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COVID-19 and the media: The role of journalism in a global pandemic

The talk explores the challenges reporters and researchers alike face when it comes to providing accurate information about a new virus and a pandemic of historic proportions

Berkeley Conversations
A panel of experts discussed Wednesday what the role of journalism is during the COVID-19 pandemic. (UC Berkeley video)

To inform the public during these uncertain times, newsrooms across the country have made pandemic coverage a priority. But the ever-changing and sometimes unverified nature of COVID-19 data being released has left journalists and researchers with challenges in providing accurate information to the public.

On Wednesday, a panel of UC Berkeley journalism and public health experts addressed those struggles during a more than hour-long Berkeley Conversations that examined the role that the media has played during the global pandemic.

Ed Wasserman, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, said there are good and bad elements to the way news has been covered during the pandemic, and that the public’s trust in the media is on the line.

“In many ways, it’s a make or break moment for the media,” said Wasserman. “I’ve never seen a story that has as many perplexing and meddlesome dimensions to it as this one. … The intensity of interest in the story and the consequences of the ways the story is being presented are really kind of massive.”

Public health professor emeritus John Swartzberg, meanwhile, has been interviewed about COVID-19 by many journalists in the past few months. He also chairs a group that oversees Berkeley’s public health publications.

He said that, while the virus has disrupted society, it has only existed for a few months and little is yet known about the coronavirus. Many health experts, similar to journalists, are also struggling to present their findings to the public.

Swartzberg cited the use of so-called pre-print journals that require less verification than standard peer-reviewed journals, where independent scientists take time to verify results. These unreliable pre-print reports can make it harder for journalists to do their job, he said.

“This has become even more acute today when the information we get from, for example, the White House, is confusing at best,” said Swartzberg. “Society is torn with information from the government that cannot be consistently trusted. So, journalists become even more critical in their role.”

“Time and again, we’re dismayed and baffled by the kind of incoherence and a lack of reliability of the information we’re getting,” Wasserman added. “We’re seeing info that should be fairly politically neutral is instead being spun in ways we can’t trust.”

While there is an abundance of news to be reported on the pandemic, Wasserman pointed out that newsrooms hammered by decades of layoffs often lack reporters and editors who specialize in public health reporting.

Wasserman added that he feared some newsrooms were focusing on breaking COVID-19 news instead of in-depth coverage.

“You’re looking at a news media complex that’s probably 40% weaker than it was a generation ago, in terms of bodies it can put in the field to tackle a difficult story,” said Wasserman.

Despite these challenges, Swartzberg said that, overall, journalists have been doing a good job in covering the pandemic. He advised reporters to avoid covering stories in a binary manner. For example, he said there is a more nuanced way to cover cities reopening than framing the options as completely sheltering in place and simply reopening everything without restrictions.

Swartzberg also urged journalists to build relationships with researchers who have a history of reliable and scientifically-rigorous work and to build a stable of those types of experts to maintain accurate reporting.

“We’re all in this together, and I feel in the short run (that) we have enormous challenges,” he said. “But, I think in the long run we’re going to be a much better society from the consequences of this.”

Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19 is a live, online series featuring faculty experts from across the Berkeley campus who are sharing what they know, and what they are learning, about the pandemic. All conversations are recorded and available for viewing at any time on the Berkeley Conversations website.