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Tue 31 March 2020
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Brian Cathcart on why reporting that helps people form a balanced understanding of the Coronavirus outbreak so that they can make up their own minds in an informed way is absolutely vital. 

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The old dictum that good journalism is essential for a healthy democracy is suddenly more literally and more urgently true than it has been for many years. For, in the response to the Coronavirus outbreak, good journalism is a matter of life and death. 

But, alarmingly, in a country where many people don’t trust national news journalists to tell the truth, that is a big problem. 

In 2020, the working experience of many UK national news journalists has been dominated, not by the struggle to find and present the truth, but by partisan advocacy – in elections, over Brexit, in arguments about the Labour Party and anti-semitism, in the coverage of terrorism, Meghan Markle and Caroline Flack and so on. They don’t just pick a side in these arguments, they belittle, demean and try to marginalise the other side. 

Made possible by a remarkable lack of accountability, it is an approach that began with, and is led by, the corporate, billionaire-owned press, but it has infected journalism across the whole of the national news media. 

The problem is aggravated by journalists’ abuse of social media. Confronted with the opportunity for an eye-catching tweet, even senior news journalists forget the old rule that it is more important to be right than to be first. They also forget the obligation they have, as journalists, to be honest with their readers about where their information comes from. 

Thus, whatever may be said about the competence of our scientists, our doctors and our politicians, many of our most important journalists are remarkably ill-equipped to do their most important job at an absolutely vital time.   

It might be easier for them if the truth about the Coronavirus was straightforward, if there was a simple, uncontroversial public safety message which they could transmit to their readers and viewers that would obviously save lives. But the truth here is not straightforward. There is no consensus. 


Tools to Make Informed Decisions

The UK Government has adopted an approach that is dramatically out of step with the advice of the World Health Organisation and every comparable country in Europe and Asia.

So what should journalists do? Which truth – the Government’s or the WHO’s – should they tell? 

Finding the answer should not be difficult for any trained and educated journalist. They should not take sides. They should present the different sides to this political-scientific debate as even-handedly and as accurately as they possibly can. 

Whatever they write or broadcast, journalists should make very clear where their information has come from. In at least 99% of cases that means naming individuals or – at least – organisations. No more ‘senior government sources’. No more ‘I’m told’. No more ‘the… has learnt’. Why would somebody give a journalist life-or-death information and not put their name to it? And why would any responsible journalist accept that?

The job of news journalism is not to lead people by the nose, not to make decisions for readers and viewers and not to stir up emotion or panic among them. Still less is it to provide them with only half the picture. The job is to help readers and viewers gain a balanced understanding of what is happening so that they can make up their own minds in an informed way.  

This is not necessarily easy. But nobody ever said that decent journalism was supposed to be easy. 

Consider by way of contrast the option of taking sides. Journalists are not specialist scientists. They do not know who is ‘right’ in this debate, if anyone is. (And most of the specialist scientists themselves are quick to say that they do not ‘know’ what the right answers will turn out to be in this crisis.) Therefore, by taking sides and telling us that UK Government’s policies offer the best prospects for the UK people or by asserting firmly that they do not, journalists with no relevant qualifications are themselves gambling with the lives of their readers and viewers. 

It is as grimly simple as that. Where journalists pick a side – as so many of them have got used to doing – this time they risk endangering people in quite large numbers. If partisanship was ever appropriate in news reporting (and I would say it never is, but I accept there seem to be other views) it is certainly not appropriate here and now. 


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