Journalism in the pandemic: challenges and innovation
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Journalism has sometimes been a dangerous profession during the pandemic, but there has been real innovation, too. In this, the third part of our series on Journalism in the Pandemic, Rachael Jolley, former editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship and research fellow at the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield considers how Covid 19 has influenced the future of journalism.
Rachael Jolley: Welcome to Pod Academy and our third podcast in this series on journalism during the pandemic. In this episode we look at the challenges that reporters were just not prepared for. And what are the innovations and changes that come out of the crisis that will be significant for the years ahead.
As the pandemic kicked off, the big challenge for many news organisations was to move their reporting teams to work completely remotely, so there was a massive shifting of equipment to people’s homes. Suddenly all sorts of questions were being asked about filing stories in different ways and how to cover stories while reducing risks of infection.
Very few had experience covering a pandemic before. And so there was no obvious formula to follow. Then there were the technical challenges of using new equipment or older equipment differently. At the same time, staff were off sick or on furlough or newsrooms were cut back because of financial pressures.
So what were the toughest obstacles and what are the innovations that might make a difference to how journalism is done in the future? We talked to experts around the world to find out. First, we went to Milan, the epicenter of the pandemic in Italy, and talked to Laura Silvia Battaglia, the coordinator, and soon to be director of the Catholic University of Milan’s journalism school and a journalist herself. We kicked off by talking about the challenges for the journalism school and its students.
Laura Silvia Battaglia: Here in Milan, we started in February thinking about how could it be possible to cover the pandemic. But we weren’t really conscious about the challenges for our profession and also about the risks at the beginning. No one knew exactly what COVID-19 was.
We started thinking about the safety for our students and the risks related to covering these areas. So the challenges were very significant because we used to send our students around like every reporter does. But at the same time they are students. We told them immediately, to try to keep a distance, the safety distance, how to cover yourself using masks, using face shields. So we provided all this stuff to our students and we decided only the people that really wanted to go out for reporting (of course, covering themselves and trying to avoid any risk and following the rules). So only the people that wanted to they did it and the others who didn’t want to go reporting, they would not, they would work at a desk for our publications.
Rachael Jolley: Here is Richard Sambrook, a former director of global news at the BBC and now director of the centre for journalism at Cardiff University on why it was difficult for news organisations to know where to start….
Richard Sambrook: Nobody has had direct experience of reporting a pandemic like this before. So I think it took quite a while for people to understand how to use the statistics, how to use the figures, what to expect from the science and so on as well. That took quite a lot of catching up with even for some of the health specialists. There’s the whole question of being remote from the community they serve. Because actually, if anything that we’ve learned over the last few years is journalism has been too remote needs to get closer to the community. But now the pandemic’s come in and now got in the way of that as well. So trying to report the impact, you know, in ways that are still COVID compliant is difficult and challenging and quite complicated.
And then we’ve seen a huge rise in disinformation around COVID and around vaccines and so on as well. That is a very major challenge.
Rachael Jolley: Knowing which questions to ask the scientists was also a challenge. Here is Jean-Paul Marthoz who teaches journalism and terrorism studies at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.
Jean-Paul Marthoz: There was a lack of scientific expertise among the journalists. Very few media had people on staff able to not only to understand on their own what was happening, which everyone had trouble to do anyway, but even how to frame the issue what kind of questions to put to experts, how to select the experts. I mean, because at the beginning every expert seemed to be someone who had kind of a revealed truth because he was an expert.
There’s been too much focus on the national situation misunderstanding the nature of the crisis especially in Europe. In the Schengen area, for instance, you could say that if you didn’t have coordination between the various policies adopted by the national governments, it was just useless because people were moving from one side to the other.
Rachael Jolley: One of the big challenges for journalists was facing down some of the legislation, the more restrictive legislation that was put in by governments to curtail media freedom.
