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A pandemic of paradoxes: New IMS report on COVID-19’s impact on the media

2020 has been a roller-coaster for the media sector

Editor’s note: The IMS report is currently still being finalized (The Fix received an early version to read). We will update the article with the link to the full report once available. If you don’t want to miss it, subscribe to our newsletter.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the world of media has been full of paradoxes. Audience numbers shot up, but ad revenues collapsed; misinformation spread like a wildfire, but trust in media people used increased; fewer journalists were killed but in many countries violence and harassment against media peaked.

There have been many studies on the topic, albeit mostly focused on Western media. A new report from International Media Support (IMS), aims to address this imbalance – providing both a comprehensive overview of prior work and bringing in examples from emerging markets like Colombia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Ukraine.

The summaries of existing studies and surveys, combined with in-depth interviews paints a broader picture of the life for journalists during what The Atlantic dubbed “The Plague Year.” 

Hugh Macleod, the author of the report, spoke to The Fix about the insights he gathered from the study and what can be done to make life easier for journalists who are working more than ever yet facing ever-growing financial insecurity. 

Macleod further explains the report aims to serve as “a reference guide” bringing together media that went through a similar crisis and helping them grow beyond it. 

“When you get a taste of real change even if it’s painful, I think people need some solidarity and get their convictions straightened,” Macleod told The Fix.

In a survey of 1,406 media workers, run as part of a study by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), 70% said the psychological impact of dealing with COVID-19 was the most difficult aspect of their work. Unemployment, financial struggles (67%) and a high workload (64%) were a close second and third. 

On the other hand, ICFJ discovered that the top three overall reactions to the pandemic were unexpectedly positive. People shared that they felt a refreshed commitment to the profession, stronger connection with friends and family, and deeper gratitude for life. 

The Fix team went through the report for you and compiled a list of the key COVID-19 media experiences to look back at in 2020. [Editor’s note: The full report will be available for everybody in early February].

Freedom of speech

Interaction between the media and governments has never been frictionless and COVID-19 crisis has only made things worse. 

From the very start new outlets from all over the world struggled to get reliable and timely information from state authorities. Even worse, given that most countries lacked independent entities publications could work with, fact-checking was next to impossible. 

“There is no officially imposed censorship. But there are difficulties getting information from the government,” explained Karunarathna Paranawithana, a Sri Lankan former MP and secretary to the Ministry of Mass Media. “Authorities are very reluctant to give data to journalists, and so there is a kind of de facto censorship,” he added. 

Journalists who reported on COVID-19 were also frequently mistreated and subjected to threats. The International Press Institute recorded 473 cases of media freedom violations related to the pandemic, including arrests and charges, restrictions on access to information, excessive “fake news” regulations and verbal or physical attacks. 

Safety of journalists

Nevertheless, 2020 was the second safest year for journalists since 2002 in terms of journalist killings. According to the UNESCO report, 39 journalists were killed in the first nine months of 2020 (by the year’s end the figure was up to 47 according to the International News Safety Institute).

More from The Fix: UNESCO Report on journalism safety – key takeaways

However, the numbers do not account for deaths related to COVID-19. According to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, as of end November 2020, the list of reporters who died because of coronavirus totaled some 145 names. Meanwhile, a third of media workers surveyed by IСFJ said their employers did not provide a single piece of protective equipment for field reporting.

Physical assaults on journalists were relatively low, with only 3% of ICFJ respondents reporting any offline violence related to their work. But online violence was at an all-time high, overwhelmingly targeting women. The largest survey to date on the issue found that 73% of women reporters had experienced online abuse, harassment, threats and attacks in 2020. 

Gloria Castrillon of Colombia’s EL Espectador newspaper told MacLeod: “Women have been disproportionately affected by COVID restrictions, but not because they are women journalists but because they are women.”

Infodemic 

In 2020, accurate, reliable and timely information became a matter of life and death. The ICFJ found politicians were identified by 46% of respondents as a top source of disinformation, along with state-linked troll networks (23%). 

“Disinformation from the government included ministers announcing in the first few months of the pandemic that Ethiopia had discovered a cure for COVID-19,” said Henok Fente, an expert on media freedom in the African country.

In massive samplings of almost 200 million social media posts in 64 languages related to COVID-19, Italy’s Bruno Kessler Foundation found that an average of 40% were unreliable, and that a shocking 40% were produced by online bots or automated software.

In Ukraine, the annual media consumption survey by Internews found that more than 80% of respondents had been exposed to false rumors and disinformation about COVID-19. 

Executive Director of the Media Development Foundation in Kyiv Eugene Zaslavsky said: “Every party except maybe two is engaged in war through Facebook and Instagram. The pandemic has been a fuel for them. Our media literacy level is still low here: At one point in Kyiv all the taxi drivers believed that COVID was a myth, that it didn’t exist”.

Business instability  

Audiences up, revenues down would be a short description of what happened to the media, if it wasn’t yet another paradox. As some of the media companies lost millions of dollars in revenue or even ceased to exist, others managed to hit the top of their business performance.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported a 50% increase in web traffic in April alone, while traffic to the Financial Times’ website grew 250% in one month. The number of unique visitors to The Guardian’s website almost doubled from a record of 191 million in February 2020 to 366 million in March. 

However, one in five journalists who took part in the ICFJ survey reported that their media’s income was down over 75% since the pandemic began, and 40% of them said revenues were down by over half. Overall revenues at The Guardian had fallen by GBP 25 million by July 2020

Other markets even lost their players in the battle. IMS interviewee Henok Fente put the decline of media advertising revenue in Ethiopia at between 60% to 90% and cited the closure of J TV and magazine Kumneger as two of the immediate casualties.

Nonetheless, other media outlers grew amid the pandemic. US-based international digital media company OZY became profitable for the first time in 2020. Despite the cancellation of personal events, television shows, podcasts and digital advertising have brought the company about $ 50 million in revenue over the past year. 

More from The Fix: Digital media company OZY becomes profitable amid the pandemic.

Ukrainian legacy media Ukrayinska Pravda was also among the top performers. Since the beginning of the quarantine the publication has launched a three-level membership model: with classic membership, an Editor’s club for high-paying donors and a unique one with integrated partner benefits. 

The model’s value proposition provides exclusive discounts and gifts from Ukrainian and international companies to members paying 125 UAH monthly (roughly $5). Currently, UP Toloka has around 30 business partners, book publishers, digital service providers and restaurants. 

More from The Fix: Top Ukrainian media builds travel, payments industry solutions into unique membership model

An ongoing crisis

As the story of media during the world pandemic is still unrevealing, the world’s experience so far showed us once again that the threats we face are, in fact, the old ones – censorship and lack of prosperity, fake news and business instability and, above all – the safety of journalists. 

The solutions are also familiar. The authors of the report believe that strengthening international fact-checking networks, increasing media literacy, and stimulating cooperation among journalists will help the media cope with the crisis.

Photo by Elton Yung on Unsplash

The story was created within the Journalism Exchange Program conducted by Media Development Foundation

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