A Literally Captive Audience: Is COVID-19 Coverage Changing Digital Journalism?

According to The Financial Review, 40% of Australians say they’re overwhelmed by the amount of COVID-19 stories in the media, and it’s not hard to see why.

In the wake of mass media and mobile technology, the amount of news stories out there has become comparable to a stars-in-the-galaxy analogy. “Journalism is on a respirator” according to journalist Dan Tynan who believes the ease of broadcasting and publishing is diminishing the industry.

News outlets, search engines and and social media platforms have exploded with Coronavirus coverage, but is the quantity of information available good for us and our press?

Professor of Journalism John Wihbey says that while a common critique of online media is that we “artificially gate-keep”, the reality is that diversity of information can be detrimental.

These claims can be observed in the media’s response to COVID-19. In a frenzy to keep up with the news, publishers and broadcasters have let slip some controversial claims, the results of which can be damaging.

In a Sky News interview with Paul Murray, Bronwyn Bishop asserted that the virus was created by China in an effort to “get rid of non-productive Chinese”, and to economically cripple Chinese competitors.

Tweet by Julian Evans, @FocusNewsNow.

Although groundless, these are dangerous claims. Digital media has never been more important than it is during this crisis, and according to The Guardian, Australians’ confidence in news outlets has soared to 63%.

In other words, we’re vulnerable, and history has taught us the importance of triaging the press in a crisis.

‘Step Into Your Place’ Propaganda Poster provided by the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division.

A CNN Opinion piece by Viktoria Baranetsky states that journalism is under threat from writers “blindly dumping information”. She believes the press have detrimentally strayed from “reviewing, analyzing, editing and even redacting information before publishing”.

In Baranetsky’s words, the press should be “gate-keeper to the floods of information we may consume”. Moderation of information, she says, is essential to a healthy society.

Misinformation aside, the sheer amount of news available during COVID-19 has an arguably desensitising effect on its readers. The term ‘information overload’, coined by futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock, has been used to describe this phenomenon.

Information overload occurs when effective decision-making is obscured by the quantity of data available. Because of this, Baranetsky claims access to information “comes at a cost”.

“The mere presence of a smartphone resting silently in a pocket or on a desk within view may impair our ability to think and reason”.

So, what can we do as journalists to report on Coronavirus responsibly, and should these practises carry on beyond the pandemic?

The Financial Review’s Tom McIlroy believes the crisis calls for the widespread adoption of “a triage system to guide editorial decision-making”.

Currently, he believes COVID-19 coverage boils down to three types of stories.

  • Health advice: information about spreading, who is at risk, government action, and so on.
  • “Less important, though perhaps more entertaining”. Think: NBC Los Angeles’ ‘Man Accused of Punching Mother in Fight Over Toilet Paper’.
  • “Rubbish” – frivolous claims like those made by Bronwyn Bishop on Sky News.

McIlroy calls for journalists to consider the consequence of framing a story irresponsibly. Are sensationalist angles designed to cause hype viable in a crisis?

In addition to framing, he believes language is the next most important aspect of proportioning a story truthfully.

Is ‘confusion’ necessarily ‘chaos’, or is this stirring hype?

‘Breaking News Coronavirus’ provided by Omni Matryx from Pixabay.

And it’s not just our press who should be heeding this information. According to journalist Bianca Datta, social media platforms have a crucial role to play battling information overload, and as a result, fake news too.

Datta believes that social media platforms imbue news of varying quality with an “equal chance of success.” She says that a combination of content targeting strategies and individual selection bias can lead to “echo chambers”, rendering us vulnerable to misinformation.

Tweet by Darren Grimes, @darrengrimes_

The solution, of course, is complicated. Words like ‘gate-keeping’ and ‘news’ in the same sentence undoubtedly sound alarm bells for some.

History, however, has shown us that socially responsible journalism often emerges victorious after a crisis. Press models across the globe have liberalised following various negative implications.

Today, we have access to things like Big Data and social media insights, giving us invaluable understandings into news digestion. Should we be better utilising this knowledge to create a healthier information economy?

Do you believe online journalism has a role to play in moderating information? Is this being achieved? Leave a comment below.

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