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Covid-19 is stirring a witches’ brew for journalists

What will be the long term impact of the coronavirus crisis on journalism and the media?

Brij Khindaria is a senior columnist at the United Nations for prominent media in the UK, US and India. He has extensive experience of journalism over several decades in global media, including Reuters, Financial Times, Business India, Moderate Voice and Dow Jones group. He is also a member of the Swiss Press Club committee. His in depth knowledge of the global media world makes his analyses of post Covid-19 journalism particularly acute. 

By Brij KHINDARIA

The year 2020 may become the watershed when Covid-19 forced journalists to take a hard look in the mirror to acknowledge their flaws, gather their courage and adjust their performance. 

This microscopic scourge will severely challenge journalists, judging from the humbling blows it has already dealt to the mightiest countries and leaders. The world is no longer as it was before Covid-19. The distressing months ahead will impose dire choices between saving lives and the massive social and economic costs of moving forward. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is stirring a witches’ brew of turmoil and change.  It will aggravate the harms of recent years when journalists hemorrhaged public trust and lost jobs by the thousand. 

At this writing, Covid-19 had caused nearly 74,000 deaths and 1.4 million infections worldwide, led by the US, Italy, Spain, Germany and China. Rich countries were heading towards economic recession and many developing countries were facing health and economic catastrophes. 

Trackers set up by the International Monetary Fund and others estimate that rich countries have earmarked nearly $6 trillion dollars in stimulus plans to cushion Covid-19 economic impacts. Reportedly, the virus has destroyed over $23 trillion in global market value out of a $90 trillion peak reached at end 2019. 

The people of poor nations risk descent into misery. Humanitarian agencies are warning against shortages of health care and food in large swathes of developing countries, including the over 70 million displaced persons and refugees in regions torn by conflicts. 

Journalists are the time-honored first chroniclers of cataclysms like wars and mass tragedies. The future value to people of our profession depends on how we perform during and after the heroic combat with this zombie virus that uses human hosts to come to life for a lethal mission of destroying them. 

Fear and helplessness have forced people to see governments as saviors and accept heavy-handed measures for protection. But their current rush to devour the reporting of journalists does not signal new trust in our profession. That has not yet been earned.

Regaining public trust will require a new kind of journalism, of which Covid-19 is an incubator and accelerator. People in democracies tend to disdain journalists for elitism, cozying up to politicians and failing to hold institutions to account.

Now, journalists will have to find new resources of mind and heart to avoid becoming apologists of reduced civil liberties, unreliable health protection and economic inequity. Winning public hearts and minds in the Covid-19 world will necessitate journalists who are much closer to people’s lives and bolder in challenging rulers and corporate titans.

The choice is between exploiting people’s anxiety for media profits or narrating without fear or favor the harrowing human experiences of this peril and the subsequent exhilaration of rebuilding life.

Threats to freedom 

Journalists will have to step ahead of the turmoil to carve a new long-term space of public trust. Risks are increasing because Covid-19 is being used to mask assaults on people’s confidence in democratic systems of government. The ominous corollary is less freedom of the press. 

Hungary, a European Union member, has already declared an emergency law that would jail journalists deemed to publish “falsehoods” about government measures against Covid-19. Muzzling of government mistakes, albeit more discreet, has also arrived in other democracies, including the US, Europe and India. 

It is a mistake to see Covid-19 as only a scientific and medical concern. It is also a  political hammer humbling presidents. It has forced President Donald Trump to admit that that many more than 100,000 Americans could die. His country, the world’s richest, is headed towards a severe economic recession if not depression.  He may be ousted in the November 2020 elections if he fails the pandemic’s attack. 

China’s Xi Jinping could find himself discredited around the world if he used his dictatorial powers to hide the damage Covid-19 caused to his people. It has already sharply disrupted the manufacturing supply value chains that built China’s wealth over the last three decades. Now, Xi’s legacy is at risk. 

The European Union is in such profound disarray over handling Covid-19 that it could be unraveled. Frustrated at the lack of support to ease the pain caused in Italy, an EU founding member,  Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte complained, “If Europe does not show itself to be up to this task, the whole European project risks losing its raison d’être in the eyes of our own citizens.” 

Russia’s Vladimir Putin began by scoring propaganda points with shipments of medical aid to Italy, the US and others but soon bowed to Covid-19’s power and started imposing lockdown on cities and regions.

Fear is driving people into the arms of governments. That places freedom in jeopardy. It also puts journalists on the front line in democracies because protecting people’s freedoms is their core responsibility. 

Brutal competition 

The challenges and opportunities for journalists arise from the changes Covid-19 is imposing on every inch of our lives. It will alter how we think about who we are, how we work, how we relate to others, how we are governed, how we entertain ourselves and how we travel. It is sharply disrupting social and economic life. 

Its distinguishing feature is the live-or-die burden on each person to accept constraints for the health of the collectivity, including family, community, nation and world. Journalists have vital roles in ensuring this happen without violation of human rights.    

Some still argue that journalism is a privileged calling that deserves taxpayer subsidies to ensure independence from private owners. Handling Covid-19 is so expensive that governments may no longer afford subsidies even for the best. Traditional media will have to compete brutally every day to hold market share. 

The cloud services that make digital platforms possible are owned by companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon Alphabet, Ali Baba, Tencent and others that together account for nearly $7 trillion in market value. They are already the world’s most efficient and aggressive technology leaders and now are getting an unprecedented boost from Covid-19 impacts. 

The pandemic has turned digital platforms into more formidable competitors. Stuck at home, people are gaining increased familiarity with how interesting digital technologies can be. They combine word, sound and image in endless ways that are both educational and entertaining. They allow space to comment and vent. 

Their attraction for consumers will be unbeatable with faster broadband connections using 5G and later technologies. Their algorithms will be greatly improved by high-speed big data and ubiquitous use of artificial intelligence, including facial recognition, location tracking and personalized medical care. 

Journalists in the Covid-19 world will have to navigate these revolutionary transformations to find firmer footholds for their own future. 

Bold iconoclasm

Fortunately, digital platforms can be powerful allies when used properly. Well-trained journalists can add the value needed to turn them into beneficial two-way streets by injecting precision and truth into them. That would help to overcome false narratives and prevent reputational risk for the platforms. 

But that requires a lot of iconoclasm because reporting for digital platforms entails very different skills. Traditionally, print, radio and television have worked in silos each staffed by journalists with specific skill sets. The Covid-19 journalist will have to be skilled in all three domains to build interesting stories through creative use of technologies, without descending into entertainment or compromising accuracy. 

Success will entail much better training for journalists especially in maintaining close proximity to individuals, families and local communities. Journalists will have to feel what the people feel and ensure that politicians and business leaders respect to people’s voices especially in democracies. The intellectual aloofness often prized by traditional journalists as objectivity will have to come with empathy.

In addition to filtering information from top to down, as in the past, they will have to filter from bottom to top. The beneficial capacity of digital technologies cannot be fully used without filtering upwards from below. 

At their best, digital platforms are irresistible purveyors of shared knowledge. To produce captivating content for them will require critical thinking minds rooted in artistic hearts filled with curiosity about how people live every day.  

The variety and depth of opportunities open a bonanza for high quality journalism but they are also a quicksand if journalists cling to the ways their profession was practiced before Covid-19. 

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