Mediatizing the pandemic: COVID-19 and its effects on journalism in Europe and beyond

Johanna Mack,
Ph.D. Candidate,
Graduate School MEDAS21, Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism,
Dortmund, Universität Duisburg-Essen

Reliable information plays a major role in managing and fighting the pandemic. Not only do the media provide the people with important information on protective measures and public regulations; they are also upfront in offering balanced analyses of the situation and debunking dangerous conspiracy theories. The pandemic has dominated media contents. However, the media around the world have been strongly affected by the crisis in various ways. In 2020, the World Health Organization warned about the impending risks of an “infodemic”, an overabundance of disinformation, misinformation, and fake news around COVID-19 with serious impacts on public health responses as well as audiences’ behaviour[i]. In many countries, press freedom has been curbed under the pretext of emergency measures and journalists’ working conditions have been impacted by restrictions of movement and work regulations. Reporting live and from the field might put journalists at risk of contracting the virus. Not least, media have felt the repercussions that troubled global. Empirical research on how current developments in the media sector have been initiated or accelerated by the ongoing pandemic is still emerging, but first studies as well as reports by organizations with relevant expertise and practical experience are providing important first insights.

Economically, COVID-19 has intensified already pressing concerns and added new challenges: “While news consumption has increased during the pandemic, the revenue hasn’t followed”[ii], as IJNET describes it.

At the end of 2020, the European Journalism Observatory (EJO), an online magazine bridging research and journalism practice to monitor trends and developments in the media sector in 13 languages, analysed the economic repercussions of COVID-19 on the media across Europe.[iii] As experts from different parts of the continent recount, staff lay-offs, reduced salaries and ad slumps are causing an ever-thornier environment for supplying the people with literally vital news. In 2020, Italy saw a 26.6 percent decrease in print advertising, and Poland registered a decrease of 12 percent in the advertisement market by September. In Latvia, declining advertisement revenues amount to a loss of eight to twelve million Euros for the year according to the Latvian Broadcasting Association, and staff salaries have been cut by 20 to 30 percent.

In Germany, even big national titles resorted to short-term work. The “events” section that makes up an important part of local as well as some regional and over-regional journalists’ daily business is reduced. especially freelance journalists are vulnerable to the economic crisis. “From an economic point of view, it is devastating that many freelance journalists do not benefit from the corona emergency aid programmes”, as Tina Groll, chairwoman of the German Union of Journalists, explained to the EJO. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has caused a surge in hostility and attacks against the press, perceived as part of “the system” and targeted, for example, by the so-called “Querdenker”-movement in Germany.

However, the crisis has also made people hungrier for news and information as well as for distraction. TV news shows, entertainment offers and online news websites in Germany registered record numbers of viewers, and users. The New York Times’ Coronavirus coverage had an unprecedented number of clicks and the newspapers online version attracted a record number of 7.5 million new subscribers in 2020[iv].

The effects the pandemic has so far had on media can therefore be described as “paradoxical”, as International Media Support puts it[v]: While misinformation increased, so did the demand for trustworthy news; a new wealth of information needed to processed, but resources in newsrooms were tightened; and while journalists became targets due to their coverage and reported high stress levels, they were also more convinced than ever of the importance of their profession.

The hardships that the pandemic brings to the media sector and the unprecedented speed with which they have materialized could thus be an opportunity to find creative solutions for tackling negative long-term trends. Attention should be paid to innovations and new sustainable business models adapted to the challenges of the digital and online media market. In addition, fact-checking efforts should be stepped up and diversity in the newsroom should be prioritized to ensure that all population groups are reached by and have a voice in the media, which is key not only in crisis situations. COVID-19 also raises awareness for the relevance of science journalism and, in its global scope, for cross-border reporting.






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