Covid-19: this contagious and unpredictable virus doesn't need much of an introduction. Everyone’s gaze is fixed upon this pandemic that is changing the world as we know it, and we all are certainly feeling its effect in our everyday lives.
Although every country and every single person is affected by it in some way (whether it has affected their family directly or if it has had a social or economic effect), we at Family and Media wondered how this historical event is being documented. What slant is being given to the news that talk about it?
Here are some comments that we would like to share:
1) We are witnessing the problem of “over-communication”
If only this epidemic had taken place 50 years ago, we wouldn't be so overwhelmed by such a huge amount of information that now proliferates our lives via various platforms: TV special reports, YouTube video news, Netflix documentaries, news outlets’ short videos, ... but what does this mean?
The first thing one notices when looking for documentaries or news reports on Covid-19 is the abundance of audio-visual material.
It is true that the topic: a) is quite current, b) affects the entire global population, c) affects all areas of our lives.
It is not a “circumscribed” fact, which interests just a part of the population as, for example, it might be with “The Roman Empire” or the history of Barcelona FC as explained in “Barça Dreams.”
Therefore, due to the uniqueness of this global health emergency, every broadcaster in every nation deals primarily with this topic, thereby overloading platforms with information.
In other words, it is impossible to watch all the videos, interviews, and documentaries created all over the world about Covid-19, even if you have weeks to do so.
2) The consequence of over-communication is misinformation due to an excessive dose of news.
Surfing the internet, we find ourselves in a situation like when a student raises his hand to ask a question, but 30 teachers answer him at the same time.
How can we untangle the threads? How do we choose which videos to watch? How can we select which sources will be informative?
A famous novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tells how, in order to hide a very compromising document, a shrewd owner leaves it on the desk along with a bunch of other irrelevant documents. That's exactly what intelligence services have been doing for millennia: filtering out a piece of truth along with tons of misinformation.
In the case of Covid-19, there is no twisted mind behind it, as the conspiracy theorists would very much like––just the combined mental laziness of an entire society with the intersected interests of many powerful people. Therefore, we are uninformed due to a flood of news, statements, reruns, opinions, comments, data, conflicting figures... all of which create the illusion of plenty of “information supply.”
Truth (i.e., “real information”) is not a commodity that can be obtained for free or purchased cheaply, without the effort and strain on our minds and without the investment of our precious time to study the issues. While the truth is simple, the reality is complex, and to understand it, one must make an effort. We have presented a case on our portal: the delays of the most important news agency in the world in reporting the Chinese government's delays in informing the WHO . The Associated Press reports (or perhaps just absolves) the Chinese government's fatal delay of six days and takes... 75 days to do so!
3) The problem of how data is analyzed and presented
One of today's problems related to information is the erroneous or instrumental analysis of data, sometimes done out of ignorance, sometimes done to defend vested interests.
As a professor of Political Philosophy, Daniel Innerarity points out in an article entitled Pandemia sin Verdad (“Pandemic without Truth”):
“Part of this disregard for the truth is attributable to the actions of some governments, which have hidden or manipulated data. More troubling, however, is the disorientation and errors that result from data that are true, but have not been properly contextualized or analyzed. This shows that data is as conclusive as it is malleable, and that anyone can present information in a way that favors his own viewpoint. Data fanaticism tends to defend figures, tables, and graphs as if it they will assure us protection against ideologizing. But data is not necessarily the opposite of ideological mystification; it can foster objectivity but also serve any ideology.”
4) Politics and Covid-19 are two closely-related topics
The way politicians are managing the crisis is of interest to their constituents, and the way citizens perceive the government's management of the crisis is of interest to politicians. This is why some of the first search results for Covid-19 are reports that accuse politicians of having covered up mistakes or underestimated the phenomenon, of not having done everything in their power to avoid deaths, and therefore to be held partly responsible.
And is the press really free of political conditioning? Are scientists themselves––who must study what has happened––“free” to publish the truth, making their government leaders squirm?
Some examples put an idea in our minds (and perhaps more than one) that this freedom has been seriously compromised.
To give an example, here’s a fact about Covid in Italy, one of the first countries affected by the pandemic: a documentary done by Rai 3’s Report on November 2, 2020 speaks of a censorship by the WHO on a research dossier (done by a Venetian research group that depends on the WHO and is approved by a WHO scientific committee), which was kept quiet. This was due to talk of a serious shortcoming of the European Vice-President of WHO, who, although in the past was in charge of updating the Italian national pandemic plan, never even touched the 2006 plan, which was completely inadequate for the present circumstances––a plan which had the potential of saving up to 10,000 lives had it been updated, according to sources interviewed in the documentary. The dossier, first accepted by the WHO, was then withdrawn in order to get a prominent member of the WHO out of trouble.
5) Only small publishers can afford to make inconvenient assumptions
Given the great entanglement between political power and the press, it is much easier for voices to be heard outside of the chorus than for “small” voices of little importance in the great abyss of news.
A prime example is the case of the missing dossier reported by Report, there was no trace of it in the national news. So, broadly saying, the most inconvenient theories for politicians are not found in bookstores.
Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, the first scientific medical journal to show concern about the existence of the disease (article from January 24, 2020) has written a book-denunciation of the behavior of Western governments (Great Britain, USA, France, Italy, and Spain mainly) and the scientific intelligence of these countries entangled with their governments: Covid-19. What's Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again (June 2020, written during confinement). Well, the publisher of the book is not Pearson, Thompson Reuters, Penguin, Wolters Kluwer, Planeta, Mondadori... Instead, the publisher is a small British publishing house of “civic resistance”: Polity Press.
Even more complete and well-composed than this impassioned denunciation by Horton is Joseph Tritto’s book:Cina Covid 19. La chimera che ha cambiato il mondo ( China Covid-19. The Chimera that Changed the World) from another publisher of resistance: Edizioni Cantagalli (Italy). His theory, which seems well-founded, is disturbing. It discusses an accidental leak in the scientific laboratory experiments in Wuhan (China), which were financed by both the big western pharmaceutical industry with scientific expertise acquired in France and the United States as well as advanced technology. It is well known that doing experiments with fewer ethical and legal constraints is cheaper in China than in the West, as it is making cell phones.
6) The tones of our leaders are similar across the European continent
It is interesting to note that nearly all political leaders around the world are broadcasting an optimistic message to their constituents because they are invested in it somehow. From the United States to France, to Italy (where a book in which the Minister of Health spoke of “victory over the virus” was recently withdrawn and would have been released shortly after the second wave): they are keen to let people know that everything is under control.
China said from the beginning that everything was under control when, as reported by several sources, the first patients affected by this new form of SARS were quarantined – without mentioning it to anyone.
If citizens use the media to get information, politicians use the media to convey their messages and the impression is that, in order not to lose approval, in order to keep the masses calm, there has been a tendency to deflate the numbers of deaths, to avoid autopsies, and to circulate reassuring slogans on the news of the national networks (in Italy, for example, there’s the now well-known slogan “Andrà tutto bene”––or “Everything will be fine”).
The most pressing and critical information on government actions appear much more often online or on in-depth broadcasts (and sometimes podcasts) rather than in the news of national television networks.
We leave you with a question, rather than an answer, and that is: why is the role of a “guardian” of traditional information sources in crisis?