The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on the world economy, the daily lives of nearly all human beings, and everything in between. The media is more relevant and crucial than ever – but why, and to what extent?
The function which is perhaps most relevant currently is informing the public and fostering public discussion. This can be attributed to three reasons: spreading information, discussing said information, and countering disinformation.
Firstly, the media can distribute information to an exceedingly high number of people in a short amount of time. Whilst the government can reach many via their own institutions, the media has a far wider and pervasive influence in daily life, which therefore means that they carry a large part of the responsibility of informing the public on what to do to ensure solidarity and the fewest amount of deaths possible. Crucial measures including hygiene rules and social distancing may not have reached some if not for the media.
The media is not only crucial for disseminating regulations which are being introduced, but also their reasoning. Experts such as those at the Robert Koch Institute usually do not have the resources to reach a wider audience on their own, even if they provide critical information in understanding e.g. social distancing. Moreover, they may misjudge the level of simplification required for public understanding. The media resolves both of these issues, often via interviewing politicians and experts.
Now that one can reliably count on most people having a basic understanding of concepts such as “flattening the curve”, the media can provide a forum for discussion based on them. Questions such as how the economy, the environment, and international relations may change, or whether the regulations should be relaxed in a few weeks, will greatly determine the future of the world. Forums of discussion are especially crucial now – not only because we do not have as much contact with the outside world as before, but also because people are educated by this type of debate on matters which affect our entire society more deeply than ever before. Receiving the information and perspectives which help form public opinion on whether the government, the EU, and others are handling the crisis adequately may mean the difference betweeen life and death for thousands – potentially millions.
Finally, there is the matter of disinformation. Whilst the COVID-19 crisis affects the lives of everyone, some may construe the pandemic – and therefore the political response as well – as overblown, overexaggerated, or perhaps even a farce. This is a result of disinformation from disreputable sources, and is incredibly dangerous. The media – as long as they are committed to acting in the interests of democracy and benefitting the people – can counter disinformation by debunking conspiracies and showcasing experts. In doing so, people can learn to identify and disprove these lies on their own. On the other hand, a biased media source may intentionally spread disinformation, benefitting the spread of the virus; the American news network Fox News has been criticised of this.
In conclusion, the media has a vital role in the COVID-19 crisis, first and foremost via the function of enabling discussion and political engagement. This is due to media spreading information from politicians, experts, and others, discussing it, and countering disinformation. In doing so, people are educated about the crisis on what to and why, receive the facts and perspectives necessary to form a nuanced view on how the pandemic is being handled, and can recognise and perhaps even debunk disinformation. The media, though often ridiculed and criticised, has proven to be absolutely vital in combatting the virus.