Periscope: How the Media Portrays COVID-19

Written by Lim Jun Heng, Jovan (20-O5), Martha Henrietta Soetedjo (20-U2), Ng Teck Zhong (20-E5), Young Wai Ming, Nicholas (20-E5), Zenov Liu Fan (20-U1)

Designed by Jo Yeoul (19-A2)

 

Foreword

Have you ever wondered how the media portrays COVID-19? Do they always portray the truth as is? What are some of the impacts of social media in today’s context? Even as the COVID-19 situation worsens globally, not all media outlets are reporting truths as they should in a bipartisan manner. In this article, we shall explore how politics in media and social media come into play in the COVID-19 context.

 

Background

In Singapore, it is a blessing that our news media outlets are politically neutral, resulting in news that are more bipartisan. However, that may not be the case for other countries like the US. The presence of political bias in the US media has resulted in the fragmentation of communities due to the news sources they are exposed to. In the context of American news, there has been continuous discourse regarding the topic of COVID-19, leading to differing views about the issue. Hopefully, lessons learnt from the handling of the pandemic in the US will help us to cope with the local situation better.

 

Political Bias in Media and The Portrayal of COVID-19

Presence of Political Bias in Media

In America, there is a dichotomy between liberal and conservative views, evident in its manifestation in its media, such as in news outlets (Jamison, 2017). A significant portion of news tends to prioritise coverage of the popular news that would interest viewers rather than those that are more crucial.

 

Distortion of Truth 

Political biases in the media might lead to distortion of truth. In recent years, news outlets have used their political standings to push forth agendas or present subjective truths; facts, but twisted to suit their narrative (Owen, n.d.).

This may result in the formation of ‘echo chambers’, where a set of beliefs are repeated in a closed system. Think propaganda, where the audience consumes biased media that only serves to reinforce their own opinions without knowledge of other perspectives. Similarly, the rise in political bias in the media has divided consumers to ‘filter bubbles’, which will ultimately lead to more fragmented communities due to their polarised political views (Barberá et al., 2015).

All these result in ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency in which a person would favour information that strengthens and ‘confirms’ their personal beliefs. The audience chooses their information sources based on their affinity for the politics of other users, sometimes regardless of its journalistic integrity. This could be why fake news, often presenting opinions more than facts, is still prevalent. An example can be seen in how Fox News had greatly exaggerated risks of COVID-19, with only 15% accurately doing so (Jurkowitz & Mitchell, 2020).

 

A Greater Divide

When it comes to the media divide, Cable News Network (CNN) and Fox News may spring to mind. Both are established as large representatives of their respective political standings.

Fox News and CNN are reputed for their opinionated pieces, though the degree of which differs between the two. However, as CNN continues to be ridiculed by US President Trump with the status of it being one of “fake news”, it has tended to be anti-conservative and anti-Republican in recent years. Fox News, alleged to have been established as the media arm of the Republican Party, has been taking the lead in the media for spewing misinformation and causing a greater division in the American political scene. 

 

How it All Relates to COVID-19

So how does political bias fit into the COVID-19 situation? It has become relevant as characterised media can be potentially misleading, and contributes to the dichotomy of politics. 

Simply put, the media fails in its intended purpose of disseminating critical, unbiased information. One can argue that President Trump’s handling of the pandemic was less than ideal. However, the media’s response has also contributed to America’s current struggle. While Fox News continued to praise Trump for his leadership during this outbreak, CNN argued otherwise. Both have failed in disseminating information regarding safety to the public, only focusing on the politics behind it. This failure in prioritisation of information has set the premise for mass confusion. 

What about Singapore? The local media has provided a more balanced view of our situation. While fake news still exists, it is far more controlled. News outlets prioritise information over opinion. Overall, the mainstream press has still remained largely neutral and balanced.

 

Effects of Social Media on COVID-19 Situation

As COVID-19 spread across the world, countries around the globe scramble to pick up after the mess that the virus has created. Collaborations between countries in such a transient period can only be made possible with the wide-spread of information by the media, allowing for the establishment of connections like never before. 

 

Unnecessary Panic and Fear 

While social media can facilitate the spread of useful information and hope, it can also amplify panic and social discord. From misinformation to fake news, social media has caused some contentious behaviour that may have been less rampant without it. For instance, the case of panic buying. “No milk, no bleach: Americans awake to coronavirus panic buying” (Borter, 2020) – Imagine reading headlines like these that appear on your Instagram feed. Worried for your health and safety of you and your loved ones, would you give up considerations for the vulnerable in society in exchange for personal externalities? 

Regardless, it seems that a substantial group of people in America are increasingly choosing the latter. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all food was up 0.3 percent between February 2020 and March 2020, and food prices were 1.9 percent higher than the March 2019 level. (USDA, 2020). This means that many people in America resorted to panic buying, so as to ensure that they have a sufficient stockpile to last them through the stay-home duration. 

However, this does not solely apply to the USA, since the pandemic is a worldwide crisis and a phenomenon like panic buying still exists in developed countries, such as back home in Singapore. We tend to overlook the implications our actions have on others in society – the elderly, the vulnerable, as we safeguard our own interests. This selfishness might have stemmed from panic and fear due to the prevalence of social media. 

 

Solidarity

Notwithstanding the negative impacts of social media on COVID-19 above, there are positive impacts too. As COVID-19 spreads globally, social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are facilitating rapid and high volumes of information on the virus. Such level of real-time information in our pockets, available as and when we require them, will allow us to make smarter decisions. 

Social media can be very useful in a time when many of us are otherwise isolated from one another. Conversations about the coronavirus, especially those at the community level, can allow people to be united and face the crisis together (Garza, 2020). It is also a way to enable everyone to survive the isolation of being cooped up at home for long periods of time through interactions online (Harris et. al, 2020). 

Governments and public health institutions are using social media, among other methods, to directly provide accurate information, the speed of which is unprecedented. This ensures timely information on the virus, reducing the “information vacuum” that rumours and falsehoods are all too ready to fill (Harris et. al, 2020).

 

Celebrities’ Impact on Society

To some extent, celebrities possess the means to influence the masses, therefore forming a pillar of support for those in isolation. The midst of a heightened social awareness of the spreading pandemic has driven Asian American Hollywood celebrities to start campaigns to combat xenophobic sentiments against those of East-Asian descent (Channel News Asia, 2020). In just one week, Lady Gaga-led One World concert broadcasts have raised US$35 million in aid to the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, with a peak showing of 20.7 million viewers (Tseng, 2020). However, skeptics claim that these viewership numbers are small in comparison to the global audience in household quarantine, and that celebrities cease to garner appreciation from the general public. Instead, they argue that the destabilization of social hierarchy has now shifted towards respecting frontline workers fighting against the pandemic (Thawani, 2020). 

On the flip side, there tows a fine line between celebrities in the entertainment industry, compared to those belonging to large corporations. The rich, unconvinced and individualistic have taken to social media to complain about stay-home protocols that have resulted in a loss of personal freedom, apart from the economic slowdown. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, among many others, expressed urgency over Twitter for home-quarantine procedures to be undone. Many have since criticised his opinion, calling him out for being a business magnate and disregarding the health of workers (Duffy, 2020).

 

Conclusion

To conclude, the impacts of Media on COVID-19 situation are different from previous pandemics, such as SARS, in part due to the huge quantum leap in access to technology. Globalisation has also intensified this need for technological interconnectedness across governments, businesses and people, with the use of media as a tool to achieve this outcome. Therefore, as the media helps us stay informed of happenings around the world, it will ultimately be a battle between influence and values, as people choose who they want to believe in.

 

Bibliography

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