The challenge of media coverage in a time of Covid
More than a year into Covid, IBT recently hosted a panel discussion to consider how well the media has covered international stories and issues in this challenging period. IBT Director Mark Galloway reports.
We brought together a range of voices to look more closely at international coverage in the time of Covid. How well has mainstream media served us? Could it have done better? If so, how? There was an acknowledgement by the panel that the media had faced a unique challenge – the biggest story in living memory and yet the normal means of covering the story were simply not available.
Liliane Landor, Head of Foreign News at Channel 4 News, spoke candidly about the challenge, which was especially acute when the UK went into lockdown. The priority for the Channel 4 team was simply to ‘keep the show on the road’ she told us. For Liliane herself, it was ‘how to cover the world when it had become completely inaccessible.’ Channel 4 News has a small team of reporters who are mostly based in the UK. They couldn’t travel at all, so new ways had to be found to tell stories from around the world.
Liliane acknowledged that the necessity of having to rely on reporters, producers and camera crews who were in country was ultimately a huge benefit. It has changed Channel 4 News forever. She now has teams in Italy, France, India, Brazil, China and elsewhere, that she will use again in the future. They will become ‘part of the Channel 4 News family.’
The pandemic was one story which affected us all
For Liliane, the global story was so important that lines between domestic and foreign news ceased to exist. The pandemic was one story which affected us all. This was not a view shared by others on the panel, who felt that it was almost as if there were two pandemics being reported – the one happening in the UK and the one happening abroad.
Romilly Greenhill, UK Director of ONE, felt that in this regard the media had not served us well and, as a result, there was a lack of understanding amongst the UK public that how the pandemic was tackled in other countries would impact on us too. No one is safe until everyone is safe.
Romilly also felt that the media had failed to catch the mood of the public in its reporting of the vaccine rollout. Polling conducted by ONE and other organisations had found public support for the UK moving more quickly to share vaccine doses, especially with health workers in poorer countries. There was huge anger about the inequity of the vaccine rollout amongst leaders from the global south. This had not been reflected in UK media coverage.
Learning the lessons from how epidemics have been tackled in other parts of the world
There was a consensus amongst the panel that politicians in the UK had failed to learn from how other parts of the world had tackled previous epidemics such as Ebola and SARS. The media was partly to blame according to Indi Samarajiva, a Sri Lankan based journalist. Indi described this as a ‘colonial’ mentality that Britain knows best. He argued that the media was complicit in this view, a claim strongly contested by Liliane.
Camilla Knox-Peebles, CEO of Amref Health Africa UK and others on the panel wanted to hear a wider range of voices from the global south. She felt that the media had conflated the experience of African nations into one story as if Africa were just one country. The experience of living with Covid in Tanzania, where the President resisted a lockdown at all costs, was very different from the experience of living with it in a country like Botswana, which took swift action to close its borders and impose a lockdown. Camilla also felt that the media focus was on the medical story, the number of cases and how well health systems were coping. This neglected other equally important aspects of the crisis – the real impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. It was striking, Camilla said, how few positive stories there were from Africa in general.
There was a general feeling amongst the panel that if media coverage of international stories had more follow through and follow up, there would be a better understanding of what was happening in those countries. There would also be a better understanding of the pandemic and how its impact magnified underlying inequalities. This better understanding could help us to address other global challenges – such as climate change – more effectively in the future.
Stories that the media missed
Vanessa Baird co-editor at New Internationalist praised some of the mainstream media coverage but felt that there were important stories that the media had not given enough attention to. One was the way in which many governments have used what she called ‘the cover of Covid’ to suppress human rights and limit free speech.
Vanessa was also critical of media praise for drug companies as modern day heroes, rescuing the world from the clutches of Covid. This was far from the truth she said, as many pharmaceutical companies stood to make huge profits from their Covid vaccines.
- The Media Reform Coalition, which jointly hosted this event with IBT, has launched a ‘BBC and Beyond’ debate to encourage public discussion of the role of public service media in the UK. They will be drawing up a people’s media manifesto later in the year.
- Ofcom, the media regulator, is currently reviewing public service broadcasting (PSB) and IBT has contributed to that review. We are keen to see the Government take steps to secure and strengthen the future of PSB for the next decade. You can read our submission here.