author: Dejan Andonov, MA
Expert in media and communications
Institute for Communication Studies
Since March this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has created a huge need for news and highlighted the importance of professional journalism and access to verified information. The spread of the coronavirus, critical situations in the health system, preventive measures, urgent Government policies, damages from physical isolation, all these headlines just illustrate that "Covid-19" is a topic mostly reported by the media. However, many untruths have been spreading through online portals and social networks with the same speed, that makes it difficult for the society to react properly and deal with the pandemic. Hence, access to reliable information has become a matter of life and death. Human health depends not only on health care, but also on access to accurate information about coronavirus threats and on the measures for personal protection and protection of their families and the environment. This crisis has also highlighted the need for journalists in society, who play a key role in providing vital information to the public.
Journalism is more important than ever
The massive circulation of misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic has also received a special term - disinfodemia. Disinformation causes confusion among people, divisions in public discussion and on social networks. It even threatens lives. UNESCO in its publication "Journalism, Press Freedom and Covid-19" provides statistics which indicate the massive spread of misinformation around the world about the coronavirus:
- About 40 percent of social media posts about Covid-19 are from an unreliable source, according to a study by the Bruno Kessler Foundation based on an analysis of 112 million posts in 64 languages;
- Nearly a third of social media users reported false or misleading information about the coronavirus, according to a Reuters Institute study conducted in six countries;
- In March, about 40 million problematic posts about Covid-19 were identified on Facebook, the company announced, adding that hundreds of thousands of misinformation about the virus had been removed;
- The search engine NewsGuard identified 191 websites in Europe and North America that published false information about the virus;
- The CoronaVirusFacts Alliance has uncovered and denied more than 3,500 false or misleading information in over 70 countries and in more than 40 languages.
In March, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube released a joint statement on their commitment to combating coronavirus-related disinformation. They have pledged to remove, reduce or label misinformation about Covid-19, make donations to journalists and fact-checkers, direct users to information from official health organizations by placing them at the top of search results, and ban ads that include misinformation about the coronavirus.
However, according to a UNESCO publication, the online activist network Avaaz found that 41 percent of the misinformation it identified on Facebook was without a warning label. The Reuters Institute, in a sample of 225 misinformation, found that 59 percent of Twitter posts rated by fac-checkers as fake still remained online. 27 percent of the fake posts remained on YouTube, and 24 percent of the misinformation remained on Facebook without a warning sign.
In this kind of global disinfodemia, professional journalism gives people an alternative to misinformation by publishing verified facts and informed opinions. Journalism, at least in the democratically developed countries of the world, is recognized as a "basic service" and a "public service" which is and will be more important than ever.
Journalistic mistakes and working conditions in the coronavirus crisis in Macedonia
When reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic, journalists in Macedonia were (and still are) under great pressure to publish public information, but this did not discourage certain media outlets from pursuing problematic journalistic practices.
"This spoiled child infected the whole of Karposh!", "Can the corona virus be cured with Vaseline?!", "French scientists say that the Croatian Sumamed helps against the coronavirus", “The system is crashing: The deceased woman had been cured by phone - hospitalized only 3 days ago!"," The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense of Dimitrov and Sekerinska spent 2.5 million denars for travel abroad in four days in the middle of the crisis." These are some of the texts related to the coronavirus crisis reported to the Council for Media Ethics as cases of sensational reporting, texts based on unconfirmed facts, inaccurate and unverified information, spread of fear and panic. The Council also identified speculations without a source of information, based on assumptions, impartial and unbalanced information, without second source of information or a professional distance from political entities, as well as texts containing hate speech, discrimination and invasion of privacy.
In addition, newsrooms reported very little on the harmful effects of physical isolation, such as domestic violence, fear, and feelings of hopelessness. There was a lack of empathy and a more human perspective when reporting on Government statistics on coronavirus patients and deaths, certainly without compromising the privacy of victims and their families. Few journalistic stories have highlighted issues specific to the elderly, women and the young.
On the other hand, in order to inform the public, journalists put their own safety at risk. Two media workers died of Covid-19, and several journalists were infected with the coronavirus. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, they risked their health because the newsrooms did not have personal protective equipment, such as masks, visors or gloves. They faced increased pressure and uncertainty, prolonged working hours, job insecurity. Despite the high growth of the audience, some media outlets have reduced the salaries of journalists and other media workers due to, according to managers, lower advertising revenues. This happened exactly in the moments when journalists were most needed.
Let’s advocate for journalism even in times of crisis
This crisis has allowed people to recognize journalism as an essential element of their lives. The coronavirus has increased the challenges faced by journalists, but has also boosted public confidence that it can count on good journalism. Citizens felt the need for professional media to obtain understandable, accessible, timely and credible information on coronavirus threats to their health.
However, "Covid-19" also revealed the gaps that need to be filled in the newsrooms in Macedonia. Higher education institutions, training organizations, and the media themselves have an important role to play in strengthening the newsrooms. With colleagues from the Institute for Communication Studies, we are creating a new practical program for young people interested in journalism, with little or no experience, which will give them the opportunity to learn about journalism of public interest and media production, as well as to participate in creating media content with experienced journalists and in newsrooms. Journalism education, according to the latest trends in the media and communication industry, will provide more and better trained journalists with diverse skills. Leaning topics include: How to be impartial observers and reporters? How to think outside the box when looking for story ideas? How to embrace a wide range of voices that create awareness and education? How to question while listening and judging critically? How to represent the human-interest angle and the community? How to avoid stigmatization? How to tell stories in an original way? Learning methods include not just the use of digital technologies in data collection, fact-checking and storytelling, by strengthening journalistic and digital skills, but also strengthening of entrepreneurial skills that can enable "start-up" media, independent and critical journalism.