15th April 2020
By Hannah Storm

Reporting the pandemic ethically

By Professor Chris Frost, Chair of National Union of Journalists’ Ethics Council

Good journalism can entertain, but should not be just entertainment; but good journalism’s main role is to inform and educate and there’s nothing like a national emergency to underline why this is true.

This is an era of fake news where governments have taken to presenting their opinions as facts and where far too many media outlets have gone along with these misrepresentations or falsifications or even encouraged them. It has taken this horrific pandemic to jolt journalists back to the reality that they are the people charged with presenting the truth, the ones to hold the government to account on behalf of the public.

Not only has Covid-19 reminded us brutally of the need for truthful reporting, for digging out stories about the real heroes and exposing the antics of those who seek to benefit themselves at the expense of others, but it has also raised some interesting and often unique ethical dilemmas specific to reporting a national emergency and pandemic.

Truth remains the number one ethical concern for any journalist but as well as concern for ethical codes that warn about breaching people’s privacy, care not to harass sources unnecessarily and justifying the use of clandestine recording devices, there are four main issues that will become especially important during the crisis:

SOURCES: sources are of paramount importance to coverage of the crisis but identifying who to talk to and what to ask them is more important than ever. Brexit and its fallout have taught a number of bad habits. No longer is it good enough to get the opinions of whichever politician is available or to vox-pop some public place. People need truthful and accurate information about the pandemic if they are to keep themselves and their loves ones safe. Journalists need to talk to experts and those shaping government policy whether in government or outside. Social media is spreading fake news about the pandemic and how to supposedly deal with it like wildfire, and many are dying or at least risking death by believing information forwarded to them with good intent by a friend or relative. The journalist’s job is to track down expert opinion whether from a scientist in the field, a public health professional or a politician setting policy. Making things up has never been ethical, never been good enough but now it could be deadly. Challenge those giving out information. Ask for their sources. Seek their assessment of the probability of it proving to be accurate. Journalists need to expose where information is unsupported by evidence and counter fake news that puts people at risk.

Dealing with ordinary people to seek stories about life under a pandemic is also more difficult. Obvious advice includes phoning, emailing or videoconferencing sources rather than approaching them in person. If you must, then keep at least two metres’ distance. For broadcasters and photographers, this may mean rethinking working practices. Using microphones on stands or booms for instance rather than fitting lapel mics. The better weather makes it easier to work outside people’s homes and offices in the sunshine where there is more space and less risk of contamination. Good human interest stories at a time of international fear and panic all help to soothe the rawer emotions. “Rainbow drawings spread hope during pandemic”, “Mum cooks 80 meals a day for vulnerable people”, “Man who spent six days in intensive care with Covid-19 says: ‘you can survive’” are just some stories we have seen in the past few days. These kinds of stories add the human element to the facts of the disease and the campaign to defeat it. However ethical practice such as not entering hospitals and care homes without permission become even more important. Finally, confidential sources could become an important issue. Stories about of medical staff being told not to leak horror stories about lack of personal protection equipment on pain of dismissal abound, for instance. However, stories of this kind are crucial to allow the public to measure the response of the government and health services. Confidentiality may be required by some sources in order to give the information a journalist needs to stand up a story of bad practice or poor equipment. Only give promises to keep sources confidential if you have a good idea what it is you will be protecting. A promise should only be given if the story is important and the need to protect the source is clear.

DEATH: The deadly threat to ourselves and our loved ones is the reason why this story is so important and why countries have taken extreme measures to defeat the virus. I’ve already mentioned hospitals, but it also applies to people at home that journalists should not be seeking to take pictures of people who are dying. There is normally no public interest in such pictures. Similarly dealing with those who have been recently bereaved requires all the usual care and sensitivity. However, rather than visit the bereaved, as would normally be good practice, the journalist should deal with them by phone, which will almost certainly require additional sensitivity.

SCAPEGOATS: There is a temptation in some parts of the media to find scapegoats to blame for the virus, its effects or the government response to it. Journalists should not involve themselves in hatemongering, nor in providing this facility for others.

POSITIONING: In a time of national emergency, journalists often find themselves conflicted. It may no longer seem appropriate to attack the government or the opposition over their views but instead to take the standpoint that we should all pull together ignoring errors or ideological positioning of various groups. It may also seem right to support the police who, with a range of new and often draconian powers, apply them in a way that a few months ago would have appalled. All journalists will need to take their own line, but ethically speaking whilst the circumstances have changed, the principles have not. It is still important to challenge government over its policy decisions. It is still important to challenge police officers who overstep the mark. For instance, the UK government’s initial discussions about herd immunity and letting the virus run were quickly and rightly challenged, obliging a change of direction leading to the lockdown. All journalists should track down the truth and report it, informing and educating people about the new world of Covid-19, giving them the chance to make sensible and appropriate decisions about what is best for them and those with whom they come into contact. Only in that way can we truly pull together to overcome Covid-19. Journalists have a vital role to play in the pandemic informing and educating and it is right that they should be identified as critical workers in doing that.

Author photo: Chris Frost is an emeritus professor of journalism and chair of the National Union of Journalist’s Ethics Council and author of Journalism Ethics and Regulation and Privacy and the News Media