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Media and Covid – a missed opportunity

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The Covid crisis should have been a major opportunity for journalists and the media to gain trust by informing the public objectively. Instead, they screwed it up. The Covid crisis has triggered a massive interest in information and news on the pandemic because we were all confronted with an unprecedented situation and nobody really knew what the virus was, how dangerous it could be and how to handle the situation. The BBC news website in the UK saw its traffic double with the onset of lockdown.

BBC News web traffic in the UK

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Source: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford

Meanwhile, younger people turned to social media for information about the pandemic. But not just any social media, they used Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok as information sources. To be honest, I think you need to have your head examined if you rely on any of these platforms for serious news, but here we are, in the 21st century…

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Source: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford

But whatever the news source, the general perception is that the media did a poor job in informing the public. One in three people thinks the media has exaggerated the pandemic and only half the respondents thought the media did an adequate job.

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Source: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford

Throughout the pandemic, the public thinks it has been poorly informed and received poor guidance on what to do in the pandemic. People, quite frankly, were confused and looking for help. The media didn’t provide it. Instead, they sensationalised it.

News coverage of the pandemic in the UK

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Source: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford

Sensationalising news might bring you clicks and revenues in the short term, but in the long term, it will lead to lower trust, particularly with people who don’t share your point of view. The loss of trust in the BBC, the UK’s state-funded broadcaster, and historically perceived as a beacon of journalistic objectivity, is dramatic. Particularly amongst politically more partisan users, the BBC has lost a lot of trust. And this in turn has been taken up by politicians in their cause to defund the BBC.

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Source: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford

To be sure, the BBC like so many government institutions has a lot of fat that could probably be cut away. But in its efforts to remain relevant, the BBC has increasingly pandered to a younger audience and emotionalised and sensationalised its news coverage. In effect, the BBC has tried to compete with Channel 4 and other private broadcasters. And the result is a continued loss of trust in the institution that only intensifies the calls to reform the BBC. What the BBC should have done is remain apolitical and objective. It will reduce viewership (in particular amongst younger audiences), but the pandemic has shown that a silent majority of the public is hungry for objective news and information. And if they can’t get that from the BBC, they will abandon it in ever-increasing numbers. 

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