August 13, 2020 | By Giulia Shaughnessy

COVID puts an Even Greater Squeeze on Journalists and Media Freedom

The media industry all around the world has been facing financial difficulties ever since the advent of digital journalism. In the United States, for example, half of all of the jobs in the industry have been lost in the past ten years. Because of the coronavirus, however, news outlets are suffering more than ever before. With print sales and ad revenue continuing to decrease, many news houses have been forced to shut their doors and let go of their journalists.

At the same time, many governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to implement laws which place further restrictions on what journalists can and cannot report on, effectively silencing critical journalism in certain countries. In Iraq, for example, the media giant Reuters had its license taken away for three months after publishing a story critical of the government-released coronavirus figures. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán passed a “coronavirus” law which mandates up to five years in prison for journalists convicted of spreading false information. Even in the United States, tensions and hostility towards the media continue to rise, with President Trump regularly tweeting that critical news coverage of him and his handling of the coronavirus is “fake news”.

Nearly every journalist and media outlet has felt the economic consequences of the pandemic. From April 26-28, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) surveyed over 1300 journalists from 77 countries on their views of what crises are facing journalist during the pandemic. Data from their online survey shows that 65 percent of journalists reported their job security had been negatively affected and 38 percent said they had lost income as a result of the virus. Within the industry, freelance journalists are those most affected, with nearly every freelance journalist reporting having lost income or work opportunities.

The British journalism and press magazine Press Gazette conducted a similar survey focusing on the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on journalists. This survey, which surveyed reporters, editors, and media executives subscribed to the Press Gazette newsletter and was live from March 20 to April 3, showed that while over a third (37%) responded that their web traffic had gone up during lockdown, at the same time 27 percent said their ad revenue was down and 12 percent said their print circulation was down. While more people are accessing the news to read coronavirus-related updates, this increase in readership does not translate to an increase in revenue.

In many countries, the few remaining independent media outlets are those most affected by the economic crisis. In Bangladesh, Bangladesh Independent Journalist Network (BIJN) survey of journalists conducted in June reported that 60 percent of local newspapers and media outlets have shut down as a result of the coronavirus, which has caused over 1,600 journalists to become unemployed. Because stories on corruption and abuse of power are almost solely reported on in local rather than national newspapers, the loss of these local newspapers will lead to less accountability for those in power.

According to the IFJ survey, almost three quarters (74%) of journalists have faced official government restrictions including obstruction and intimidation, and one quarter (24%) have had difficulty finding reliable and independent information during the pandemic. In many countries, journalists say they are afraid they are doing their job poorly and sharing inaccurate information because they are forced to use the numbers the government gives them.

Finally, to add to the legal and economic burdens, reporting on a deadly pandemic is taking a serious mental toll on journalists in the field. A Reuters poll from June which surveyed 73 journalists from international news organizations shows that a significant portion of journalists surveyed are experiencing mental health issues caused directly by their work. Almost three quarters (70%) reported feeling some degree of psychological stress, over one quarter (26%) reported symptoms of general anxiety disorder, and 11% reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This uptick in mental health issues can be attributed to the way journalists are being expected to immediately adapt to the circumstances. Whereas before the pandemic only 4 percent of surveyed journalists had been health reporters, 74 percent now report having had to start covering health-related stories. 60 percent say they are expected to work longer hours and have noted in increase in demand for stories.

The coronavirus pandemic has rendered journalism and freedom of the press even more vulnerable than in previous years, especially in countries that were already facing difficulties. Without income, many newspapers are shutting down, and the rest are being methodically silenced by new governmental regulations. This, in conjunction with the worries many journalists have about not being mentally fit nor having the adequate information to do their jobs raises worries about what the state of the media will be after the pandemic is over.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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