From the confines of a bedroom, Luca Pittalis, Head Producer at Purple Radio, continues the Videotape series speaking to Durham alumnus and Euronews journalist, Alex Morgan, about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on journalism. Pittalis and Morgan also discuss adapting to a remote work and university experience and university’s responsibility to students. You can find the interview in full on Spotify by searching ‘Purple Radio on Demand, Videotape: Alex Morgan’.
Morgan argues that journalists are not competing with each other, but rather against the fake news surrounding COVID-19. “There’s the stuff that people want to believe is true. So, when you see the Venetian dolphins you can see that people want to believe something positive in this chaos—they want to share something like that, and so it goes viral. Then, there’s the stuff that people are afraid that could be true. That is like Coronavirus is particularly deadly for these reasons, or if you drink bleach you won’t get Coronavirus. There’s some of the more harmless stuff that is important to debunk like dolphins in Venice—there are no dolphins in the canals in Venice. But then, there’s the more serious stuff. We had the President of the European Commission come out yesterday in a Twitter video and she was basically saying, ‘don’t drink bleach, don’t believe everything you see online’.”
Fake news, however, is particularly difficult to remove on closed platforms. Morgan suggests that journalists must rectify all the factual oddities they see on open and closed platforms. He says, “It is more important than ever to fight fake news. It is more difficult than ever, particularly when using closed platforms like WhatsApp. Facebook is an easy one because you’ve got a comment section on it, WhatsApp is more dangerous because it is closed.”
Morgan clarifies that fake news is, to this extent, infectious. It is “because it has gone through these closed channels. A lot of other people don’t have journalists in the family or fact-checkers in the family and so it is going to start to hop from person to person. So, I think it’s more important than ever to fact-check things.
The scale of the demand for it is so large that we’ve seen organisations like the UN giving out grants to fact-checkers… I’m lucky, I work for a broadcast organisation so, in a sense, we’re on the air regardless. But I know some of the print organisations who have had to think about going online and their ad revenues have suddenly tanked because nobody wants to advertise stuff around Coronavirus. Therefore, they are having to do more fact-checking, more verification work with fewer journalists on the front line and less ad revenue and so there comes a point where as a journalist it becomes really tough. With me, I’m down from a team of three to one. It’s just me in the office and my colleagues working from home and that slices our ability down.” Ultimately, we must identify, check, and rectify fake news; or as Morgan puts it, “it is just trying to find the fake stuff and hoping that people at least double-check.”
Despite your team being cut down, are you finding that you’re able to work closely with others from different broadcast corporations? Are people collaborating on stories or is being at home, and isolated, made that harder?
Importantly, Morgan stresses that access to the requisite technology is not enough; we need each other’s expertise. He says, “more people are spending time Skyping here, there, and everywhere and talking on video calls and using the internet, Twitter particularly, to share tips and ideas…because we forget that some of these journalists have been stood in front of cameras for 20 years and there’s always been someone there with a camera—they haven’t had to do it themselves.”
The pandemic demands collective sympathy and professional collaboration. Comparably, Morgan says that journalists exchanged a competitive approach to news collection with a collaborative effort. “As journalists, it’s not about who gets the best scoop on this crisis, but instead, let’s work together. There’s a heartening sense of when everyone is working under crazy conditions you all want to see each other as journalists rather than competitors…otherwise the news would collapse.”
“The news has become far more collaborative. In the UK, even the government has decided talking to the media again is a good thing and ministers are appearing again on programmes they previously boycotted. It put everything into perspective. It healed that rift and now journalists are getting along with each other.”
Now, more than ever, people are watching and listening to the news. Lastly, what would you say to students, like me, stuck at home with their education and futures under question considering everything that’s been lost? Should we really be using this as a chance to read and get behind our studies?
Morgan recognises this is very different from the typical student experience. In this way, the students and university must be sympathetic to this abrupt change. He says, “looking back at my time at university, I did as little as possible for as long as possible to enjoy going to university and there would always be that all-nighter that crept up near the end of term. You’d end up doing something ridiculous like 20 hours in the library, or something. That was not a good thing to do, I was lucky because my university experience wasn’t interrupted by a massive pandemic. The idea of you guys doing all that work, having none of that fun and just sitting at home, in many cases, that is tough. I really hope lecturers and examiners are just going to accept that when people literally cannot go out for more than one walk a day you cannot be at your most productive. You can’t even go out one night for one drink to break up the monotony of studying! So, I really hope lecturers listen. And I guess that students have to remember that lecturers will also be bored out their minds too! I hope people are sympathetic to each other.”
Morgan then considered the university’s responsibility to its students. The pandemic has moved learning online and has exposed issues, such as inaccessibility to some physical resources. He says, “I think, for you guys, there’s definitely a case to be made for universities to think about how much money they’re taking from people during this time. Especially when tuition fees are so high, and particularly for arts students who already had low contact hours…because £9000 a year plus other costs, as in many cases students are paying for accommodation that they aren’t even living in. My main point is that everyone should be sympathetic to one another and I hope universities will look at that and also realise that students with this experience are not the same as a student like me. The amount of money you take from that student should be reconsidered.”
Currently, we exist in uncertain conditions. Yet, this uncertainty has shown that we certainly have free time. Morgan says that this “is history we are living through, and if it has ever been your desire to get into journalism you can use this time to communicate with people to reach other students, share this experience, chronicle this experience. Use it to complete activities you’d not have time to do elsewhere. When it comes to studying, see that as something to do. Otherwise, let’s face it, two months of sitting around on Netflix is fun for two days but then you actually want to do something.”
Both journalist and student experiences now seem almost unrecognisable. Yet, we will survive this period by helping each other. As Morgan summarises, “I really hope people are sympathetic with each other, and it comes from the top down at universities.”
Photograph: Alex Morgan