Challenges Journalism Faces Covering the COVID19 Pandemic in the Context of Media-Hostile Government
By the time this article is published, Brazil may have achieved the terrible rate of 3,000 deaths per day due to COVID-19. While vaccination rates accelerate over the world, the country faces the worst phase of the pandemic so far due to a government that denies how severe the problem is and refuses to buy vaccines on the scale the country needs them. While other political authorities try to avoid the collapse of the Brazilian health system and disagree on what they should do with President Jair Bolsonaro, the news media have provided information about the pandemic even when the federal government tries to hold them back.
Conflicts between the most prominent media brands and the President have not started with the pandemic, but the federal government’s actions increased them. By saying the disease is a “little flu” or falsely arguing it has a treatment, the President fostered a division in which following recommendations from the world health authorities became a political statement. Meanwhile, news organizations have been offering accurate information about the pandemic in Brazil. At some point, they created a consortium to get COVID related deaths data because the federal government imposed difficulties on accessing it. How does this scenario impact journalism’s role in the context of a media-hostile government during a severe health crisis?
On the one hand, offering reliable information anchored in world health authorities’ recommendations is part of news organizations’ mission. On the other, when doing it in a context where politicians polarize with the media, such as Brazil’s political environment, journalism risks being regarded as partisan or irrelevant by part of society. Of course, this does not mean that organizations should ignore scientific consensus to please audience segments, but overlooking this challenge does not prevent it from being real.
In interviews conducted in the Trust in News Project, journalists who work for some of these organizations often mentioned how the pandemic reinforced the importance of their work for Brazilian society. They also said this was accompanied by rising audience rates throughout 2020. Although they have different perspectives, practitioners tend to perceive that when people really need accurate information, they rely on sources they already know, which tends to be traditional journalism brands.
It is not clear, however, whether audiences agree with journalists’ perspectives. The peaks in access to traditional sources might indicate that people see value in journalism, especially during a crisis in which the government barely has any guidelines on coping with it. On the other side, people are also tired of the situation – and of receiving bad news –, which might increase the shooting the messenger effect, with journalists and news organizations being mistaken as responsible for the problems they report.
Also, 16% of Brazilians see journalists as the main source of misinformation in the country, and partisan preferences play a relevant role there. For more partisan citizens, covering the pandemic (and the government’s recklessness) could be seen as an attempt to hurt the President. In this equation, we also find journalism’s weaknesses that might generate problems in an already complicated situation. Poorly investigated reporting and space for speculations about vaccines (or how severe the pandemic really is) could be exploited as a way of undermining journalism’s credibility – and sometimes news organizations’ behaviour provides critics with fair points.
The Brazilian situation during the pandemic seems to maximize the challenge journalists face, especially in complex societies. In some cases, sticking to their fundamental mission of offering accurate information about public affairs might reduce the audience they reach or raise questions about their impartiality. At the same time, tailoring information for audiences who do not want to see counterarguments to their perspectives could hurt journalists’ function if, to do so, they need to go against the facts or scientific consensus. In general, we have strong reasons to believe that well-researched journalism matters for societies and people who consume it know how it looks like. However, the challenge is to reach and resonate with citizens who tend to distrust this kind of information. This is not a shortcoming journalism can overcome by itself, but it depends on society’s expectations and preferences when consuming news.
Written by Dr. Camila Mont’Alverne
Dr. Camila Mont’Alverne is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (University of Oxford), working on the Trust in News Project. She received her PhD in Political Science from the Federal University of Paraná, Brazil, in 2020.