This crisis gives us cause to celebrate ethical journalism

New visualisation of the Covid-19 virus, March 12, 2020

By Dorothy Byrne, Chair of the Ethical Journalism Network

Some wonderful things are happening in UK journalism during this pandemic and we who are interested in ethical journalism should celebrate them. So often, we write only the bad news. Of course, there is plenty of that, but many good things are happening.

The most heartening news is that in this emergency, the public is turning to trusted journalists for their information. A survey published on April 9 by the UK media regulator OFCOM found that average daily television news viewing was up by 92% in March 2020, compared to March 2019. Young people are flocking to television news; Channel 4 News has doubled its number of young viewers on many nights. Trust in television news is traditionally high in the UK, largely because it is regulated. Broadcasters are required to produce news which is fair, accurate and duly impartial and can get into serious trouble if they fail to do so. In other words, UK news is obliged by regulation to uphold ethical standards. Of course, UK television news is not perfect but it is very good compared with many other countries. That public trust is today, as our nation faces its greatest crisis since World War Two, even higher than usual, with 83% of people saying they trust BBC and Channel 4 News, 82% ITV News and 75% Sky News.

Some had been saying before Covid-19, that the UK system of broadcasting was outdated and we should move more towards the US system in which major broadcasters are allowed to be partial and opinionated in their news. We have not heard that said now. Also, some had been saying the so-called mainstream media was irrelevant. Well it’s not just relevant now; it is essential to the health and survival of the UK population. When the government and its leading scientific advisors need to get their messages across, they rely first and foremost on television journalists whose required ethical principles inspire public confidence.

A journalist’s first duty is to relay the truth. That means we have to challenge official information where necessary. It also means we have to be honest with the public about the limits of our own ability to find the truth. In covering Covid-19, we have had to explain to the public that the truth is not easy to discover and warn against necessarily believing apparently solid facts. On the most important aspect of this crisis; the number of deaths each day, journalists have rightly challenged official figures which were initially reported as representing the daily death toll but did not include those who died in care homes or in the community. Journalistic investigation uncovered disturbing evidence about high death rates in care homes; sometimes among residents who had not been tested for Covid-19 and were not therefore included in any figures. Investigative journalism also revealed information from some whistleblowers who said that those recording causes of death had been discouraged from mentioning Covid-19 even when they believed the virus was the cause of death.

Journalists revealed that staff in care homes were not provided with suitable protective clothing and also that residents who had been admitted to hospital were being sent back to care homes where they were spreading the virus to other vulnerable elderly people. Huge percentages of residents in some homes were dying but this fact was not being reflected in official figures. This outstanding journalism across all media has changed the direction of government policy so that far more official attention is now being paid to the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable residents in our care homes. It is notable that some of the best journalism here came from newspapers like The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, which are supporters of the Conservative Party. What we have seen in the UK is, on many occasions, journalists putting their ethical principles first; truth and the wellbeing of the population.

Conservative newspapers along with other journalists have also challenged government statements about the availability of PPE – the vital equipment health and care workers need to protect themselves against contracting Covid-19. Journalists have exposed again and again how doctors, nurses, cleaners, carers and others risked and lost their lives trying to save lives. Again, their excellent and ethical reporting has informed and changed government policy. Journalists have worked extensively with whistleblowers to reveal what was really happening at times when the public was being told equipment was available. One has to be careful about relying on anonymous whistleblowers but the sheer quantity of people, especially hospital doctors and nurses, contacting journalists proved that there was a problem. Those medical staff reflected the view the public have of journalists during this crisis; they trusted them. Despite the fact they had been warned that talking to journalists was not permitted, they gave information for the public good. As one example of this, Victoria Macdonald of Channel 4 News has been given key information about failings in health services across the country by leading figures in several major hospitals who believe thatonly if journalists  reveal the truth will change be brought about.

Over many decades, I have criticised some journalists for preying on relatives of the dead. In this crisis, we have seen journalists helping the relatives of those who have died express their anger when they have believed their loved one was subjected to unnecessary risk working in hospitals or care homes or was not given the treatment they needed. Journalists have exposed attempts by some health authorities to issue rules which would deny hospital admission to people over the age of 75 in care homes. Again, the government has been pressed into making statements valuing the lives of older, vulnerable people because of this good and ethical journalism.

