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The media must do better on coronavirus

As a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, millions of people are gathering around the TV each day, watching the news in an attempt to find out what is going on. This is exactly the time for an active and informative news media but, by and large, that’s not what we’re getting. We need the media to do better.

According to a new survey from Kekst CNC, which tracks public opinion across the UK, USA, Germany and Sweden, confidence has generally risen in all major institutions. Central government, the World Health Organisation, retailers, manufacturers, health services – across the board, it’s essentially a huge picture of success as our sectors respond to Covid-19. There is, however, one single exception, and that’s the media. All four countries reported a drop in media confidence, with the UK posting the largest decline of over 20%. This comes as we’re all tuning in more and more, eager to see what is happening during this crisis. As engagement with the media rises, confidence is dropping – it’s a worrying picture.

Our media is after culpability (although not enough to question the WHO or China’s role in this, it seems – they have easier bogeymen to catch)

Annoyingly, considering that the media is our window onto the world during this crisis, they’re not doing a very good job of depicting it. Watch any of the government daily briefings and listen to the press questions afterwards – it’s always the same thing. ‘When is the lockdown going to end?’ or ‘Why do we have more deaths/infections than [insert country here]?’, both of which are fair questions but neither of which are particularly answerable at the moment. A few days ago, after the government laid out its five tests for ending the lockdown, the first question in the press conference was the BBC, asking when the lockdown would end. What are we getting from that?

There seems to be an insistence on continuing so-called ‘gotcha journalism’, or the practice of trying to trap those questioned so they look in the wrong. Instead of pursuing facts, this style of journalism pursues victory. Instead of framing this as a global pandemic in which every country is suffering, our media is eager to condemn Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, scoring victories against them for failing. And make no mistake about this – no matter what happens, they will always be said to have failed. They will have acted too fast or too slowly, with too much lenience or too much severity, and they will be in the wrong. Trump was called racist for instituting a travel ban on news of the emerging virus, and now he’s criticised for not acting quickly enough. It’s easy to judge with hindsight, and that’s exactly what the media will do when this is over. Our media is after culpability (although not enough to question the WHO or China’s role in this, it seems – they have easier bogeymen to catch).

With a global crisis ongoing and parliament essentially out of action, the role of the press has arguably never been more important than holding our leaders to account

When I watch press briefings, I want to see questions designed to help understand how we can defeat the virus. I want to know what we can learn from the global effort, and any updates on the developing science. This is an unprecedented situation, and the media should be helping us understand what is going on. There are certain questions that I’d like to see answered, and the media is squandering its all-too important role by not asking them. I want to know about global differences in how Covid-19 deaths are qualified, about ongoing drug trials, the balance of economy and science in easing lockdowns, whether the level of exposure determines severity. These all seem obvious things to be asking – instead, the media is constantly asking ‘has the government got it wrong?’.

I want to be clear – I don’t want a compliant press that falls in line with everything the government says. Our government will have made plenty of mistakes in handling Covid-19, and that should not be ignored. With a global crisis ongoing and parliament essentially out of action, the role of the press has arguably never been more important than holding our leaders to account. But that’s not what is happening – every day, we have constant headlines about our leaders not doing enough, an endless stream of negativity that feels more like activism than journalism. This is not to say that there is no good journalism, with a harrowing investigation into domestic violence during Covid-19 a brilliant example, but this is the exception rather than the rule. We’re all in the dark at the moment – we need our media to behave like proper journalists more than ever, or the damage to their trust ratings will last long past this crisis.

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