epidemic has never been more important, probably since the war years, but all the problems in the functioning of the media and the work of journalists have now taken its toll.
Media dependence on the market means that many owners and editors will follow the mass public mood: if anti-mask protesters dominate, the media will give them more space; if panic-mongers dominate, the media will also spread panic; if the concern grows, the media will be concerned too. Or, they will deviate from the topic as needed.
The dependence of many media on politics has also taken its toll. If the government argues that panic is unnecessary and the state is successfully coping with the pandemic, friendly media will seek to support that message. If the government claims that the economy is more important than the dead, the media will sail with the tide. Because power brings money and influence.
And there is, of course, the sensationalism. Exaggeration in reporting, searching for the juiciest and most gruesome aspects of the coronavirus crisis, opening up space for conspiracy theorists, scavenging over victims, are all trends that have marked the media scene in recent years, and are now highly visible in this crisis.
The media often use the coronavirus to shock, although sometimes shock is exactly what society needs to become aware of the danger of a life-threatening disease.
Journalists are expected to present relevant facts, and those facts are often not known even to those who declare themselves to be the authorities. Journalists are expected to bring reason into chaos, and chaos is often created by centres of power and those who should be held most accountable. Journalists must identify and affirm experts, and then citizens are declared the greatest experts. Journalists should suppress irrational fears, but they must warn of the rational threat of the virus and the pandemic. They fight panic, but also make people take this threat seriously.
And then people trust them less than their families and neighbours.
So, what is the role of the media and journalists? How will journalists work at all, and how will this pandemic affect the future of the media?
As in the case of the 2008 financial crisis, which aroused the need for competent and educated journalists ready to explain the causes and course of the crisis, the need for those who know how to use proper terminology and explain complex economic models, this health crisis has given journalists the opportunity to deal with the health system, science, economics and many other aspects of the functioning of the state and society.
The media were given the opportunity to be serious and grounded, some took the opportunity, some did not. In order for this to happen, they need educated and serious journalists, sector-savvy, relevant and credible, and that is precisely what has emerged as the greatest challenge in the personnel-ravaged newsrooms. This could be an opportunity for the media to get serious. Perhaps this is their last such opportunity.
Newsrooms have continued to disintegrate in recent years, largely thanks to the technology that has enabled journalists to work wherever they might be, and working from home during a pandemic has only reinforced that trend. It is more difficult for journalists to go to the field, but their access to information through the Internet, social networks and various digital platforms has become easier and faster. Broadcast newsrooms have very quickly adapted to new formats and video connections, portals have opened space for commentators and bloggers, access to interlocutors and facts has been enhanced. Everything has accelerated and everything has become more feasible.
The main issue is that the crisis is so protracted that journalists have been forced to work on a crisis schedule for too long. They have to process and channel a lot of information, often the same information that leads to journalist fatigue and a fed-up audience, less and less receptive to statistical indicators, to always the same warnings, comments, appeals.
Precisely because of this fed-up state, and consequently the numbness, almost insensibility of the audience, it is difficult for the media to reach the public with new information. The same, but always higher numbers, the same speakers, the same messages are constantly being repeated. The audience seeks new stimuli, and this inevitably pushes the media into the realm of sensationalism, panic-raising, conspiracy theories. All in order to hold the attention of the audience, and thus keep the readability, viewership, clicks.
Or, on the other hand, the media recognise that the audience is getting fed up and simply avoid pandemic-related topics.
The status of the media and the role of journalists is therefore more demanding than ever before. It is not easy to orient oneself towards “good” and “bad” guys, it is not easy to break through the forest of various, often conflicting scientific facts and interpretations, as well as to define relevant sources that would be given space in the media. It is an unenviable task to regain the trust of the audience and the public, after so many years of losing and almost gambling the trust. There are many interpretations of the truth, there are many sides to the same problem, and in the end, it all comes down to the sick and the dead.
After all, this crisis is a great test of the ethics of the media and journalists. Should the dead be viewed as mere statistical indicators? Should they be used to improve circulation? Should the panic be spread in the public due to so many victims? Should those responsible for the hundreds of human casualties be held accountable? And who is really responsible for that? In matters of ethics, the personal views of journalists and editors on the coronavirus often come to the fore. Are they taking it seriously or not? Do they fear for their own lives so they can appreciate the lives of others? Should they portray their own fears in their texts and reports, or perhaps colour them with indifference?
Finally, it is not easy to be a journalist in times of epidemic. Going to the field, risking one’s own health, entering hospitals where reports are being made about people in protective suits and those on ventilators. Report on the dead. Address the irresponsible.
They say the coronavirus will change the world. They also say it will change it for the worse. The question is whether it will change journalism. And whether it will change it for the better. If nothing else, this crisis has emphasized the importance of the media and journalism: in conveying the truth, reporting to the public, informing citizens, sensitising society, filtering information, and distinguishing lies from the truth. In the greatest health crisis of our time, the media are being given the opportunity to cure themselves.
Unless they end up on a ventilator.