Media Responses to the Corona Crisis

27 Apr 2020

LMU communications specialist Thomas Hanitzsch talks about growing repression of journalists and censorship of reporting on the current pandemic in many parts of the world, and a notable thematic convergence in German media.

© imago images / Emmanuele Contini

The NGO “Reporters Without Borders” is alarmed. According to its latest ranking of press freedoms around the world, the corona crisis is “exacerbating the negative factors that threaten the right to reliable information”. The United Nations takes a similar view. What is your assessment of the situation? Hanitzsch: There has been a marked tendency to limit the freedom of the press in many countries in recent years. It is also clear that governments are exploiting the current crisis to justify the introduction of further gagging laws as a necessary response to health and security concerns. Hungary is a particularly blatant example. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has taken advantage of the crisis to impose drastic new restrictions on journalists.

Orbán’s “coronavirus law” effectively allows him to rule by decree, and anyone found guilty of spreading misinformation can be sentenced to terms of up to 5 years in prison. Does this mean that the government is now the final arbiter of what is true and what is false? Hanitzsch: That is the crucial question. We will have to wait and see whether Orbán really intends to apply the new law in that way. If he were to do so, it would a highly dangerous development, given that Hungary is a member of the European Union, in which press freedom is a fundamental right. It would set a disastrous precedent for the European project.

Is it a strategy that others are likely to follow? Hanitzsch: Fears that other countries in Europe – for example, Poland – might do so are not unjustified. And many countries outside Europe already operate with such restrictive measures.

The assessment published by “Reporters Without Borders” focuses particularly on the country in which the virus emerged. In its latest report on press freedoms internationally – which is actually based on surveys undertaken prior to the outbreak of the pandemic – China is ranked near the bottom of the list. Why do China’s policies in relation to the media do so badly in the rating? Hanitzsch: The simple answer is that freedom of opinion, and consequently freedom of the press, does not exist in China – and that has been the case for many years now. Media organizations are either owned, or politically controlled, by the State. China’s media operate in a context that differs fundamentally from what we are accustomed to in Europe. About 12 years ago, the rules governing the media in China were liberalized. However, China’s current leader Xi Jinping revoked these changes, and censorship has been continually extended since then. It’s quite obvious that the State is now doing all it can to control social media which, up until a few years ago, were relatively free by China’s standards.

With the eyes of the world now on China and its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, its propagandists are also under greater pressure. Has this led to increased controls on what can be published? Hanitzsch: I can’t really answer that question, because I have no reliable data. However, in comparable situations in the past, the State has always reacted very quickly. In 2008 when the scandal over adulterated baby food became known, the government immediately imposed severe sanctions on coverage of the issue. In subsequent cases, information could still be found on social media. But these channels are being increasingly suppressed, and there is now virtually no critical reporting on political issues or government policies within the country itself.

The Chinese authorities are also trying to influence reporting about the country and its handling of the pandemic in foreign media. How is this done? Hanitzsch: The Chinese government has built up a huge propaganda apparatus, which it uses to project a positive image of the country abroad – by exerting direct pressure on the media and also by the targeted propagation of misinformation. In the current situation, its aim is to convince the outside world that China was forced to take harsh measures, but responded rapidly and efficiently to the developing pandemic. The second point is that China has gained a great deal of political influence in certain parts of the world, thanks to its foreign investments – in media companies, among others. That is true of Africa in particular. But this strategy can also be observed in Europe. For example, China is now trying to gain a political and economic foothold in Eastern European countries, but also in Italy.

At the moment, China and the US are both engaged in bouts of shadow-boxing – at the expense of independent journalism. Each country has expelled representatives of ‘oppositional‘ media. Hanitzsch: This is classical tactic and I regard these actions as largely symbolic. The Chinese government is perfectly aware that deporting American journalists is not very effective, and is indeed likely to provoke further critical comment. The storm will blow over, and the deported journalists will quietly receive their accreditations again. Meanwhile, media around the world are calling for ‘war’ on SARS-CoV-2.

