'Long live local journalism' says Sheffield media expert

There has been much ‘fake news’ about COVID-19 over the past month.

Thursday, 16th April 2020, 4:07 pm
Updated Thursday, 16th April 2020, 4:08 pm

This has included disinformation about the virus being ‘manufactured’ in the US, as well as false claims that drinking methanol and bleach cures its victims.

While there is certainly some evidence to suggest social media are turbocharging the sharing of this false information among citizens across the globe, politicians have also contributed to misinformation about the pandemic through their media appearances.

Most notably, President Donald Trump has repeatedly misled US citizens about the availability of vaccines and the effectiveness of new treatments in his daily televised news briefings.

President Donald Trump speaks during a daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Closer to home, cabinet ministers have also made a number of false or misleading statements to the press.

Michael Gove erroneously claimed efforts to ramp up Covid-19 testing in the UK were being hampered by a shortage of the chemical reagents needed to make the testing kits.

Populist leaders such as Trump have been quick to dismiss criticism of their response to the coronavirus crisis as ‘fake news’.

He has sought to discredit professional journalists holding him accountable for his depiction of the virus as a hoax and for his failure to enforce social distancing measures sooner.

Cabinet office minister Michael Gove

To some extent, this is ‘business as usual’ for political leaders like Trump who believe they are above such scrutiny and frequently lash out against media organisations responsible for ‘negative’ coverage of their administrations.

Again, we have had a similar experience in the UK.

The current government’s ‘review’ of the BBC licence fee has been widely assumed to be a punishment for the corporations ‘anti-Brexit bias’ in the run up to the UK’s departure from the European Union in January 2020.

Many citizens might be tempted to believe the populist rhetoric portraying established news media organisations as representing elite interests rather than the views of ‘ordinary people’.

The Sheffield Telegraph's front page from March 26

Yet, evidence from organisations like the Edelman Trust have shown a resurgence in trust in traditional media, in particular local journalism, in recent years.

During the current crisis we have seen many examples of local news media providing vital support for the most vulnerable in the UK.

Whether it be radio and television sharing good news stories from within their regions, or local newspapers providing accurate information about the availability of local services during the lockdown, these organisations have risen to the challenge of serving their communities when they need help the most.

A recurring theme in much of their coverage of the pandemic has been the dispelling of myths about Covid-19 and providing advice on how people can protect themselves and their loved ones from being infected.

The front page of the Sheffield Star on March 20.

The headline “When you are on your own, we are there with you”, printed on the front page of more than 60 regional newspapers in March, has never seemed more relevant than now.

The editorial jointly issued by these newspapers reiterated the commitment of local newspapers to providing readers with a “’constant feed of reliable news and information’ and steering them towards any help they might need with a ‘calm, steady hand’.

Yet, many local media organisations may not survive this crisis. Titles such as the Bedfordshire Time & Citizen and Brighton & Hove Independent have already ceased print publication.

Social distancing measures are likely to further deplete the sales figures of those that remain, as older readers self-isolate at home rather than go to the shops to purchase a local paper.

Therefore, it is imperative we all do what we can to support local journalism, the ‘first responders’ to the current ‘infodemic’. The next time you are in your supermarket or local shop buying essential supplies, put a copy of your local paper in your basket.

Local journalism deserves our support, not just during this crisis but also in the longer term.

Dr Paul Reilly is a senior lecturer in social media and digital society at The University of Sheffield’s Information School.