There were some successes, like where the Spanish government brought in a rule that journalists at press conferences had to put in their questions in advance. After 600 journalists signed a petition against this, the Spanish government changed its mind. And we also saw some success in Serbia where the government had imposed a rule that information about COVID had to come from government sources only. When a journalist, Ana Lalic went ahead and reported about shortages of PPE equipment in a hospital, she was arrested. After a massive public outcry, both nationally and internationally, the Serbian government rolled back that rule. But the difficult times for journalism also fostered some new responses and changes. Here’s Jean-Paul Mathoz again.
Jean-Paul Marthoz: I think a number of news organizations innovated by introducing new formats, for instance, fact checking. And not only fact checking, but also introducing new ways of showing fact checking, sort of better data, journalism podcasts, explanatory journalism. So it was not saying just that he or she is right or wrong, but trying to get beyond it, just by simple forms of fact checking. There were innovations in a number of newspapers and broadcast companies.
I have seen comparisons between a number of elite newspapers in Europe, Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, El Pais, The Guardian, Le Monde, for instance, showing how they really moved ahead on a number of innovations in their own digital transformation and transition. The COVID crisis really accelerated a number of trends which at the end of the day would have been adopted, but much later.
Even the French government gave millions of support to the media to help them to get through the crisis. And they focused besides on digital transition because it was part really of the model that was used during the crisis by the media to inform the public better, to be much more graphic, to use other forms of journalism.
When you see what the public expects from journalism today, according to a survey which was published a few months ago during the Assises du Journalisme, which is a large gathering of French/Francophone journalists takes place every year in France, there were expectations from the public. Firstly there was the fact checking, they really wanted to have journalists check the information on the internet.
Secondly there was a question of having a form of ‘solutions journalism’ in the sense of helping them to get away from this climate of exasperation, desperation, fatigue and find solutions, even very concrete solutions sometimes. The local press did quite well, like finding a solution to the transportation, the people from school, to home or from how do you organise teleworking?
There’s been a lot of innovation in journalism. I’ve seen a number of interesting figures, the fact that a couple of our newspapers of record have found a new life and a new economic model. Le Monde, for instance, announced that they had never had as many subscribers online and it really helped them to see the future with much more optimism without depending so much on online advertising.
Rachael Jolley: The pandemic has meant laying on extra equipment for some reporters in the field to protect them from attacks. Here’s Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the US Press Freedom Tracker .
Kirstin McCudden: [00:09:46]
Around the [US Presidential] election, Reuters famously talked about ‘gearing up’ their journalists to cover election protests. And that meant gear such as bullet-proof vests and helmets. We’ve seen a lot of chemical irritants used by law enforcement across the entire US, so googles, tight googles, that can keep tear gas or pepper balls, just chemical irritants, out of your eyes. So we know newsrooms are making new decisions, because of what has happened.
Rachael Jolley: Innovation comes in lots of different forms. Here’s Damian Radcliffe of the University of Oregon and Lada Price of Sheffield Hallam University to talk about the rise of news podcasts.
Damian Radcliffe: If at the start of the pandemic, you’d said people will listen to more podcasts, I think a lot of people would have been really surprised because the assumption I’ve found with a lot of my colleagues is that people listen to podcasts whilst they’re on the move.
Lada Price: The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalists have actually noticed quite a significant growth in news podcasts. These have become very, very popular, especially among younger audiences and the other thing that’s happened, I think you’ve noted that before, people really are focusing on their local news outlets and supporting the local radio stations, the local media. They are actually getting some paid subscriptions along with their other types of subscription.
Damian Radcliffe:It’s obviously how we have seen large amounts of innovation all around the world, a lot of it driven by certainly in the first part of the pandemic, just a huge demand from audiences who wanted to know and understand and make sense of what was happening with this new novel coronavirus. The most obvious responses to that were publications launching coronavirus newsletters. We saw a ton of those and also COVID-19 themed podcasts. They’ve all been incredibly popular, have reached large audiences. I think one of the challenges, one of the interesting questions now for news organisations is how do you maintain interest?
Lada Price: An interesting example of innovation is the rise of something that we call ‘solutions journalism’ or constructive journalism, where the focus is not just on the negative news and how that’s affecting our societies. It is obviously, focused on accurate and truthful reporting, but at the same time offering a solution or alternative of how we can deal with a specific problem.
