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Coronavirus, the media and credibility

Martin Muno
Martin Muno
April 20, 2020

We hear about the COVID-19 pandemic from media outlets and word of mouth — but how do we know who to trust? It's a good thing we can rely on credible news outlets in these dangerous times, says Martin Muno.

A woman at a newsstand in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Even though the world has been at a standstill for weeks, it's still difficult to grasp the invisible threat around us – especially these days, as springtime flowers blossom and birds sing.

There are things in this world that cannot be directly perceived with the senses. Things like climate change, radiation — and especially pandemics. As German sociologist Niklas Luhmann pointed out long ago, such things can only be understood through communication.

Read more: Disinformation and propaganda during the coronavirus pandemic

And when it comes to the new COVID-19 coronavirus, we also depend on media outlets for information. Unless we know someone who has been personally affected by the pandemic, it's impossible for us to fully experience what is actually happening.

We count on media outlets to tell us just how life as we know it has changed, that millions of people have lost their jobs, that millions have become infected and that hundreds of thousands have died. We remain isolated at home, looking at images of empty streets and masked citizens. Regular trips to the supermarket provide our only sensory experience of the situation.

How to face the threat?

That's why news outlets have once again become so relevant, and not just because they provide up-to-the-minute facts and figures, and tell us what restrictions politicians have determined are necessary for our safety.

No, it's about much more than that. What we learn from their reporting and glean from discussions with friends and neighbors determines how we confront the pandemic. Are we fearful? Panicked? Unconcerned? Are we depressed, or confident the situation will improve? To paraphrase Rene Descartes, one could say: "I read news about the coronavirus, therefore I am."

Read more: Did COVID-19 really originate in a Chinese laboratory?

It's not a surprise that media consumption has seen a dramatic increase of late. News outlets like DW are recording record numbers of online readers, and television has even been experiencing a renaissance. But how can we be sure we are not being fed misinformation?

Social media sites are awash in fake news, with millions of stories about how garlic can protect you against infection and other nonsense. Such sites have once again proven themselves to be incubators for misinformation, and in this case, fake news that can put human lives at risk.

Facebook and other platforms are working harder than ever to limit the spread of misinformation, but they simply cannot employ enough fact-checkers to stem the tide.

Traditional outlets make a comeback

The gravity of the current situation has led many to turn to traditional media outlets for their information. A recent study by the Reuters news agency polled people in Argentina, Germany, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States and found that they gave greater credibility to news outlets, far more than social media sites.

At the same time, those with lower levels of education tend to rely far less on trusted outlets for their information, preferring to get theirs via social media.

The Reuters study also found that people trust experts and representatives from health organizations even more than they do news outlets. Still, how do those experts get out their message? Through news outlets.

Such reports remind us journalists of the enormous responsibility that comes with our profession. We must do our best to present the most relevant and truthful information we can extract from all the news out in the world. We must separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the sometimes contradictory statements from virologists, economists and self-proclaimed experts. And ultimately, we also have to present that information in an attractive and intelligible manner.

Read more: Coronavirus in slums: Helpers left high and dry in infection hot spots

Of course, that's standard procedure even when there is no crisis. But the task has been made more difficult by the fact that we must now sift through a glut of information with the help of fewer employees, most of whom are not in newsrooms but working by themselves from home.

And with the crisis cutting into advertising budgets, many media outlets are facing very grave financial challenges. They've also been hemorrhaging cash because they are obliged to offer coronavirus-related articles and videos for free, taking them out from behind a paywall.

We are living in a paradoxical situation in which information being offered by independent media outlets in democratic societies has become more important than ever, even as those organizations are fighting for their financial survival.

But there is one thing we can do to help: We can pay for the information we consume — most trusted news outlets are worth the price.   

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Martin Muno
Martin Muno Digital immigrant, interested in questions of populism and political power