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Story | Education
5 April 2020

How the pandemic is disrupting the news industry

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QF partner university professor explains the trends the news industry is currently experiencing.

Self-isolation has added urgency to what is already known – that is, the critical importance of journalism and fact-gathering in society, especially when it comes to online spaces, according to Ibrahim N. Abusharif, Associate Professor of the Journalism and Strategic Communication Program, Northwestern University in Qatar.

Global habits are changing the ways we consume news and information in order to adapt to the new realities of the outbreak. Increased media consumption in the home “also reveals the vulnerabilities of digital media disruptions, namely, the ease with which false information, fake cures (some of them lethal), and conspiracies can spread,” says Professor Abusharif.

Digital media has become integral to conveying essential and even life-saving information regarding the spread of this pandemic, but consumers of online news must also be coached to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate sources.

“As such, news consumers must examine not just streams of information – no matter how appealing and self-serving they may be. They need to critically evaluate the sources of information,” Professor Abusharif says. “For starters, inquire and search online about purported sources who make outlandish claims. There are credible and responsible news organizations, local and international, and they should be taken more seriously than unknown sources who often convey fanciful narratives.”

People need to be careful not to retweet or share unvetted social media information. If one does that, then he or she is a party to the disinformation process. When it comes to health crises, false information can be lethal.

Ibrahim N. Abusharif

He adds that, “People need to be careful not to retweet or share unvetted social media information. If one does that, then he or she is a party to the disinformation process. When it comes to health crises, false information can be lethal.”

And it is not only up to individuals to indulge in credible information-sharing practices, it is also a responsibility that governments and news organizations all over the world must undertake.

A standfirst of one news article reads “From Beijing to Washington, governments have been muzzling scientists, inflating the success of their containment efforts, and discrediting valid reporting.” In such cases, where does ethical journalism stand, and at what cost?

One of the long-standing obligations of news organizations is to challenge statements and information, whether they are from high authorities or anyone else.

Ibrahim N. Abusharif

“One of the long-standing obligations of news organizations is to challenge statements and information, whether they are from high authorities or anyone else.” Professor Abusharif says. “So, if questionable or false information is conveyed by an authority, it is the obligation of journalists to push back in two main ways: confront the authority and ask for evidence and details; and, more importantly, seek out experts in the field who have more gravitas to offer accurate information about any given situation.

“If a leader, for example, claims that a certain drug is the saving therapy for a communicable disease, then obviously journalists must seek out comments or information from medical experts in infectious diseases, and then privilege and emphasize their comments and views over speculative or ideologically driven statements,” says Professor Abusharif.

At a time when journalism is needed more than ever, and as people turn to news organizations for critical information, the industry is feeling the heat of the impact of the pandemic. Revenues are declining, leaving the industry in an unpredictable situation. In a recent announcement, Facebook pledged USD 100 million in financial assistance to support media affected by the coronavirus pandemic; while Twitter announced that it would be donating USD 1 million equally between two organizations to further their work specifically related to supporting those reporting on COVID-19.

Photograph: Ljubljana, Slovenia/Shutterstock

Professor Abusharif suggests that there is a real possibility that the revenue streams of small to midsized commercial and for-profit news organizations will dwindle as advertisers suffer from the lack of business in a shut-down moment that we are now in. Some news organizations may scale back.

“However, a serious evaluation of news distribution and its revenue pressures needs to take place with candor and moment-of-truth solemnity,” Professor Abusharif adds. “The current crisis did not create issues with news media; rather, it exposed their vulnerabilities.”

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