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Media response: Spanish Flu vs Covid-19: Have we learned anything?

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

On May 22, 1918, the Spanish newspaper ABC reported on a new illness, and described it as similar to the flu but with milder symptoms. All the festivities took place as usual, and countries did not report on the new disease to keep morale up during World War I. In the US, to protect war effort, President Woodrow Wilson made no public references to the disease. Big city newspapers “sugarcoated” the truth, practicing an alarming level of self-censorship.

Today, just as a century ago, the pandemic has been exacerbated by the fact it was, generally, not immediately taken seriously. The media has shaped government responses by transmitting, at least initially, a low sense of urgency. Today, the response by the media in different countries has striking similarities. In the US, not only was the government unprepared for the pandemic, but mainstream media amplified the slow reaction. Since alarming reports about Covid-19 began to emerge from China in January, the media often provided information to Americans that later proved to be wrong, or at least inadequate (e.g. disclosure of initially low infection cases did not explain that most people were not being tested). Indeed, Trump described the coronavirus as less dangerous than the flu, but outlets such as CNN and Vox also repeatedly encouraged people not to wear masks. Moreover, the decline of local journalism has led to an uneven coverage focused on large urban areas, leaving a vacuum for people searching for information in other areas, which has been filled with (often inaccurate) information from social media. In China, the Communist Party was actively seeking to spread solely positive messages about its battle against the virus, depicting the efforts as a “people’s war” against Covid-19. As a response, some Chinese journalists were publishing exposés describing government cover-ups and failures in the healthcare system. In the hope to approach to press freedom, they used social media to draw attention to injustice and abuse. For example, Caijing, a business magazine, published an explosive interview with an anonymous health expert who acknowledged that officials in Wuhan delayed warning the public that the virus could spread from person to person.

While recognizing some important differences in the relationship between the administration and the media in both countries, it is evident that media coverage of the pandemic has been far from optimal everywhere, and has clearly contributed to ineffective policies to fight it.

Erratic or late responses by authorities may end up eroding their legitimacy in the eyes of citizens, as well as spread the virus farther. We can connect this to Noam Chomsky’s work, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, where the thinker reflects on the symbiotic relationship between media outlets and governments, mainly as a way to preserve the interests of governing elites. Since the ‘corporate media’ needs resources to fund its activities, Chomsky argues that stories are selected to “manufacture consent”, produce advertising revenue and drive political agendas.

What do you think about the role of the media in the coronavirus pandemic? Can social media “democratize” the spread of information?

Author: Elena Yustres Rodriguez

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