Stephen Ward: The public begins to live in a false reality

In other languages: русский • English

23 апреля 2020 года

Prof. Stephen J. A. Ward (2013)
В этой статье упоминается Фонд Викимедиа, какой-либо из его проектов или люди, имеющие к ним отношение. Викиновости — один из проектов Фонда Викимедиа.

The vast majority of nearly 8 billion people on Earth continue to receive information about the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through the media and social networks. At the same time, in different parts of the world, authorities, journalists and citizens perceive the threat of a pandemic and the economic consequences of prolonged quarantine in different ways.

Director of the Canadian School of Journalism, professor at the University of British Columbia Stephen J. A. Ward, who is also the founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, spoke with Wikinews about his vision of the current situation with the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interview with Roman Balabin, Prof. Ward, as a former war correspondent and head of the ethics committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), evaluated the current media activities in reporting about the virus.

Roman Balabin: In 2017 you wrote that: «The internet we once praised for its „democratization“ of media and for making possible „we the public“ is now a raucous, often dangerous global sphere of trolls, hackers, racists, fanatics, conspiracy theorists, and robotic manipulation of social media by governments». Did this situation change since then?

Stephen Ward: No, the situation has not changed, in fact it has gotten worse. Society’s whose public channels of information — which today amounts to their contact with the world or «reality» — are distorted means they not only will misunderstand issues but governments and other agents of disinformation will be more able to manipulate them, and public opinion. The public begins to live in a false reality created by ideologists, tyrants posing as populists, and far-right groups.

In a global world that is so interconnected and interdependent, I can’t think of a more dangerous development for peaceful co-existence. One only has to look at the levels of misinformation circulating around COVID-19. We have «politicized» our public channels to the point where it is difficult for anyone to obtain reasonably objective, non-polarizing information.

RB: Wikinews is a media project where anyone can edit any article. Does it raise any special ethical questions for the participants?

SW: The question surrounds «anyone». As any other user of Wiki services, I see articles, (e.g. on Wikimedia) on non-political topics, e.g, a philosopher or writer, that I know is not complete and seems slanted but I am not surprised. But when it comes to news, the people who run Wikinews need to be extra vigilant in checking who is writing and transparently provide information on why this person is in a good position to write this article.

I do not think that Wikinews can promise complete objectivity or detachment — whatever that might mean — but they need to take the basic steps in media ethics: Be accountable, be transparent, check articles for bias or incompleteness, subject articles randomly to media expert for review, and article a clear code of ethics that will be followed.

RB: Profs. Klaus Meier and Vinzenz Wyss state[1] that «diversity and uncertainty in scientific assessments was poorly presented» in the news stories about COVID-19 in February and early March (MEEDIA, Apr-09). Do you agree with that opinion? Was the reporting mostly critical or uncritical?

SW: Reporting scientific uncertainty is always a problem, and to be fair, this pandemic contains uncertainties beyond the norm. Even the world’s greatest experts on pandemics can’t say for sure what the future holds. This is not for lack of knowledge, but the fact that humans cannot always predict the consequences of complex diseases. There are so many factors.

Another problem is that too many people think science is «certain» knowledge, or pure facts, and not probable knowledge based on the best available evidence and models of reasoning. So when a journalist reports that scientists are «uncertain» about something, too many people conclude that the scientists don’t know what they are talking about, and lump them into the same barrel as non-experts.

I am in favor of reporting uncertainty in a nuanced manner and I know that many reports have not done a good job on this matter. This indicates that major newsrooms need to self-inform themselves on communicating risk and uncertainty, which I have stressed for years. Also well, journalism schools should make it a part of their teaching.

RB: Meier and Wyss also state that «the media [in Germany and Switzerland] reported largely without distance — in line with federal and state official messages». Do you agree with this view? Was the situation similar or different is the USA and/or Canada?

SW: Here is another problem with covering health issues and serious developments. News media must tell people what their government and related agencies are saying, and doing, about things. There is a huge vacuum of information to fill, and it will be filled by fear and misinformation, otherwise. Yet, it is crucial that, at the same time, media treat the official information critically, and not simply «accept» all of it. They need to do their own independent investigations and reporting.

US President Donald Trump gives a press conference on the situation with SARS-CoV-2 (13 March)

In North America, its been a mixed record. In the USA, major news outlets have raised serious questions about the official line that is being generated by President Trump and his regime. But too often Trump was dominating the coverage daily with his ridiculous news conferences where virus-skepticism was the theme.

In Canada, the CBC (the public broadcaster) has done a good job balancing official and non-official information, as have the major newspapers. The major Canadian media have also done a good job in showing how Canada was slow to respond, and was unprepared in many ways.

RB: The number of sick and dead people were largely represented in Russian media as «true facts». Could it be named so?

SW: No, they are not «true facts», if that means unquestionable, or certain. Why should people accept such propaganda? Any reasonable person knows that the data available on the virus and the deaths, etc., are not complete, and depend on estimates, which in turn depend on how much testing is being done.

And governments, in Russia or elsewhere, have an interest is making the facts look as good as possible. That is why media reports need to say that this is the data that government has released, and then go on to indicate any uncertainties. For example, the CBC’s web site on the virus has many graphs on the spread of the disease; but, at the start of the page, it clearly states the limitations on this data, e.g., the number of tests taken.

RB: How large is the influence of the internet and social networks onto the COVID-19 problem?

SW: It is large, especially among certain sectors of the population. We live in a world of government-skeptics, of people who believe only those news sites that tell them what they want to believe.

The idea in the past was that the national media, which controlled the flow of information to a large extent, could send out a relatively unified set of data and information, from trusted officials. I am not saying this is a perfect media model, but the other alternative — of fragmented media and fragmented audiences believing what they happen to see online, seriously threatens rational, informed public support for urgent measures.

In the USA, Trump shamelessly is using people’s anger at government to avoid responsibility while Fox News continues to politicize the issue and weaken public support for social distancing and other important measures. In the end, these people — Trump, his cronies, his «base of support» and the Republican senators who refuse to question the president openly — are, in my view, partly responsible for many deaths due to their inaccurate messaging and continuing refusal to take this matter seriously. It almost amounts to criminal negligence.

RB: What contribution does the panic make to the current situation? Does the general population respond reasonably: healthy and sick people?

SW: Panic is a major, negative factor since in a case like this, it makes people more stressed and more liable to take unhelpful (and often unnecessary) action such as hording food and buying up supplies at the grocery; or not sharing masks with others.

Panic makes us radically self-interested and self-protective — this is why it evolved in our species. To arouse us to danger. But in a pandemic it weakens rational, communal responses.

Nothing is served if we panic.

RB: Will this crisis change current public attitude to media in the USA and/or in the world? Will media ethics change?

SW: I like to think some people will have a new appreciation for how they need informed news media, how much we need to protect and maintain good channels of information, and ow much journalists need to be properly educated. Hopefully this might reduce some of the anti-media attitudes that exist almost everywhere, as part of the aforementioned cynicism about everything ‘official’ or institutional.

I also think that it should alter how we think about media ethics and teach it. First, the pandemic reinforces and makes evident that we live in a global world and therefore now must life with global issues, from immigration and climate change to pandemics. Consequently, I would argue, we need a global media ethics. We need to develop norms and practices for reporting properly on these global issues.

This time around, it is public health that demands our attention. But next time it will be another global issue. Therefore, we need to radically reform media ethics so it becomes global. This also implies that we need to teach about these global issues in schools of journalism. If we do not, then we will make the same old mistakes when it occurs again.

And, believe me, it will occur again, regrettably.

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