In Europe, politicians – and sections of the media – have resorted to such military metaphors to emphasize their message. Is this kind of rhetoric intended to suggest that things are under control, or does it reveal an underlying sense of uncertainty? Hanitzsch: The phenomenon has emerged all over the globe. After all, governments everywhere are now dependent on the support of their populations. The drastic measures they have introduced must be acceptable to a large majority of their citizens. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to suggest that the virus represents a very threat to life and limb, and that government action is the only effective means of confronting this threat. The use of superlatives and military metaphors is a politically advantageous way to suggest the presence of a looming danger. It was used successfully to prepare Americans for their country‘s entry into the European theater during the Second World War. It’s a tactic designed to ensure that the people will close ranks and rally around the government. This ‘rally effect’ can be observed at the moment in many European countries. Voters’ levels of regard for their respective governments have reached record heights. For example, it’s quite amazing that in France – a country whose citizens are usually pretty quick to resort to public protests against government policies – the very severe measures taken against the virus have received so much support. But then again, it should not come as a surprise that, after many, many years of propaganda, warlike language is a very effective tool for persuading people to accept government decisions.

Indeed, media observers have noted that German journalists too have generally adopted an extraordinarily deferent attitude to the country’s politicians during the crisis. Hanitzsch: That’s certainly true. The media are not only compliant, they are all too willing to follow the rhetorical line adopted by the politicians. That makes me a little anxious. I would like to see more critical questions being raised by the media, which have not always distanced themselves sufficiently from the official line. Reporting on the crisis has of course been driven primarily by case numbers and political reactions. The politicians discuss possible measures, and make a decision, and that decision then becomes the latest headline. For example, when Federal and State Governments were about to decide on a lockdown exit strategy after Easter, the media coverage beforehand was reminiscent of the run-up to an international football match. Much of it focused on the protagonists involved, and far too little attention was paid to the criteria to be considered and the role of the experts. A statement issued by the Leopoldina featured prominently. As the National Academy of Sciences, the institution plays an important role in this context. But it is only one of the voices in the whole concert. The media could have done more to clarify the competing views and the arguments presented to support them.

What has been missing? Hanitzsch: From the very beginning, there has been very little debate on, or indeed much reference to social inequalities – which have been exacerbated by the lockdown – and the plight of families. The focus has been on measures to support firms, and on the safety nets being provided by the government. But other facets of the whole topic have been neglected in the media. What impact does it have on employees when approximately half of the total workforce is put on short time? What happens in families with small children who can no longer go to school or be looked after? Families are not equally well equipped to cope with the consequences of the pandemic, so what sorts of social inequalities arise when children must stay at home all day? These are issues that have tended to fall between the cracks. I would have expected more critical analysis of the political agenda from journalists, given that journalism is supposed to act as a corrective of the political sphere. Instead, the media have largely chimed in with the chorus intoned by the politicians.

The media have often framed their coverage of the policies adopted during the pandemic in terms of the upcoming nominations of candidates to succeed Angela Merkel as Federal Chancellor. Hanitzsch: That various individuals have been jostling for position in that race is clear from much of the political rhetoric we have been hearing, and it has indeed featured here and there in the media. I don’t see this as problematic, although journalists could do more to dissect the motivations behind the different views of how to handle the corona crisis.

In light of the uncertainties and insecurities associated with the pandemic, could it be that journalists have decided to concentrate on what they know best – the political dimension of the crisis? Hanitzsch: Journalism, like everything else that people do, is guided by certain reflexes. Political and journalistic reflexes are very strongly focused on personal rivalries, such as those between potential candidates for high office. Political competition is a fundamental element of democracy, and journalism must reflect that fact. I don’t believe that this factor has been too prominent in coverage of the response to coronavirus. But I do think that journalists have concentrated too much on the questions that the politicians have chosen to deal with. I would argue that, in so doing, the media failed to take a closer look at other, perhaps equally important issues. Having to confront the same questions and decision-making processes day after day, people are probably beginning to feel fed-up.

Perhaps they’re tired of seeing the same line-up of experts all the time. Hanitzsch: That can be taken as read. People do tend to turn off when they are exposed to the same topic over a long period, no matter how important that topic might be. The phenomenon is known as news fatigue.

Is there really such a thing as ‘self-induced convergence’ among media outlets? Hanitzsch: The term is too extreme for my taste. But I do recognize a convergence in how the issues are framed, a convergence of views as to which protagonists are quoted and which institutions are featured in media coverage. Even though this represents a classical response to existential threats – I would argue that there is plenty of potential for a greater diversity of approach.Interview: Martin Thurau

Prof. Dr. Thomas Hanitzsch holds the Chair of Communications Science with a Focus on Journalism at LMU, and coordinates the Worlds of Journalism Study, in which researchers in 110 countries monitor the conditions under which journalists work.

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