The global pandemic and its impact on journalism

While the impact has been mostly negative, there is some good news too

October 19, 2020 12:15 am | Updated November 10, 2021 12:15 pm IST

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on every sector. Its impact on journalism is immense. Economists have given us sufficient warnings about how the lack of reliable data in India hurts the most vulnerable. Just as we do not have data on migrant labourers, we do not have any data on COVID-19’s impact on Indian journalism. But a global survey gives us an indication of the cost extracted by the pandemic from the world of journalism.

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism started the ‘Journalism and the Pandemic’ survey to understand how members of the media are faring in these trying times. The authors of this project are Julie Posetti, an award-winning journalist and academic who leads the ICFJ’s global research programme; Emily Bell, Founding Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School; and Peter Brown, Research Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. They surveyed 1,406 English-speaking journalists and news workers from 125 countries with the aim of providing a meaningful and actionable snapshot of the challenges faced by journalists in the first few months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Many threats

Thirty per cent of the respondents who were reporting in the field during the first wave of the outbreak said their news organisations did not supply them with a single piece of recommended protective equipment. Forty-five per cent said they did not receive a face mask; 49% said they were not given hand sanitisers; and 85% said they did not receive appropriate technical equipment such as extendable boom microphones and telescopic lenses that would have enabled them to conduct interviews at a safe distance.

The survey found other threats too. Seventy per cent of the respondents rated the psychological and emotional impacts of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis as the most difficult aspect of their work, and 82% reported having at least one negative emotional or psychological reaction as a result of the pandemic. Two-thirds of the respondents reported multiple negative mental health impacts. Twenty per cent said their experience of online abuse, harassment, threats or attacks was “much worse than usual”.

The question of false balance comes out in a critical manner in the survey. In their report, ‘How are we feeling?’, the authors write: “Readers have been outraged at the commissioning of dangerously inflammatory opinion columns under the justification that it’s important to expose readers to a range of views.” Reliance on platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook saw a sharp increase as reporters depended on remote sourcing rather than being a witness. Many questions emerge from this development: “Are they more like public meetings or private conversations? How secure are they? And what are the ethical implications of dependence on tech platforms for building communities?”

The survey also said that “politicians and elected officials were identified by 46% of the respondents as a top source of disinformation, along with government agencies and their representatives (25%), and State-linked troll networks (23%), highlighting a serious lack of trust in political and governmental actors as the pandemic took hold.” It identified Facebook as a “prolific disinformation vector” (66%). Over one-third (35%) also found the Facebook-owned closed-messaging app WhatsApp as a top spreader; 11% of the respondents identified Instagram, also Facebook-owned, as a top enabler; 9% cited Facebook Messenger; and 42% cited Twitter as a “prolific disinformation spreader”.

Some positive findings

Amidst this generally depressing news, there were some positive findings too. Forty-three per cent of the respondents reported that audience trust in their journalism had increased during the first wave of the pandemic and 38% said they had experienced increased audience engagement (which was also largely positive) during the period. And 61% expressed an increased commitment to journalism as a result of the pandemic.

Most respondents want to alter the publishing environment in favour of high-quality reporting, and governments and civil society organisations to reaffirm a belief in the value of critical, independent journalism.

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