Taking journalism seriously – media in the age of COVID

The global COVID-19 pandemic took place in the context of another crisis – the upheaval of the news media landscape, writes Kerry McCallum, on behalf of the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra.

Technological, cultural and policy shifts mean big changes to the way ‘news’ as we know it is produced, delivered and consumed. In particular, the rise of digital platforms has been transformative. Nevertheless, news and social media were fundamental to conveying vital public health information to consumers, and to influencing public understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the News and Media Research Centre (N&MRC) we advance public understanding of the changing media environment. Since the outbreak of the pandemic we’ve been conducting a program of research to understand and explain the complexities of COVID-19 media and communication.

So how did Australia’s news media cover the crisis?

To get an evidence baseline, we analysed over 2.5 million news items for the ‘Covering COVID’ report. Working with monitoring company Streem we conducted a digital content analysis of online, television, radio, and print news from January to November 2020.  

Our findings demonstrate that no topic in recent history comes close to the saturation coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Data provided by Streem media shows that in March 2020 80% of news coverage was about ‘coronavirus’.

More than just a health crisis, the global pandemic has been referred to as an infodemic.

We found the way news media covered the crisis changed over time. For the first part of 2020, Informational news dominated coverage, with most news outlets encouraging citizens to be part of a common push to keep Australia safe. Journalists fulfilled their ‘civic’ role as loyal facilitators of public health messaging. We concluded that news about the pandemic was co-constructed between journalists, political leaders and health experts, with health officials often as prominent as political leaders in the coverage.

Health and the economy were major categories of news, with Topics of ‘Tracking the spread’, ‘employment figures’ and ‘case numbers’ receiving the most coverage. News cycles were short and agendas changed quickly to keep up with rapidly unfolding events.

As the year dragged on and Melbourne entered its prolonged lockdown, news became more conflict focused, reverting to what we call ‘politics as usual’. News reflected federation fractures with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews receiving substantially more coverage than the Prime Minister for four months in 2020. This wasn’t all positive, with some sectors of Australia’s legacy media pursuing a politically-driven campaign against the Premiers of Labor states.

Further qualitative research published in Communicating COVID-19: Interdisciplinary Perspectives  compared coverage of news in The Australian newspaper and ABC News Online in 2020, finding that while there were few differences in the topics covered, the ABC had produced more state -based reporting and included more citizen sources. Again, we found the majority of stories addressed audiences as politically astute citizens with an interest and stake in the public health measures being taken to address COVID-19.

What about how people consumed news in the year of COVID?

We conducted surveys of news audiences in 2020 and 2021 for the COVID-19 News and Misinformation and Digital News Report: Australia studies.

At the start of the pandemic, people had an insatiable appetite for news. In early 2021 the proportion of Australians who described themselves as ‘heavy’ news users rose to 69% from 56% in 2020.  However, it didn’t last. Twelve months into the pandemic this had fallen back below pre-pandemic levels. 

Interestingly, while trust in news has been steadily declining since 2018, in early 2020 this trend was dramatically reversed, with 53% saying they trusted Australian news in April 2020 compared to just 38% in January 2020. Not only did people access more news during the early months of the pandemic, they trusted the news they sought about it as well.

But, alas, this was a blip and did not reverse the trend in declining trust in news which fell to 43% in 2021.

Consumers do trust some news brands, and some sources, however. In our latest DNR survey 70% of Australians said the ABC is trustworthy. And when it came to information sources in the early days of the pandemic; doctors, health experts and scientists were the most trusted, at 85%.

People are changing the way they get their news. Rather than actively seeking out news, they are getting it incidentally from social media as they scroll for entertainment or socialising purposes, using social and messaging apps.

And this is where audiences were most likely to experience misinformation. While concern about misinformation remains steady, people reported high levels of exposure to misinformation about COVID-19. Compared to people in other countries, Australians are more concerned about misinformation, less likely to have experienced it and less sure if they encountered it, than people in other countries.

These snapshots from our research at the N&MRC demonstrate that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted both news consumption and production in 2020.  The long-term impacts of this in a challenging news media landscape are less certain, with much additional research needed to fully understand the complexities of media and the pandemic.

View the panel discussion with Professor Kerry McCallum, Dr Norman Swan and other guests. 

Read: What does the crisis in Australia’s media mean for public health? by Marie McInerney for Croakey Health Media


About the author

Professor Kerry McCallum

Kerry McCallum is Professor of Media and Communication and Director of the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra