Coronavirus and the media's crucial balancing act
The response of the media to the coronavirus threat will have to be carefully and accurately calibrated against the reality, writes Ray Snoddy. So how has it fared to date?
The coronavirus is very bad for humanity, but it could be much less bad for the media if the media fulfils what should be its historic role with distinction.
The challenge, not seen in this form since 1918, can hardly be exaggerated.
It is to inform and educate in a measured way without causing unnecessary panic, while at the same time doing nothing to underestimate the true scale of the danger.
At the same time the media has to graduate its response on a daily basis to reflect the evolving, accelerating threat of a global crisis – a pandemic in all but name.
Anthony Bellinger, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, has put it well when he argued that “the journalist’s responsibility towards the public takes precedence over any other responsibility.”
Responsible reporting can be part of the solution and give an opportunity to demonstrate “the value of quality, ethical journalism.”
So far the performance of the media has on the whole been impressive.
Across just about every outlet on radio, television and the press the serious experts have been interviewed, the scientific context explored, the history traced and the individual stories told of Brits marooned in Tenerife hotels or cruise ships off Japan.
If there has been a fault so far it has been in the failure sometimes to stay focussed and instead run off chasing ephemeral stories.
The Sunday Telegraph is a case in point treating the Boris Johnson pregnancy akin to the second coming, although the Sunday Times chose to splash with Priti Patel “the lying bully” relegating the virus “doomsday plan” to a relatively modest piece at the bottom of the front page.
The top half of the Mail on Sunday’s front page was devoted to “Cripes! As Boris and Carrie reveal she’s pregnant” above the leaked memo from a Number 10 adviser even more crazy than Dominic Cummings arguing the UK doesn’t need farmers.
There followed a six page special on the latest Johnson baby, and the over-60s had to wait until page 16 to find out that they should avoid crowds in the greatest peacetime threat the UK has faced in more than a century.
On Monday The Sun had the warning that British cities could be put in lockdown but the following day it was a case of “The Queen & Harry…Kiss and Meg Up.”
A difficult line to draw on how often you splash with a story that could run for months without facing the medical equivalent of Brexit fatigue.
There again you have the measured tones of experts such as Prof Neil Ferguson on the Today programme telling it like it is – that the closest parallel is with the so-called Spanish flu at the end of the First World War which had no trouble spreading rapidly when there were only ships not planes and led to an estimated 50 million deaths.
There was an excellent two page essay in Saturday’s Times by the paper’s science editor Tom Whipple, complete with a telling chart putting the coronavirus in historical context by tracking average number of people infected by each sick person against death rates.
The coronavirus spreads to an average of two and a half people, more than double that of ebola and bird flu, but only around a one per cent death rate compared to more than 60 per cent for ebola.
There is also good and bad news. The 30,000 jumbled numbers that represent the Covid-19 virus were openly posted by Chinese scientists on January 10th. With Sars a similar process took five months.
The less good news, according to Whipple, comes from the south of Wuhan in farms where chickens are packed wing-to-wing in the form of an avian flu that has learned how to infect humans with a 60 per cent chance of death.
So far at least it is not being spread human to human.
The fear is that the international media may have to get used to what has long been forecast as inevitable – an era of pandemics.
What can be safely claimed is that the media overall is making a better fist of their duty than the current crop of politicians in London and Washington.
The Johnson administration blocked the Department of Health from applying to remain a member of the EU early warning group on pandemics or attend, as we are still entitled to do, the EU coordinating group on responses to Covid-19.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, representing 9 million people, was disgracefully refused permission to attend the Government’s emergency COBRA meeting when Johnson finally got round to calling one on Monday.
The Prime Minister’s press conference was full of generalities and bluster and lacking in detail, as is his wont.
The only slightly redeeming feature was that the ban on ministers appearing on the Today programme was lifted in the case of the Health Secretary Matt Hancock – merely highlighting the ridiculous nature of the ban in the first place.
The Trump response to the crisis is, naturally, off the scale in terms of folly.
The President appeared to believe that the pandemic was a Democrat plot to undermine the economy and with it his chances of re-election. Trump believed that existing flu vaccines would surely work and if you did need a new one two months surely should be ample.
When the issue gets life-threatening the meanderings of Trump on Twitter must surely be worrying for the company.
The time when some Trump tweets have to be removed cannot be far off.
Overall the main social media outlets have been highlighting and promoting links to proper medical advice, although there has also been space for those selling vitamin “cures” and stories about how Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the coronavirus epidemic.
It is the traditional media outlets that stand to gain most if their reporting remains factual and measured as the crisis worsens, as it surely will.
There may even be some economic gain from public service advertisements to offset, at least partially, the impact of the inevitable slow-down of economic activity.
With 53 confirmed sufferers in the UK at the time of writing, the containment phase of this disease is all but over and an exponential spread is now very likely.
It’s serious for us all but there is an opportunity for the media to emerge from this crisis with an enhanced reputation - but the response will have to be carefully and accurately calibrated against the reality and avoiding any hint of hysteria.
Now go and wash your hands for 20 seconds - with or without Happy Birthday or God Save the Queen.