I honestly believe that by holding government to account, excellent ethical journalism from across the media has contributed to improving the information available to the government and thereby helped guide its thinking. In my lifetime in journalism, I have never seen such direct contribution to the public good by journalists.

This crisis has also put into stark relief a key deficit in UK journalism; a lack of journalists with scientific training. Journalists have struggled, especially at the beginning, to put to the test official scientific claims. Challenging in so many other ways, they went along with the notion that there was only one accepted scientific view. They are now running to catch up, interviewing scientists and others who question the modelling on which our lockdown is based. I’ve spoken out before about the need for people with scientific training to enter journalism. This is an urgent need. When this critical period is over, we need major philanthropic organisations to provide bursaries and other funding to encourage top science graduates to go into journalism. Government and every sphere of public life needs more people with deep scientific understanding.

Journalism has done great work too in helping people live through this nightmare. At Channel 4, we have prioritised making extra programmes to help people with practical problems like how to keep their houses free of the virus and cope if there is someone with Covid-19 in a house with a vulnerable person. Like journalists across all media, we worked to inform the public to try to stop the ridiculous panic buying. Every day, there are terrific spreads in newspapers giving people excellent advice on exercising at home, coping with the stress and learning new skills like cooking and craft.

Journalists have rightly revealed to the UK public just how serious a threat Covid-19 represents. We have exposed difficult truths about the ways in which our health and care services are able to cope. We have questioned the science on which policy is based; probably insufficiently because we have lacked the scientific expertise. We have given practical advice on coping with the horror so suddenly laid upon the population. All those things were what ethical journalists should have done and I genuinely believe that the journalists of this country have, on the whole, risen to the challenge.

Of course, there are mad conspiracy theories about Covid-19. That OFCOM research also revealed that 35% of people had read that drinking more water helps flush the infection and 24% had read that gurgling salt water or avoiding cold food or drink could help. They didn’t read that in mainstream media. 55% of people ignored those false claims but 40% said they found it hard to know what was true or false. It’s a fine balance for journalists; by debunking rubbish do we purvey rubbish? I veer towards ignoring nonsense but I may not be right.

But there have been many heartwarming stories too and, in circumstances like this, I think that part of being an ethical journalist is helping people to live through this pandemic. The CLAP FOR CARERS is a wonderful concept; every Thursday night we stand at our doors and cheer, clap, bang, whistle for all the people who are saving our compatriots. This is supported massively by all media which highlight daily the heroism of medical staff and the kindness of those supporting their elderly neighbours. Tabloid newspaper journalists have also discovered that low-paid workers in care homes have great skills and they celebrate them. Journalists have suddenly noticed that we really need people who work in supermarkets so should value them. All at once, journalists who wrote that we are divided have celebrated how we are united. And the most popular man in the whole country is Captain Tom Moore who at 99 has raised millions for NHS charities by walking round his garden on his zimmer frame. Hey, at last journalists said the truth; that people in this country are terrific human beings who really care about each other.

So, let us live in hope that all this brilliant exemplification of ethical journalism will continue after this crisis. I know that as Chair of the Ethical Journalism Network I will do all I can to make that dream come true.

Author photo:

Dorothy Byrne is Head of News & Current Affairs at Channel Four Television. During her tenure, the Channel’s news and current affairs programmes have won numerous BAFTA, RTS, Emmy Awards and others.  Dorothy was made a Fellow of The Royal Television Society for her “outstanding contribution to television” she has also received a Grierson Trustee’s Award for “extraordinary achievements” and in December 2019 at the Women in Film &TV Awards The Argonon Contribution to the Medium Award.  Also in 2019, she delivered the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival and the Manchester University Cockford Rutherford lecture, which is given annually by a distinguished alumna of the university.  In the same year she published her first book, ‘Trust Me I’m Not a Politician’ and has also contributed to various books on media ethics and regulation. Dorothy is Chair of the Ethical Journalism Network.