By Dr Paul Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Social Media and Digital Society at the University of Sheffield
Last Friday, I provided expert testimony at a hearing organized by the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The session focused on the role of the media in times of crisis. Here are some of my thoughts on how we can make future-proof journalism after the pandemic.
Professional journalists have traditionally played a key mobilizing role during crises, encouraging the public to take precautionary measures to protect themselves and their loved ones. My research found ample evidence of how journalists contribute positively in crisis situations, using their social media presence to combat false and potentially harmful information while amplifying prosocial behaviors designed to help those who do. need it most. In the context of controversial parades and protests in Northern Ireland, they corrected disinformation that had the potential to ignite sectarian tensions and provoke violence. In the aftermath of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, a journalist Sylvain LaPoix created the hashtag #porteouverte to provide shelter and support to those stranded in the French capital, while professional journalists and mainstream media have played a role important guardian role in the hashtag as events unfolded.
While the print and broadcast media remain the most reliable and authoritative sources of information in crisis situations, their tendency to perpetuating ‘disaster myths’ can often hamper recovery initiatives. Traditional media are often criticized for being too dependent on elitist sources and for prioritizing objectivity over other fundamental democratic functions such as educating citizens on social and political issues. For example, COVID-19 disinformation has been legitimized by news organizations via a Problematic ‘false balance approach’ amplifying false claims about virus. This has fueled lingering concerns about whether the public is ignoring key public health messages communicated through the mainstream media.
Recent research has revealed that two-thirds of the UK population feel overwhelmed by the various messages about the virus, 20% not following government updates and 21% are not interested in receiving information about the pandemic. Factors such as poor numeracy skills, right-wing opinions, and the use of social media to find information about the virus, have been linked to a increased sensitivity to disinformation about COVID-19 in several countries. These results corroborate previous research which found a abundance of conspiracy theories and misinformation about public health crises on social media; citizens with low self-efficacy most likely to believe such false and misleading information. Despite concerns about a ‘backfire effect ‘, rapid correction with reference to supporting evidence from reputable sources seems to reduce misperceptions of health crises.
By the end of 2020, confidence in professional journalists had returned to the low levels observed before COVID-19. In this regard, the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as another phase of an information crisis engulfing democratic states, characterized by declining public confidence in political and media institutions, growing disinformation and disinformation online and increasingly partisan media environments. For example, the COVID-19 / 5G rumor based on a long-established body of conspiracy theories about the dangers of mobile phone antennas and mass immunization programs. The electoral shocks of 2016 may have been the apotheosis of this information crisis, but the pandemic has illustrated its implications for policymakers trying to influence public behavior during crises. Efforts to encourage people to adhere to social distancing guidelines have been undermined by confusing public health messages and “ culture war ” narratives politicizing scientific knowledge, against the backdrop of the the economic collapse of quality journalism and the increasingly central role of social media platforms in information ecosystems.
So how can we ensure that citizens receive ‘high quality information’ during crises? It is clear that public service media, social media companies and governments have a responsibility to work together to counter the threat posed by disinformation and disinformation online. However, if we are to create better informed audiences, we must address the structural causes of the journalism crisis. As argued by Michael Schudson (2018), democracy cannot exist without the “ organized skepticism ” of journalism. Therefore, the media must better inform citizens during crises while ensuring that governments are held accountable for their actions throughout these events.
My recommendations on how to improve media coverage of crises include:
1) Impose tougher penalties on social media companies for failing to remove misinformation and misinformation from their sites.
These could range from punitive fines to more drastic measures such as the recognition of social media companies as media publishers. Funds raised should be diverted to support community media projects.
2) Favor criticism of the source over objectivity in journalism.
Steen Steensen makes a compelling case for identify the trend of each piece of information in the journalism process. False balance approaches that amplify inaccurate and unverified claims should be avoided. This approach should be implemented alongside existing fact-checking initiatives (eg Full Fact) to tackle disinformation and disinformation during crises.
3) Protect the public service media from government interference.
Researchers such as Victor Pickard claim that the cThe current information crisis can only be resolved by minimizing market pressures on journalists and the provision of government subsidies for public service journalism. However, public service broadcasters such as the The BBC invariably defers to the interests of political elites and have been criticized for not holding them accountable during crisis situations. Therefore, it is imperative that the editorial independence of these organizations be maintained in the future.
4) Provide financial support to the hyperlocal sector
Local journalism not only creates better informed voters, but also provides vital information to local communities during crises such as the pandemic. Hyperlocal news sites, online sites that not only provide local news and information, but also give voice to these communities, should receive financial support from governments to reduce their dependence on digital advertising. For example, the Plan to relaunch the news of the National Union of Journalists proposes that tax credits and interest-free loans be granted to these points of sale in order to ensure their sustainability.
5) Promote solutions journalism as a counterpoint to “nibble” news coverage.
Citizens need to be better informed about social problems which could be exacerbated during crises. Solutions journalism, defined as ” rigorous reporting on responses to social issuesAddress the inherent limitations of episodic crisis coverage by providing citizens with information on solutions to these problems. While there is still a need for more empirical evidence showing its impact on behavior, solutions journalism is a corollary to encourage citizens to think of collective rather than individual interests in these incidents.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but it would be a start. As I said before, we all need to do what we can to support local journalists, the “first responders” in crises like the pandemic.