The role of traditional news media in the age of COVID-19

With large portions of the public staying home amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to help stem the spread of the virus, people have few options but to rely even more heavily on media and media technologies to keep updated and stay connected. The firehose of information coming at us daily can be overwhelming. Do either traditional or non-traditional media stand out as being more useful under these circumstances?

It might be that they offer different things to different people. Jeremy Copeland, FIMS journalism instructor, confirms what we all know: that there is a huge generational divide when it comes to consuming traditional television news and talk radio.

Jeremy Copeland“For many years we’ve heard statistics pointing to the rising age of TV news viewers. The numbers might vary, but they show a consistent trend towards an aging audience,” he says.

Citing numbers reported by American trade publication Adweek, Copeland notes that CNN’s median viewer age in 2017 in the U.S. was 60, while the median viewer age of Fox News and MSNBC was 65.

“I don’t know the average age is of Canadians who watch TV news, but I would guess it’s also a relatively high number.”

What does this mean in the context of COVID-19, when it’s critical to reach the entire population with authoritative information about the outbreak?

Copeland, who teaches journalism courses to undergraduate and graduate level students, says he makes a point every year to ask his students where they get their news from. Only 10 % or less usually indicate that they’ve watched a television news program in the last month, with the numbers being similar for traditional talk radio.

“Students do get a lot of news through videos on their mobile devices and listen to a lot of current affairs programming on podcasts, but most of them do not seem to watch TV news or listen to talk radio,” he says.

Despite this, Copeland says news from traditional sources still offer some advantages.

“In a word: credibility,” says Copeland. “In an age where there is so much false and misleading news out there, I think in a time like this news organizations with a trusted brand are incredibly important.”

He says people continue to turn to sources like the New York Times, the CBC or the London Free Press – though perhaps not through traditional mediums like cable television or a printed newspaper – because they have confidence that the information will be accurate, fair and balanced. Copeland acknowledges that there are growing numbers of American and Canadian consumers who are distrustful of all mainstream news, but he thinks they are still in the minority.

Comparatively, the social media scene is a Wild West. You will still find the New York Times, the CBC and the London Free Press reporting on COVID-19 on Twitter and Instagram, but they jockey for space alongside social media influencers, conspiracy theorists, alternative news, and your Uncle Fred. Copeland says that the information on social media is also reaching a much wider audience than traditional news mediums, for better or for worse.

“More and more people of all ages are getting their news on mobile devices through apps and that has a big impact on what they are hearing and learning about.”

Traditional media employs gatekeepers, explains Copeland. In previous eras, the news that people encountered was curated by human news editors. Audiences saw the stories that news editors thought they should see. With digital media, especially social media, algorithms make those decisions.

The problem with that, says Copeland, is that important stories can get weeded out.

“For example, I would guess that Canadians on social media were seeing a lot more information about the COVID-19 situation in China and Italy in their feeds back in February than they are now. Now people are probably primarily seeing local, provincial and national information,” he says, likely a consequence of the algorithms that determine what viewers see.

“But I think Canadians also need to continue to be informed about what’s happening in China and Italy because the coronavirus hit those countries hard and to some extent we should expect to follow in the same path. It would help us to prepare for what is coming, both in terms of the negative impact, as well as when and how things will start to turn around.”

Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor Anabel Quan-Haase, who studies social media in society, says one of its strengths is its ability to collate many sources of information and data.

Anabel Quan-Haase“It helps move a wide range of information from a diverse set of sources. So on my WhatsApp I’m getting videos from experts, updates from the World Health Organization, updates from Germany's Koch Institute, links to funny videos, etc. I would never be able to put together such varied and relevant sources by myself. Basically, social media is doing all that work for me,” explains Quan-Haase.

And while she acknowledges that the proliferation of misinformation is a huge downside of social media, she also highlights how users of social media can help each other understand the information they are receiving by adding context, new ideas, clarifications and solidarity.

“My social networks are helping make sense of the information by adding comments, criticizing certain types of information, and also pointing out where more information is needed,” says Quan-Haase.

“My Twitter network has also helped show both the depth of the pandemic, but also the fact that other people are out there experiencing what I’m experiencing. Through jokes, humour and silly posts, it also helps us cope. It shows that other academics and Canadians are dealing with similar situations.”

It’s not possible for traditional media like television news to capture the same kind of breadth of content one sees on social media. But more troubling, says Copeland, is that with resources and staffing constantly being cut, traditional news is struggling to continue doing well what it has always done best: local news.

“The local journalists I’ve spoken with are all going flat out at work every day covering COVID-19 stories. With the cuts to many newsrooms that we’ve seen in the past, covering a story of this magnitude may stretch newsrooms and journalists to the breaking point,” he says, with the end result being that they might start missing important stories.

“One of the things this pandemic reminds us of is the need for local reporting. Newspapers have closed in many smaller cities and towns across Ontario. That means many communities don’t have anyone telling them about how COVID-19 is affecting their cities.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic looking like it will stay front and centre for months to come, people will need to access different types of media, traditional and non-traditional, to find all the information they need to stay informed, safe and connected.