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How journalists are meeting the Covid-19 challenge

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How journalists are meeting the Covid-19 challenge

The Covid-19 crisis has dominated the news for a few months now, with each day bringing a torrent of news coverage about the virus. But what easily gets buried under the avalanche of news content is the broadness of methods that journalists are using to cover and analyse the crisis.

This article focuses on five specific approaches that journalists have used successfully to increase the public’s understanding of the pandemic. The purpose of this post is not to suggest a “best of” list of Covid-19 news coverage, but rather showcase the diversity and creativity that news outlets have displayed while covering the issue.

Depicting the pressure on hospitals

A central concern across different countries has been the strain the rapidly spreading disease causes for health services, with hospitals struggling to provide sufficient care to the growing number of patients, often while dealing with shortages of equipment and protective gear.

Statistics help illustrate the challenge that the pandemic represents for the health sector, but data can only tell a partial version of the story, especially in terms of the reality on the ground. Arguably the most effective stories on the topic took the audience into the hospitals to show the harsh conditions that health care professionals work under.

Sky News: “Coronavirus: Italy’s hardest-hit city wants you to see how COVID-19 is affecting its hospitals”Sky News: “Coronavirus: Italy’s hardest-hit city wants you to see how COVID-19 is affecting its hospitals”

For instance, Sky News produced an effective report from the hospital in Bergamo, the hardest-hit city at the time in Italy. Such news coverage helped communicate the urgency of the crisis, at the phase when many were still struggling to comprehend the scope and danger of the pandemic.

Several broadcasters, thanks to their expertise in creating engaging video content, produced reports that showed the dramatic reality at the hospitals. Other examples include the RTBF-France 3 coproduced documentary about the hospital in La Louvière, Belgium, the BBC’s report about the intensive care unit at the University College Hospital in London, and ITV News’s story from the Royal Bournemouth Hospital.

“Flattening the curve” – why social distancing is crucial

When it comes to depicting the speed with which the coronavirus can spread, and why taking action against it is crucial, some visualisations were particularly successful. The Washington Post’s interactive article on the topic is probably the best known, having even been shared by Barack Obama. (The story went on to become the Washington Post’s most-read article – read about how it was made here.)

The Washington Post made its article available in various languages, and many publishers around the world produced similar stories for their local audiences (see for example the article by Helsingin Sanomat.)

Such interactive visualisations were helpful in explaining why social distancing is an effective weapon to “flatten the curve” and control the outbreak. These visuals also helped illustrate the scientific concept “reproduction number”, the R value, which would go on to feature prominently in discussions about healthcare and policy measures.

However, the issue can be communicated effectively also without interactive visuals: Corriere della sera’s piece about the mathematics of the epidemic, published almost four weeks before the countrywide lockdown was implemented in Italy, was an early argument for social distancing measures even though the mortality rate of the disease didn’t seem to be very high at the outset.

Illustrating the geographical spread of the virus

As it became clear that Covid-19 would spread and cause major disruption around the world, more and more questions were being asked about the origins of the virus: when was it first detected, what measures did China take in the early days, and how did the virus spread out of China?

An extensive account about the first weeks of the pandemic was published by La Repubblica (paywall), exploring in detail the different actions that China took during this critical period and how the official narrative differed from the series of facts that emerged later.

The New York Times: “How the Virus Got Out”The New York Times: “How the Virus Got Out”Visualisations have also been useful in depicting the scale and the speed of the spread of the virus, as the New York Time’s interactive graphic shows. It visualises the chronology of how the virus first spread from Wuhan to other cities in China and how international flows of people allowed Covid-19 to travel outside the country.

Sophisticated data visualisations are helpful but not essential to provide a chronology of the spread of the virus – for example this article by Le Temps presents a simple but effective timeline of the events.

Data journalism and statistical analysis

An important part of the news coverage has naturally been the various statistics that depict the spread of the outbreak. Many news publishers maintain pages that communicate and visualise the different figures and data points relating to the disease.

For instance, Der Spiegel has a regularly updated set of charts about international comparisons and the spread of the virus within Germany, among other statistics. Similarly Sud Ouest in France features a dashboard that is updated daily, including the essential data about the spread of the virus in the different regions in France.

However, during the crisis it has become increasingly clear that the official figures about Covid-19 cases and deaths do not always reflect the full picture of the situation. For instance, the kind of wide-scale testing that would allow to determine how broadly the virus has spread in the population has not been available in most countries, and the most reliable estimates for these figures are only now coming out.

The Financial Times: “Global coronavirus death toll could be 60% higher than reported”The Financial Times: “Global coronavirus death toll could be 60% higher than reported”Data journalists have attempted to fill such gaps in the official data by creating their own estimates: for example the Financial Times and the New York Times have made their own calculations that go beyond the statistics that the health officials can provide.

Fighting the misinformation pandemic

Finally, along with the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen an “infodemic” of misinformation about the virus. False information circulates on various platforms, creating a specific challenge for journalists and scientists who aim to inform the public about the disease and help them detect false information.

ProPublica: “I’m an Investigative Journalist. These Are the Questions I Asked About the Viral “Plandemic” Video.”ProPublica: “I’m an Investigative Journalist. These Are the Questions I Asked About the Viral “Plandemic” Video.”One widely disseminated source of misinformation has been the “Plandemic” video, which claimed to show a “hidden agenda” and a conspiracy behind the pandemic. ProPublica’s examination of the video not only debunked its claims but aimed to arm readers with a checklist for detecting other false information about the disease. Also First Draft reflected on the video’s spread as an illustration of how conspiracy theories travel online.

Despite being removed by YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook from their platforms, the “Plandemic” video continues to spread widely. This analysis shows how an ecosystem of conspiracy communities can sustain a video even when tech platforms aim to stop it. Prospect discussed in detail the connections and dynamics that drive the spread of false information about Covid-19.

The Reuters Institute produced a factsheet that is also helpful in trying to comprehend the landscape of Covid-19 misinformation. Such misinformation is having real-life consequences, as the news about attacks against phone masts and telecoms workers in the UK show, and many worry that anti-vaccination conspiracies will dissuade people from having the eventual vaccination against the coronavirus.

Fact-checkers across newsrooms have been busy combating misinformation, as evidenced for example by the Guardian, Wired, CNN, and Channel 4. Moreover, in an effort to combat the infodemic, fact-checkers around the world have come together through the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, which maintains a global database of falsehoods that have been detected by the group.

This article was originally published by QUEST - QUality and Effectiveness in Science and Technology communication, one of WAN-IFRA's projects funded by the EU's Horizon 2020 programme. Interested to learn more? Head over to the project website.


Teemu Henriksson's picture

Teemu Henriksson


2020-06-02 16:36

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