Dr. Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at QF member Hamad Bin Khalifa University, on why worldwide news coverage of COVID-19 risks adding to public panic.
Do you think the media is being responsible in its reporting of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak?
I would say the global media is being absolutely irresponsible. They haven’t struck a very good balance between not trivializing issue, but also over-sensationalizing it. Everywhere you look, there seems to be this polarity of opinions: it’s either that coronavirus isn’t so bad and it’s just like flu versus the constant coverage of coronavirus-related issues, constant reports and numbers about how many new cases there are and where they are. I think this just inflames tensions about the issue.
Coronavirus, as well as being a virus, is actually going viral, so I think there is a big problem there.
I was asked to write a piece recently, and the whole underpinning of this piece was that people are interested in stories. They drive a lot of clicks for advertising revenue, so media corporations that rely on advertising business models basically make money from clicks. And coronavirus gets a lot of clicks. Coronavirus, as well as being a virus, is actually going viral, so I think there is a big problem there. Is it necessary to report the number of coronavirus cases on such a regular basis, or does this actually heighten risk?
It’s important to be transparent about any public health issue. The problem is that, often, the reporting of deaths happens as breaking news in big, garish headlines and is top of the news bill every day; that has certainly been the case in recent weeks and months. It’s not so much the reporting of figures that is the issue; it’s the constant reporting of new deaths every day in a way that occupies headlines.
I think this exaggerates the dangers and the impact of coronavirus in people’s heads. There are countless other illnesses or conditions or social issues that result in more deaths, but these are not reported on every day.
How do we determine what is a reliable source of news?
It is not always easy. I don’t like to say you should rely on established news media, but in times like this I do think it’s important to stick with something reputable, Don’t just retweet something you see on social media. Be very clear about whether the news you are reading has some sort of pedigree: is it linked to a well-known news site? Is it quoting, for example, a health official from a public ministry? That is always a good barometer to follow.
How much has coronavirus coverage been influenced by our clickbait culture?
I absolutely think the search for virality and the business model of relying on advertising has driven and underpinned a lot of the news content we see about coronavirus. I was asked to write an article about coronavirus and was explicitly told a lot of people are sharing and clicking on these articles. Not only does that mean it’s profitable, but it also means the news organization wants to produce more of these articles within a short space of time in order to maximize advertising revenues. So not only are they getting money, they are incentivizing news organizations to produce more content about coronavirus because it improves ratings and drives up advertising revenue.
What we are actually seeing is a political economy of advertising-based news, and that is actually one of the reasons there is a panic around coronavirus.
What we are actually seeing is a political economy of advertising-based news, and that is actually one of the reasons there is a panic around coronavirus. One of the important definitions of a pandemic is that it causes panic in humans – it’s not purely a biological term. Are we receiving too much information about coronavirus?
Too much exposure to news is more likely to promote a sense of panic, and I think it’s actually healthy to isolate yourself from this infodemic.
‘Infodemic’ is a very important term. We are getting a lot of information from a plurality of sources – too much information. This prevents people from being able to synthesize and process all this information, and what tends to stick in people’s heads is the more dramatic or sensational coverage. Too much exposure to news is more likely to promote a sense of panic, and I think it’s actually healthy to isolate yourself from this infodemic. Is coronavirus being politicized?
The issue I have with polarized politics across the world, especially across northern Europe, is that coronavirus is being used as a political tool, and a way to beat political opponents. I think this can actually be problematic, especially when you have a partisan news structure where newspapers are relying on scoring political points.
Does media coverage of coronavirus influence people’s behaviors?
What we are seeing is there is clearly an impact of relentless coverage of coronavirus on people’s behaviors, and that it is not constructive. If the media is making people panic, that is not healthy. But there is a broader problem here that is not just about the news; it’s about how people perceive themselves within a society, If I panic-buy 20 bags of toilet paper or all the hand sanitizer in a shop, I am depriving other people of something that may help them. Individualism is a big problem, and I don’t believe there has been enough in the media about trying to prevent this kind of panic. Why is coronavirus dominating the news agenda?
Coronavirus has occupied news coverage more than other issues for several reasons. First, when there are pandemics or the potential for them, there is a tendency to be incredibly reactionary. They capture people’s imagination in a way other issues don’t. Germs cannot discriminate; this is a disease that can spread anywhere and affect anyone.
The absence of anything else substantial in the current news cycle is also perpetuating this. It is a global issue, not a parochial issue affecting one country, so it will be reflected in country’s media. And it captures the imagination. People click on it because they find it fascinating and viscerally scary. And it’s been weaponized, which is contributing to this large media storm around the issue. Is fake news an issue in coronavirus coverage?
I think there needs to be more responsibility in news coverage, but I also think that we now have an increasing number of people able to publish their own stories and news. We are seeing people who are non-official news organizations promoting fake rumors about coronavirus that are not helping the situation at all. I think this is a massive issue, with news organizations having a responsibility to try to cut through it, and I don’t think they’re taking that responsibility properly. We also live in a post-truth world where people are more inclined to believe conspiracy theories.
So what should the role of the media be?
They should perhaps have an updated set of best practices and recommendations, endorsed by the World Health Organization and public health officials, in a standing location on their web page. This can be done in an understated way and a way that suggests this is about reporting and not sensationalizing.
The media has a responsibility to do this because, at the moment, the role they’re playing is to promote panic. Constant breaking news and red ticker tape on many news websites is not helping, and neither is the way coronavirus dominates headlines. The constant repetition of stories about deaths and new cases in bold front-page headlines is a problem.