Key Take Outs: Editors’ Perspectives: How global leaders are responding to the COVID-19 crisis

May 11, 2020

World Media Group Editors’ Perspectives: How Global Leaders are responding to Covid-19 – Key Take Outs

Five months after the first cases of Covid-19 were reported, there is hope that much of Europe, along with Asia, has passed the peak of infections. But with global leaders responding differently to the crisis, there are discrepancies about what’s being measured, whether we can compare countries, and what we should to do next. The World Media Group invited a panel of journalists, reporters and analysts from six leading international news outlets to shed some light based on their own experiences of reporting on Covid-19.

The panel was chaired by Arif Durrani, Executive Editor, EMEA, for Bloomberg Media Studios. In his opening question, Durrani asked how outlets had covered the virus and what they had learnt as a result.

“What we’ve learnt is to expect the unexpected,” said Adrienne Carter, Asia Editor for The New York Times, based in Hong Kong. “Everything we think is true…is always countered by a different narrative. Everything changes from moment to moment.”

The value of imperfect data

For Alan Smith (OBE), Head of Visual and Data Journalism at the Financial Times, it has been the realisation “that imperfect, uncertain data has never been more valuable.” The crisis has elevated the importance of data and analysis to the news agenda, he said, as “it’s almost impossible to make sense of the situation without using data.”

With the deluge of information since the pandemic was declared, Durrani asked how the panel prioritised what to cover, and how they were tracking what was resonating with their audiences.

Aria Bendix, Senior Reporter at Business Insider USA, based in New York City, who was the first BI reporter assigned to cover Covid-19, explained that Business Insider had always relied on data from their community to determine the focus of stories. She said the “unending stream of interest in the virus” over the past three or four months had led to a greater need for service journalism. Readers have “really simple questions that actually don’t have simple answers in this time,” she said. “And I think that our mission is to satisfy that information first and foremost.”

Smith agreed with the need for service journalism. He said the Financial Times had made much of its Coronavirus coverage free to allow people to keep up with a story that was constantly changing.

Durrani turned to Ishaan Tharoor, Today’s Worldview Columnist at The Washington Post, to understand how he decides what to write about. Although he is based in DC, Tharoor explained that his role was to provide “a more global story and craft and, in many ways, try to hold up examples elsewhere in the world to the American conversation.”

That means drawing comparisons, for example, in showing how South Korea can offer certain lessons to the US and also showing how the US could never emulate what South Korea did, he said. It’s about “recognising the political tendencies of certain types of leadership, leadership styles and how the pandemic is triggering non-health risks to democracies and republics elsewhere,” he said. “It’s about trying to stitch together a sense of where we’re going in this incredibly unpredictable, unprecedented time.”

On the ground challenges

Durrani asked about the challenges and developments in specific regions. Laura Bicker is the BBC Seoul news correspondent, based in South Korea, which has now crushed the curve of Covid-19. Bicker found herself running “into the fire” when Daegu became a hotspot. While she took advice from a high-risk safety team, the situation on the ground often played out differently and she found herself having to make difficult decisions for herself and her team about how close to the frontline they could safely get to tell the story that the readers or viewers needed to know.

Mindy Massucci, Head of Global Content, QuickTake by Bloomberg, based in New York, explained how she has tapped into Bloomberg’s network of journalists across 120 countries for on the ground reporting as the world gradually returns to ‘normal’. Whether she’s talking to a reporter in Berlin getting his first haircut in two months or receiving a photo of what social distancing looks like at one of the oldest shopping malls in Chile, these first-hand accounts demonstrate “what it’s like for life to slowly start creeping back,” she said.

How do we measure progress?

As our minds turn towards recovery, what sort of metrics should we be looking at? According to Business Insider’s Bendix, “Our primary responsibility as journalists is to contextualise this current moment for the public. Obviously, we won’t know where we are in history in the moment, but to provide some sort of educated guess about where we are in the trajectory of this pandemic.”

One of the problems, she said, is that when comparing regions or countries, we are not always comparing ‘like for like’, which can lead to false equivalences because there are “so many confounding factors, right now that can influence how an outbreak actually manifests within the population.”

That’s where a tool like the FT’s Coronavirus tracker comes into play. According to Smith, its “under the bonnet assessment” of different types of data sources reveals just how much you can rely on them to make comparisons – or not.

APAC as a barometer

Looking to the future, Durrani asked what lessons we can learn from countries such as Korea.

Echoing Bendix’s concerns, Bicker said that “it’s not ‘like for like’ so it’s very difficult to say that what’s worked here in South Korea will work in the UK or the United States.” That’s partly because Korea was prepared with testing, she said, so there was never a need for lockdown. The success of the strategy has also come at the cost of privacy, which wouldn’t have been deemed acceptable by other nations.

Carter believes there are lessons the US, UK and Italy could learn from South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. She talked about what’s known as ‘everyday life quarantine’ – infrastructure and a social culture that enforces social distancing and hygiene measures – to allow people to ease back into life without a treatment or a vaccine.

Massucci argued that the cultural difference in the US is too extreme for this. Referencing the current protests over mask-wearing, she said, “People, especially, in the United States, are so protective of their rights. They don’t like it when government comes in and tells them they can’t do something.”

Even once we’ve crushed the curve, Bicker believes it will take time to get back to normality. In South Korea, health officials are telling the public a second wave is inevitable, she says, giving an insight into what’s likely to come in the UK, US and Europe.

New levels of engagement reflect hunger for trusted news

Despite polls suggesting that trust in journalism is at an all-time low, engagement appears to be higher than ever. Bicker referenced getting 40 million average daily visits in the first couple of weeks of April, and Smith said that the Coronavirus tracker was now the most viewed FT story by “many million page views.” According to Carter, The New York Times has “seen more interest in our journalism than ever before” and the pandemic has “reinforced the importance of on the ground reporting of trusted sources.”

It’s a reminder that in a situation where information can potentially save lives, there is no place for fake or inaccurate news. In the race to break a story, Bloomberg’s Massucci reiterated journalists’ responsibility to double check sources. “One of the things that I say to my team all the time, is I’d rather be late, last and right, than first and wrong.”

Belinda Barker, Director World Media Group