Responsible journalism in a time of coronavirus
By Catriona Bonfiglioli
Senior lecturer media studies, University of Technology Sydney
April 23, 2020
Coronavirus presents three new challenges for journalists: the complexity of epidemics, rapid changes in impact and advice, and keeping a cool eye on our own fears.
It’s also important to help people understand best prevention tips, minimise stigmatisation of people with COVID-19, reject fake health news, and resist the allure of “sexy” controversies and contrarians hitching a ride on the news wave by contradicting public health advice or calling for extreme measures.
Media effects research demonstrates that journalists’ choices shape what the audience thinks about (McCombs & Valenzuela 2007) and also their health decisions. Health news can shape health choices including vaccination rejection, breast cancer screening, gene testing, and more (Bonfiglioli 2007; Walsh-Childers 2016) and this means a higher degree of responsible communication is necessary when reporting on health.
In the hurly burly of reporting such compelling news, we need to preserve some time to reflect in and on action (Sheridan Burns, 2004) to step over pitfalls and keep our journalistic hat firmly on our heads and make use of journalism resources including the Walkley Foundation’s excellent newsletter (2020).
The simplest advice for journalists and student journalists is to revisit the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance code of ethics (MEAA 2020), which starts with: “Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts”.
This coronavirus SARS-COV-2 could hardly be a hotter topic, a Factiva search shows Australian outlets published almost 4000 stories in January, about 13,000 in February, 74,810 articles in March and almost 59,000 in the first three weeks of April. But did we really need more than 5000 articles mentioning toilet paper in March? Only now are we thinking about the negative impacts of circulating images of empty supermarket shelves (McBride 2020).
Conflict and Contrarians
There is clearly news value in reporting differences of opinion about how much containment is appropriate for Australia at any particular moment, but showing doctors as divided when health authorities are offering clear messages can be confusing. So please think before going for the conflict angle. There is easy mileage in calling for tougher containment measures, no shortage of 20-20 hindsight, and strong news values in doctors disagreeing. One Sydney doctor expressed valid fears about the impact of coronavirus on health care workers and what she perceived to be inadequate responses but did not include details of the prevalence of the disease in the community at that time. The opinion piece led to radio interviews amplifying fears. When doctors disagree with national or state public health actions, and some of them do, journalists face an ethical challenge because conflict between experts may induce confusion or paralysis in audiences. While the news media are not a public relations service, journalism is expected to serve the public interest: “Its first loyalty is to citizens” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2014).
Journalists have the power to give credence to sources by quoting them and to amplify ideas by repeating them (Hermida 2015). Choose sources according to their expertise and your planned angle but be aware of the bandwagoners implying relevant expertise. A pandemic is the right time to take Australia’s population health experts seriously and this means epidemiologists and public health professionals (Chowdhury 2020). Prominent politicians here and overseas are testing the public response to “herd immunity”: reporters are advised to balance such moves with advice from public health professionals, especially in the absence of evidence of enduring immunity post infection, the possibility of mutations, and the vested interests of those advocating for freeing things up as soon as possible. Politicians are responsible for policy responses and can hardly be ignored but that does not make them public health experts. Their words carry extra weight and spread further. (Brennan et al. 2020). Hermida reminds us to ask: How do people know what they say they know? Did they witness it or hear it from a contact? How would they have access to this information? Who are they connected to? (Hermida 2015)
Personal interest and beliefs
“Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence” (MEAA 2020).
Recognise when you are expressing your own feelings in your questions and writing rather than reporting on the evidence and expert advice. Focusing on eliciting quotes about “worst fears” and “worst case scenarios” from experts enhances newsworthiness but may distract from the real situation: as Tompkins says journalists should resist adjectives and “stick to the cold hard facts” (Tompkins 2020). Put your opinions in the comment section.
Reduce your use of the language of fear and “killer” viruses, fear is a contagious emotion and fear reporting may displace clear news about the actual epidemic (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2020). COVID-19 can kill but for the majority of people it is not fatal (Tompkins 2020). Wahl-Jorgensen found many news articles highlighted the virus’s deadly powers using the phrase “killer virus” and 11 per cent used the language of fear (Wahl-Jorgensen 2020). My new analysis of Australian coverage finds this practice is falling away: while total coverage rose, the proportion of articles published by Australian news outlets mentioning “killer virus”, “deadly virus”, “deadly disease”, or “killer disease”, fell from 17 per cent of news in January, to just under five per cent in February, 2.5 per cent in March and just 1.5 in the first three weeks of April. In a similar pattern, the proportion of articles mentioning the language of fear (fear, fears, fearing OR afraid) fell from 29.5 in January, to about a quarter in February, just under 16 per cent in March, and 9.4 per cent in April (first three weeks).