And I think that is becoming more popular among younger audiences. A good example of that is The Guardian’s upside pages that include a number of stories that can be described as solution or constructive journalism. And I think that’s a positive development in other countries, too. In Bulgaria, for example , some media outlets introduced special sections which was news not on the pandemic, just to give people a little bit of extra space to read about something else and to help us feel less helpless .
Rachael Jolley: Some newspapers, news websites also introduced these platforms where local people could swap information. So we found in France there were new sites who said, “well, this is your space. We’ve created it if people want to swap information that might help other people”. And that’s something fairly new, isn’t it? That that’s come out of the pandemic. And I think they feel cool, more connected to their local news organisation, but also gives them a bit of power to do things themselves, I thought that was quite interesting.
Lada Price: In Eastern Europe, there has been a trend over the past few years of news organisations supplementing their income from events and conferences. Unfortunately was affected because of restrictions during the pandemic, restrictions on gatherings and movements. But I’m seeing signs of some of them actually starting to organize some online events and gatherings. So perhaps that is something as well that will develop.
Damian Radcliffe: There are a few examples of using WhatsApp alone. There’s examples of organisations in the Ivory Coast creating daily What’sApp blasts that are going out giving you the low down on what you need to know. Today in Africa there’s a publication called The Continent, which is a WhatsApp newspaper. It has around 8,000 subscribers (these were the figures in the Summer, so this is probably grown). 8,000 subscribers in 48 countries. And these are really short stories, a couple of hundred words, specifically for consumption on WhatsApp and on mobile. And because WhatsApp doesn’t just provide text services, you can also consume other media through it as well. And in Sao Paolo we found an example of a daily WhatsApp podcast that was producing seven or eight minute podcasts. So we’re seeing, lots of publications lots of journalists and news organisations, doing things around the world, very much specifically tailoring it for consumption on WhatsApp. And I think that’s really, really interesting.
We’ve also seen examples of collaboration and innovation. So for example, in Latin America, there’s been the creation of this entity called Centinela COVID-19, which has brought together 12 different organisations from different countries across Latin America to investigate how the region is responding to COVID-19.
And I think that examples of that kind of collaboration that we’re seeing across newsrooms and across countries Is incredibly healthy for the news ecosystem and for journalism. And I hope that that method of working together is something which continues well after the pandemic is consigned to history.
Rachael Jolley: So what do experts think needs to happen next? Here’s Andy Lee Roth of Project Censored who work with students at many universities around the United States on media freedom issues.
Andy Lee Roth: We call for the Biden administration to stand up for journalists’ rights here and abroad and the restoration of network neutrality , the restoring of Obama-era network neutrality rules that would classify broadband providers as common carriers is crucial. And then the biggest one I think is to pass a bailout for journalism and to create a public option for journalism.
This economic downturn has devastated news media, especially local news media And the idea is that a public option has been proposed by Victor Pickard who’s a professor at the University of Pennsylvania to keep independent adversarial, journalism, alive and investment of some $30 billion a year, which sounds like a huge amount of money, but that’s less than the Pentagon, the US Department of Defense spends on certain fighter planes, $30 billion a year would be enough to pay for a robust public media system.
Another possibility Craig Aaron has proposed , who is the leader of the media reform organization Free Press, has called for an emergency bailout of $5 billion to keep news organisations afloat with some $930 million going to federal appropriations for public media over the next two years.
Richard Sambrook: Part of the long term thing is about media literacy, people need to think harder about what they can trust and why, in a way, they’ve never had to before the onus on a switch from the producer to the consumer in deciding what’s important to them, and what they can trust and what’s reliable. And that’s going to be a very long-term thing, because actually, we’re not very good at media literacy. And people talk about it as apple pie and motherhood. You know, it’s not at the core of the educational curriculum, there are lots of little initiatives around media literacy, but nothing of any great substance.
Photo Michal Czyz at Unsplash
Listen to the earlier episodes in this series on journalism in the pandemic here:
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