News Media Should Not Create Panic And Scare People By Highlighting Old Data

The COVID-19 pandemic is revolutionising human society in more ways than one can imagine.

The news media is a very critical stakeholder in this holocaust! While in many ways news media has conducted itself well so far, a certain brazen pandering to sensationalism is also too obvious to ignore, especially in mainstream media. As for digital social media platforms, whose authorship is nebulous and amorphous, this sensationalism along with fake news and trolls have always been unmistakable features!

It takes a lot of media literacy and identifying genuine news portals to find sensible and sound news on this lie and death matter. It will be of course a far-fetched expectation from an unevenly distributed audience and open-ended monetizing portals to purvey meaningful and sensible news.

It applies also to web portals of mainstream news media organizations, although in a lesser measure. But what I regret more is that the conventional mainstream news media has blinked on its broader societal mandate in this regard. Reporting on COVID-19 in these challenging times does warrant some basic discipline I feel. My personal observations are as under:

  1. Basic duty of all news media is to inform their respective audiences of the status of new cases, new fatalities, new recoveries, new developments in medicines, vaccines, treatment protocols, healthcare warnings & self-care hygiene, and relevant government policies, notifications and administrative advisories from the police and other civic agencies.
  2. The reporting of legacy data as to the total numbers since the advent of novel coronavirus six months back is relevant more for news analysis and academic feedback than hardcore spot news.
  3. Banner headlining and box reporting on front pages do produce an unintended scare among the audience. The basic postulate of news is not to sensationalise by adding up legacy statistics again and again, on a daily basis, especially in a prominent headline.
  4. Such recurrent adding up of case numbers and fatalities in TV news channels with alarming pitch of anchors and accompanying drum beatings and horror movie music don’t help anyone in the news value chain, both among producers and consumers of such news! But yes, it is useful archival data for analysis.
  5. It becomes more unethical when you suppress the active case count altogether or push this positive news till the last para of the news item. I have not seen a single prominent headline in any mainstream news media on the active cases and cured cases so far. In fact, number of active cases in a given locality is more important now, or at least equally important as the total cases since last six months. Counting total cases again and again, without highlighting the cured cases, involves a continuous error of double counting.
  6. Among the broad objectives of news media is to act as an emollient to the societal/national malaise or deviations in any sphere. Conflict/calamity reporting cannot be justified if it tends to perpetuate audience’s sense of “no well being”. The broader objective is resolution of the issues and promoting a sense of well being and peace in the community while not ignoring the developing contours of a calamity or a conflict.
  7. I believe pandemic reporting has an inherent advocacy element in it. It promotes the confidence of the community, advocates safe practices and highlights success stories. I am happy that almost all our media are doing this part admirably to a great extent. In fact, news mediapersons have come to represent a certain indispensable essentiality role since the pandemic started. Mediapersons were rightly equated with police and healthcare personnel, performing signal services to society, and were even exempt from lockdown restrictions. Many intrepid reporters have contracted COVID-19 and some have lost their lives in this call of duty.

I feel governments have not done enough to assist their bereaved families like they have done for families of police personnel and medical personnel who have died on duty. There must be a mandatory law provision for such insurance in extraordinary pandemic like the present one to help bereaved families of media falling sick or losing their lives.

But I would reiterate my view of media’s advocacy role in these hard times. Negative news reporting must not overshadow advocacy functions to the extent of ignoring, suppressing and even downplaying positive and useful data regarding current spot news.

  1. The other day, a close relation of ours was agitated that an acquaintance of theirs was refused a COVID hospital bed in Bhubaneswar. She lamented that with a large number of cases in town, how can anybody hope to get a bed in any hospital. I had to send her the current data of active hospitalised cases and availability of hospital beds in Bhubaneswar from official websites. It was noted that over 600 COVID beds were available on that day. But with our news media always highlighting total cases over six months, it has created this wrong impression that things are so grim on the ground that nobody can get a hospital bed. The facts are not so grim on ground.

Such negligent over-reporting of gross legacy cases on a routine basis creates this scare in the community to the point of hasty generalisation and justification of an imagined grimmer situation on the ground. One patient not getting a hospital bed could be factually true due to so many other valid factors. But the image of a very large case number looming heavy on our minds leads to such unintended scare. I hope I have touched the right nerve.

It is not a technical error when a news media reports the total cases so far with a big banner headline. But it is a practical and ethical blunder as described above.

  1. Now let me cite today’s reporting of India-wide COVID-19 case status.

Record no. of 34956 new cases in the last 24 hours, 26192 deaths. Active cases now 342473 only.

Total cases since the pandemic began crosses 1-million mark at 1,003,832, including active cases and the no. of already cured or discharged persons at 635,757.

Less than 1.94% of active cases of 3.42 lakh are in ICU, 0.35% are on ventilator support while 2.81% of active cases are on oxygen support. Total recovered cases so far have improved to 63.33%. Then there is the report of human trials of 2 Indian vaccines with 1000 persons vaccinated with each vaccine. This is based on data released by the Union Health Ministry.

But look at the headlines and intro in most mainstream news media organisations. I bet the reporting is very lopsided.

What is wrong in giving official facts? You may give your analysis pointing to the gaps in government data based on facts. You may analyse the data as per your point of view, but for God’s sake please do not highlight or exaggerate the data of over one million cases since 6 months without highlighting at all the less than 1/3rd that number only are active cases today! I hope you get my point.

Creating panic and scare among the masses based on wrong highlighting and overplaying old data, is not the function of news media.

In fact, it’s the other way round. The media has a much larger role to play in the real time management of COVID-19 pandemic.

Just because it doesn’t make a screaming headline, let us not ignore hard facts and the well-earned success of our frontline healthcare warriors.

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