It’s an easy criticism that if only x or y preventive measure had been taken we would not have the epidemic. But we should use the word “control” carefully – it implies that if we do the right thing the virus won’t spread through the community. Shutdown has been remarkably effective in Australia but elimination may not be possible (Scott et al. 2020). The goal is to slow the spread so that the peak is lower and the chance our hospitals will be able to treat people in ICU with ventilators without being overwhelmed by too many people being dangerously ill at once is higher. This does not mean being a Pollyanna about the tension between protecting the economy and reducing the speed of the spread or the just-enough supply approach to health care. Or ignoring the sound arguments for keeping schools open for those who need them.
Tompkins (2020) urges journalists to avoid “clickbait” headlines but reporters may not have control over the final headlines. Do what you can to provide proportionate headlines (Mulcahey 2020).
Tompkins (2020) and Chowdhury (2020) advise careful choice of images. Shots of empty shelves and competing customers may fuel panic buying, officials and health professionals in full-body hazmat suits are likely to reinforce feelings of fear. Re-consider use of photos identifying people who are ill, will this make them a target? The Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph provide clear graphs each day. Number of new cases graphs can be more useful than total cases and deaths. Take care with graphs – can you show the zero on both axes? If not, is the graph going to inflate an effect and fan fears? (Mulcahey 2020)
Identifying people with a disease
Peter Dutton may be seen by some as fair game and Tom Hanks is a celebrity but the identification of the Toorak doctor and the publications of clear images of his practice and the criticisms of his actions went too far. He acted on the advice of the time which did not identify him as at risk. As the MEAA code (2020) advises, journalists should “Respect private grief and personal privacy” and they “have the right to resist compulsion to intrude”. While the fatality rate is low, some people with COVID-19 may die and thus deserve respect and compassion. Identifying people with COVID-19 may promote trolling, public shaming, assaults such as spitting and stigma (McBride 2020). However, personal tales volunteered can provide valuable insights (Shields 2020). Refrain from blame, maintain compassion.
Telling people that the death rate is low but that people who are elderly, sick or living with a disability are the ones most likely to die as if death was less important in old age or infirmity is callous, as Mary Lloyd argues in her piece for the ABC (2020). Exaggerating the risk to various parts of the population fans the flames of fear.
“Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability” (MEAA 2020). Hindus drinking cow urine for “protection” against COVID-19 may satisfy the news value of unusualness but will reporting it contribute to religious animosity or ridicule (PTI, 2020)? Resist the urge to ridicule people in a time of ignorance, uncertainty and wilful misinformation (Suarez 2020). Reject racism (Mulcahey 2020; Suarez 2020).
Keep abreast of the stage Australia is at: when there was no evidence of community transmission and cases were coming from overseas the quiet and all too invisible work of contact tracing was the logical and effective response. The same goes for the school closures – closing the school over a weekend (Epping) created the time needed to trace the contacts and ask those people to self-isolate. Reopening schools is a challenge at least in part because of the widespread fears that have been whipped up. The tragedies in Italy made for compelling reading but Australia is not in that position. Is this “distorting emphasis” (MEAA 2020; Suarez 2020)? The general advice to the community (wash hands, avoid physical contact, practise social distancing, stay home if you’re ill or have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19, etc.) remains stable, what changes are the levels of closures, travel bans, etc. Proposals to track people’s contacts via their mobile phones have received a certain amount of media scrutiny, but key questions remain about the process followed by government in choosing one app over another and about data security, app ownership, access by non-health authorities and whether promises to keep it an “opt-in” system are maintained.
A key challenge is fighting misinformation (Brennan et al. 2020; Chowdhury 2020; Suarez 2020) and the International Fact-Checking Network is hard at work counteracting the “infodemic” (Poynter, 2020; Chowdhury, 2020). Resist the urge to replicate false information such as conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2 is a Chinese bioweapon (Kasprak 2020) or a US disease brought to China (Sherwell 2020). Three pieces of misinformation are persisting: linking COVID-19 to 5G networks, drinking hot water as a preventive, and various garlic preparations as a preventive (Tardáguila, 2020). All false. Looking for tools for verification? Try First Draft (First Draft, 2020) and draw on Hermida (2015) and Kovach and Rosenstiel (2011) who advise us to ask: What type of content is this? Who and what are the sources cited? How would they know? What evidence is presented and how was it vetted? Does the evidence support the interpretation? What’s missing?
To find out what happens next in coronavirus journalism, keep an eye on the upcoming study by Posetti and Bell (ICFJ, 2020) and the many other research projects evolving as I write. Meanwhile, stay safe with tips from Chowdhury (2020).
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Main image by Chad Davis, Flickr.