A computer screen shows COVID-19 statistics

When mainstream media get it right

March 23, 2020

Blog post by Phillip Lee

It's interesting to see the media's largely positive role in helping to combat the coronavirus crisis.  

According to Forbes Magazine (March 16), the World Health Organization (WHO) is becoming the planet's most important social media influencer.  

"The Safe Hands Challenge, for instance, has been used as a TikTok hashtag nearly a half billion times in 48 hours. The WHO posted its first video to TikTok 16 days ago and has since added nine more. They've been viewed an average of 10.3 million times. For perspective, Loren Gray, the influencer with the largest following on the platform, has averaged only 4.4 million views in her last 10. The WHO has 448,000 followers on TikTok, 2.3 million on LinkedIn and close to 6 million on both Twitter and Facebook. In real life, people have checked into its Geneva headquarters nearly 54,000 times using its Facebook page."  

At the same time, social media liars are at work. Facebook and Google have been pulling out all the stops to counter the wave of false reports, hacking attempts and outright lies that have spread like wildfire about COVID-19.  

Unfortunately, people are still sharing rumours, fake stories and half-truths about COVID-19 through the likes of Instagram and Twitter as they struggle to understand how best to protect themselves and their families.  

As for traditional media outlets, "Coronavirus Coverage Isn't Alarmist; It's One Thing Mainstream Media Gets Right," published on CCN March 8, pointed out that the view journalists are selling fear and panic doesn't square with reality and that journalists are actually playing a critical role in keeping the public informed.  

In Canada, the two largest newspapers -- Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail -- have dropped their paywalls on coronavirus news stories, and offered free newsletter updates on COVID-19.  

"We believe our journalism can help people make informed decisions as we navigate uncertain times," said the Globe and Mail March 11. While it normally relies on subscriptions, it chose to make coronavirus-related stories free "because of the enormous public safety interest," it added.  

The Toronto Star, which lifted the paywall March 4,  said "in unprecedented times like this, we believe in the responsibility of journalism for the public good."  Editor Irene Gentle underscored that, "Misinformation is plentiful, contagious and dangerous, and coronavirus news and knowledge evolves." She noted that "our team of reporters work relentlessly to bring you the clarity, context and responsible facts you need to be informed." 

In addition, alongside other reliable sources of alternative news, the international non-profit Internews is working to build the skills of local reporters to cover complex health issues like COVID-19 by supporting the creation of factual information in local languages.  

Testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., March 12, Internews president and CEO Jeanne Bourgault referenced the pandemic and said, "During times like this we all experience the urgency of access to timely, relevant and trusted information."  

Putting that belief into practice, around the world a number of Internews projects are responding to the challenge by adapting current work to addressing the overwhelming need for information about COVID-19.  

Trustworthy public service media are always needed, but never more so than in times of strife, disaster and emergency.  

For once, mainstream and social media are on the same page. 

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media DevelopmentWACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community. It is a member of the ACT Alliance. 

(Banner photo: Credit Clay Banks / Unsplash)