Pandemic journalism is a recipe for disaster


My phone buzzes after yet another news update.

I have accumulated six news notifications within the space of two hours, all of which are bound to be an agglomeration of negativity. I try to refrain from reading them, yet my eyes cannot resist. I catch a glance of the first title that reads, ‘Lifting curbs on 21st June risks U-turn’ – the infamous date we are set to be free.

My heart momentarily drops, and I instantly regret reading the notifications. This is my daily routine – a cycle of restraint, surrender and regret.

The news used to inspire me – it induced pleasure and was enjoyable – but the pandemic has jeopardised this experience. Instead, every article is like the toss of a coin. The heads bear the good news, tails bear the bad. Yet this coin is defective and keeps landing on the tails, only occasionally landing on the heads. This is how news outlets operate.

Mood-lifting articles are rare, and even when they surface, they are instantly demolished by the following six negative articles. Before the pandemic, articles rarely ruined your morning, but this is no longer a rarity – it is the usual.

Many have taken a pledge to not read the news, a pledge that is completely understandable. Receiving daily notifications of how many people have tragically died in a day is enough to put you in a bad mood. People would rather live in their own bubble of happiness, disconnected from the calamity the Covid-19 pandemic has caused than be oversaturated with negativity.

Dobelli uses the analogy that ‘news is to the mind what sugar is to the body’, showing that in the same way sugar deteriorates the body, the stress caused from constant news updates obliterates the limbic system, an obliteration that the coronavirus news has sped up.

The public does not like being confused

When coronavirus was tacitly spreading across the world, journalists seemed incapable of deciphering the scale of the pandemic. It became easier to distract the public with the latest Netflix lockdown series and mindfulness minutes than reporting the number of deaths that were drastically increasing behind closed doors. News outlets simply did not want to induce panic, yet they did exactly that.

Suddenly newspaper front covers were plastered with fear-inducing headlines, with The Sun referring to coronavirus as the ‘deadly disease’, a comparison that increased fears rather than mitigating them. They activated the alarm bells. Supermarkets were raided, pasta and toilet roll became gold dust, streets became desolate; this is the power journalists hold. Yet, their power was used erroneously. Their job is to calm the public, yet in such a time of confusion, journalists simply fuelled this confusion.

The public does not like being confused. As it is merely human nature to seek clarity, with news outlets failing to give them that, the public took it upon themselves to search for answers regardless of their validity. The public is the root cause of the coronavirus infodemic. Facebook accounts began to release nonsensical theories on how the coronavirus pandemic started, many of which people believed in.

From rumours that 5G phone masts spread coronavirus to a video claiming that the vaccines contain tracking microchips being shared 27,100 times on Facebook, people seek coherence no matter how ridiculous. However, these theories are dangerous. Anti-maskers began to unite. Groups who believed that coronavirus was a hoax were being established. It became harder to distinguish the harsh facts from false narratives, meaning people were not following the government’s guidelines which rapidly increased infection and death rates. Ironically, by seeking clarity, they instead created more uncertainty.

But should we blame journalists for the spread of the infodemic? Despite publishing alarming articles that offer no
clarity, they simply report what the government has authorised them to publish. Hence, the articles rather reflect the inherent contradiction in the government’s advice. Take their advice on travelling.

Although they urged the public to not travel to amber-listed countries, people could still travel for ‘special circumstances’ – with many counting a holiday as a ‘special circumstance’. It is the journalist’s responsibility to remove this ambiguity, to provide clarification – a responsibility they have failed to fulfil.

Illustration: Nicole Wu

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