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Did the media fail?

Did the media fail?

Tuesday 1 December 2020


There was much posturing at press conferences – but in the end the headlines were mostly the same. What went wrong with the media’s coronavirus coverage – and how could we have done better?


The early days

Globally it appears that the media was quicker to respond to Covid than to other disease outbreaks.

But this isn’t reflected in front page coverage of the virus in the UK. The first substantial headline given to Covid didn’t come until a Guardian picture splash on 22 January.

In the following days there was sporadic front-page coverage, with the tone set by the Daily Mail the day after the Guardian’s more measured headline.

But even more than a week later, on 1 February – the day after the first two confirmed cases in the UK and more than a month into the outbreak – the media’s attention was largely elsewhere.

In due course the Brexit focus faded. On the last day of February, Covid led the front page of all six of these newspapers.


Fear vs. facts

Fact-based coverage was often couched in emotive language – but perhaps not as often as might have been expected from Fleet Street. 

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a journalism professor at Cardiff University, tracked the reporting of nearly 100 high circulation English language newspapers between mid-January and mid-February. Of the 9,387 stories these newspapers published about the Covid-19 outbreak, only 1,066 included the word “fear” or related words. Fifty used the term “killer virus”. Once adopted, though, the lexicon of alarm is colourful and varied, as this sample from the introduction to a 24 January Telegraph report shows (our italics):

“Mask-wearing patients fainting in the street. Hundreds of fearful citizens lining cheek by jowl, at risk of infecting each other, in narrow hospital corridors as they wait to be treated by doctors in forbidding white hazmat suits. 

“A fraught medic screaming in anguish.

“The terrifying video clips, reportedly recorded by shocked citizens from hospitals in Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus that has swept across China and infected 21 in nine foreign countries, went viral on Chinese social media this week and did not paint a picture of a government in control.  

“In one of the most heartbreaking clips, posted by Chinese-Australian cartoonist, Badiucao, but which could not be independently verified and was reportedly deleted from the Weibo social media site, the sick are seen sitting between drips and oxygen tanks next to three dead bodies covered in white sheets.”

Judge this against the warning given by the WHO to the media and governments on 24 February.

“Evidence clearly shows that stigma and fear around communicable diseases hamper the response.”

Studies show that excessive media consumption during a health crisis is correlated with greater fear and poorer mental health; repeated media exposure was reported to negatively impact mental health following the 2018 Ebola outbreak even in Americans at low risk of contraction. A separate Nature study of 25 top English-language news sources between January and June 2020 found that around 52 per cent of the coronavirus news headlines evoked negative sentiments; only 30 per cent evoked positive sentiments, and even fewer, 18 per cent were deemed to be neutral. Fear was the dominant emotion which headlines elicited.

But how else to cover a crisis of death and, arguably, government failure?

“A lot of the criticism I’ve seen online is about [the media] not supporting the government enough, missing the mood of the country, not making a positive contribution. But it isn’t a journalist’s job to support the government. We can positively contribute by representing the views of doctors, nurses and carers with no PPE, or health workers saying ‘I’m not being tested’.

“There is an element of shoot the messenger to this… Criticism comes from all sides, it’s an interesting place to be. The other day Richard Littlejohn [Daily Mail columnist] wrote ‘When will TV news stop scaring us to death over the coronavirus crisis?’ My answer to that is when it stops being true.”

Mark Austin, Sky News presenter, Guardian, 7 May 2020

Was the media really scaring the public to death? One of its most vocal critics of the government, Good Morning Britain’s Piers Morgan, won the support of the former Downing Street spokesman Alastair Campbell, who on 10 April agreed with Morgan that “the media had become far too tame”. 

The government boycotted Good Morning Britain for six months, after which Matt Hancock, the health secretary, appeared as a guest on 16 November. Morgan did not hold back: 

“You said the public doesn’t need to wear masks, now they do, you said it’s fine to shake hands at a time when the World Health Organisation was warning against shaking hands. You said mass gatherings were fine, which is why Cheltenham Festival went ahead and Liverpool football matches and pop concerts, and we now know that was a catastrophe. The lockdown was at least two weeks late, because it was they reckon about 25,000 lives were probably lost.

“On testing, we stopped community testing at a crucial time, because we were pursuing – according to Sir Patrick Vallance and Dominic Cummings – a policy of herd immunity, which we then screechingly reversed. On the world-class testing system which you promised us in January, it is still a complete shambles.

“So I put it to you that given that we now have over 50,000 deaths in this country, which is the worst death toll in the whole of Europe, why are you still Health Secretary and why haven’t you offered your resignation?”

Such polemics have won Morgan new admirers in some quarters but faith in the media as a whole as a source of information on Covid has declined over the course of the pandemic.


Reflections on the media

Research by the UK Covid-19 news and information project at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute suggests people are largely careful and knowledgeable about the pandemic, but increasingly suspicious of UK coverage of it. 


Knowledge about the coronavirus

People have a very good base level of knowledge about how to keep themselves and others safe from the virus – and at least 90 per cent say they follow most government guidelines.

This knowledge, however, is not necessarily thanks to the media. The proportion of Britons who say the news media have explained what to do in response to the pandemic fell from 73 per cent in April to 58 per cent in August. This leaves about 20 million people among the UK’s adult population feeling underserved by journalism.


News aversion and declining trust

In tandem with the media’s apparent failure to educate the public about the pandemic, people’s aversion to Covid news has grown.

It has been at lower income levels that people have consistently shown the greatest aversion to Covid news, potentially putting them at greater risk from the disease.

But general wariness of news organisations as a source of information for the pandemic has grown over time.


Infodemic potential

The subset of people who consume Covid-19 news less than once a day on average and have low trust in news organisations as an information source are at risk of being less informed about the pandemic and less equipped to filter out misinformation. The 15 per cent of Britons who make up this number amounts to around 8 million adults.