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Six things I’ve learnt about the media during COVID-19.

Having worked through and covered significant news events over a 25-year career in the media, I have watched with fascination the way this COVID-crisis has unfolded and been covered by all forms of media. Admittedly, at times, I have probably watched and consumed too much, which might explain the COVID dreams I’ve been having!

But comparing this event to other news stories, like 9/11, the Iraq War and the Bali bombings has opened my eyes and taught me some lessons about the media – how it operates and how we’re willing and wanting to consume it in the context of a serious and life-threatening event and in the age of social media.

Here’s some of the main media learnings so far from the COVID crisis.

Scientists and experts have never been more valuable to the media. When the coronavirus first started to make headlines, the media scrambled to find infectious disease experts and others who could explain the threats and possible implications. Before long, previously unknown Federal and State health officials became trusted and credible spokespeople and experts. Lawyers who could explain “force majeure” to battling store owners and businesspeople became overnight heroes. Accountants and financial advisors who could calm nervous retirees and help businesspeople through Jobkeeper red tape were in demand. And didn’t psychologists have a field day explaining why we’d started hoarding toilet paper and pasta! We have been inundated by media looking for particular experts on an almost daily basis, and this shows no sign of slowing.

It is possible for one story to dominate the news cycle completely for an extended period. Never before, and particularly at a time when the news cycle is notoriously quick to “move on”, has a story dominated front pages, news bulletins and all forms of media for so long. The global scale and the impact on every aspect of our lives has seen COVID-19 become, without peer in terms of the number of stories over such a prolonged period.

Language matters.  This crisis has taught us all a lot about why facts and clear language matters. Recently, Boris Johnson was criticised for urging Britons to “stay alert” rather than “stay home”, despite his own health experts advising the latter. Being clear, concise and keeping to the facts is important and the media sought commentary from experts who were calm, rational, factual and not likely to spread fear, confusion and distrust.

People will watch, listen to politicians when it matters. Every newsroom in the country at one time or another (pre-pandemic) would have debated the merits of taking a particular political media conference. Was the story big enough? Would viewers or listeners switch off? COVID-19 has re-written some of the rules on politicians and their messages – the audience does care when it matters and won’t switch off.

Traditional media is still the most trustworthy.  Not far into the pandemic, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms began removing COVID material they deemed unsafe, unreliable or just plain wrong. Social Media was awash with conspiracy theories, fake cures and downright dangerous material from all corners of the globe. Audience numbers to traditional platforms like radio, TV and newspapers have never been stronger as we seek reliable, trustworthy news and advice.

Positive stories are winners.  Even as the number of cases and the death toll mounted here and abroad, the media was still looking for positive stories amongst the gloom and doom. The audience can only tolerate so much negative or confronting news and while it may sound trite, glimpses of light and hope were eagerly covered to provide a respite from the daily procession of coronavirus stories.

By John Solvander, Director of Media Engagement, Media Stable.

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