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Are news outlets helping to keep people informed during the COVID-19 crisis or scaremongering? The first digital session of the 2020 Global Media Forum takes a look at the media's responsibility during the pandemic.
With large-scale events placed on hold around the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DW Global Media Forum (GMF) took its conference online this year. As part of its multimedia conference programming, GMF is hosting a series of live debates to discuss the most pressing issues in contemporary journalism within the framework of its 2020 topic "Pluralism. Populism. Journalism."
The digital conference program kicked off on Wednesday with a discussion on the media's role in the current public health crisis.
DW's Jaafar-Abdul Karim hosted "The blame game: What is the media's responsibility in the corona crisis?" featuring three guests from around the globe:
Read more: The DW Global Media Forum
The role of local journalism
Trustworthiness of digital news sources was at the heart of the discussion. Maria Esperanza Casullo highlighted the importance of local journalism within this context. She stressed that amid a "deluge of information" regarding the novel coronavirus, many people were struggling to identify brands they can trust.
"It’s hard to filter what’s reliable and trustworthy and what’s not. I’m finding during these months that local, provincial or even city newspapers are more reliable than national media because they actually have reporters on the ground, and they have more factual figures and information," Esperanza Casullo said.
John-Allan Namu pointed out that access to such local journalists, stringers and fixers could become increasingly difficult as the pandemic threatens to last possibly for years.
"Original sources — that is sources that are on the ground — are often in places that perhaps that are beyond the reach of some journalists. And even if we can reach them … how reluctant or willing will they be to talk to us, given that now health itself is a prerequisite to meeting people on the ground?"
Social media: friend or foe?
Another main focus of the debate was the role of social media during the pandemic, with Facebook in particular finding itself in the crosshairs of many members of the virtual audience commenting during the session. Guido Bülow, representing Facebook, said
the company had introduced its dedicated COVID-19 information center feature with the help of the World Health Organization (WHO).
"We are trying to combat misinformation not just related to the coronavirus but in general. We want to point people to reliable information. … In order to combat misinformation, we are working together with more than 70 fact checkers around the world," Bülow said.
With the help of that international team, Facebook had identified 7,500 fact checks in the last two months alone, which "resulted in 50 million warning messages related to COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook," Bülow said.
Are news organizations complicit in corona fear-mongering?
Maria Esperanza Casullo suggested that the problem is perhaps not so much the permeation of fake news in social media, but the overabundance of news in general: "There’s just too many of them. (There are) too many things circling around, and it’s very hard to orient yourself," she said.
"On the one hand, we can be critical of social media, and I certainly am. But at the same time, in this pandemic you can see that social media has transformed itself into a key channel for reading perspectives that we might not get otherwise," she added.
John-Allan Namu underlined that because of the avalanche of corona-related reports in recent months, fact-checking had become the "mainstay" of his daily work, and that social media platforms should also take this to heart.
"Facebook, Twitter, all of the social platforms, on which some of this fake news lives, can and should do more. I don’t think they should flag and pull down content as much as they should indicate … manipulated content, so that you know what you are watching," he said.
But Namu also held news makers themselves to account: "More organizations — especially news organizations, whose job it is to provide factual information — need to start looking at fact-checking as a component of news that is in and of itself news."
Not all doom and gloom
Despite the many challenges posed by the global pandemic, the panelists remained hopeful about the lessons that journalists could learn in the long-term. Maria Esperanza Casullo said there was an opportunity for journalists "to rebuild bridges of trust with the community and to really become reliable" once more.
John-Allan Namu also stressed that the current situation could strengthen media in the long-term. He emphasized the need for balanced reporting, especially in regions that do not have access to a broad range of independent news, and where smaller outlets provide the majority of news: "We can't do it all online. Internet penetration is not as high as was recently thought, and COVID-19 has exposed this," he said.
Guido Bülow also pointed to new opportunities arising for independent media organizations out of the corona pandemic, citing global growth in readership and support of media outlets around the world: "There is a real chance for the publishing industry to get back closer to the readers and build trust again."
As has been the case in previous years with the physical Global Media Forum held annually at the World Conference Center Bonn, the digital edition of the Global Media Forum 2020 also receives support from the Federal Foreign Office, the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Stiftung Internationale Begegnung der Sparkasse in Bonn.