Can COVID-19 force the media revolution we need?
Last friday, I and many thousands of UK business owners, self-employed workers and unemployed workers eagerly tuned into the 5pm news, hoping to catch a vital update on whether the government would be offering us the essential aid that we need to survive the coming 3 months. What followed was an ‘unprecedented’ broadcast (I’m going to take a shot every time Rishi Sunak says this word from now on) promising support.
This is definitely a step in the right direction, but in honesty I remain skeptical of the proposed policies — I’ll wait for more details and write on my views in another article. There remain many questions: how will these policies practically be implemented? What restrictions apply and how does the policy really look vs the headlines? What happens to many of the people who fall between the cracks of this arguably not sufficiently broad support package?
From my perspective, the package seemed to suit our business’s needs well and the economic safety of our team and was the number 1 priority in my mind. As a result, I was less focused on the matters that followed and instead was happily messaging my co-founder, friends and family, with the broadcast on in the background.
However, I distinctly remember one question following the announcements that pricked my ears.
In the Q and A that followed, a Daily Mail reporter asked:
‘Could we get to a stage where NHS workers have to choose who we have to save because there aren’t enough ventilators? Also, it’s obviously mother’s day this sunday, are you urging people to stay away from their mothers and will you be seeing yours?’
This was followed by a sharp exhale, matched with a brief smile by Boris Johnson. I rarely agree with BoJo, but the only way I could think to respond to that ludicrous question myself would be the exact same laugh/scoff. How poor can your taste possibly be? I’m tuning in to find out how the livelihoods of my staff will be impacted by this crisis and whether the nation is going full lockdown and you’re using your only chance to ask questions on the matter to find out whether Mama Johnson is having Bobo over for tea on sunday!? No less, you’ve juxtaposed this infantile question with a morbid and trivial question about how we’ll choose who lives and dies in our hospitals.
To emphasise that point, both questions were trivial. We know we don’t have enough ventilators (there’s a global shortage in the face of this crisis) so until we can produce more, yes, doctor’s will choose how to prioritise their use, meaning some people won’t get to use them. We hope it won’t come to this but it likely will, as it has in Italy. This is not new information. I also don’t recall a “unless it’s mother’s day” clause in the social distancing mandate.
I can only see one intended motive to this ridiculous line of questioning and that was to try and bait the PM into bungling an answer, providing a choice quote to stick on tomorrow’s front page; the specific question about his personal plans for sunday stepped so far from integrity that it entirely ratified this fact. In short, they weren’t even truly questions as no new information was being sought, they were rephrasings of known facts used to create traps for the PM.
Having enough experience of his own as a provocative but ultimately inane journalist, BoJo sidestepped the setup and carefully tiptoed through an answer that didn’t produce any such quotes. This didn’t stop the Daily Mail running 3 separate articles on the theme, and even some more credible outlets jumped on the opportunity.
Why did this question even get asked?
Plato was right when he said “those who tell stories rule society”, so maybe we need to be more critical of the stories we’re told, who’s telling them and what their ulterior motives might be.
This was a jarring reminder that, even in this time of crisis, our media structures are beholden to a business model (and in some cases, the interests of owners) which often runs contrary to the tenets of useful and objective journalism. These outlets make money by getting eyeballs onto webpages and selling their subscriptions and papers. This is not just true of traditional media outlets, but modern ones such as web-only publications and platforms through which this info can disseminate, like Facebook.
The sad fact is that sensationalised, punchy and panic-inducing headlines sell more than high-integrity, factually verified and actually informational journalism. The Sun and The Daily Mail thrive off this. As a result, a global pandemic is an unscrupulous media producers wet-dream. There is non-stop, panic-inducing and media-addicting headlines guaranteed for pretty much the next year, and people have nothing else to do but sit around and watch it unfold. So, in the case of this journalist, it made more sense to pursue a headline than to pursue more information.
It’s scary to accept this as the status quo while we progress through a period where we need informative journalism more than ever, and irresponsible journalism is extremely liable to cause unhelpful hysteria. We can already see the results of such panic in the reactionary stocking piling of toilet paper - as if we’re headed into a Mad-Max-style, post-apocalyptic world where the need to wipe your ass will supercede your need to eat. Anecdotally, I know many of us have terrified children at home, or relatives urging us to stockpile cash, food and even water, for fear of a total collapse of our systems of civil society. This is unnecessary and absurd to anyone who’s read more closely (there are no tangible risks to our supply chains, children are at extremely low risk, etc) but can you blame people for panicking when every headline screams of more death — and Bobo not getting to visit his mummy?
My grave concern is that the impacts of such panic is liable to have more severe (and totally avoidable) consequences after a couple months of everyone simmering in their homes and the reported state of affairs worsening. The result of this could be as severe as movements to ignore social distancing mandates, a surge in crime or all out revolts. Here is an excellent essay by Jay Walker (the chairman of TEDMED) highlighting examples of this risk and possible consequences.
So what are some examples of the media getting it wrong right now?
In more niche publications, and on online platforms, flat out untruths are rife. These are trivially wrong so I will leave their addressal to my section on how we remedy this. Looking at murkier waters, in the case of the USA large media conglomorates essentially magnified the incorrect message from the Trump administration that everything was a hoax (causing the opposite of panic). This is not as patently wrong as printing their own falsehoods, but obviously lacks journalistic integrity to not include a much needed rebuttal. In the UK, there are two really key examples I’m seeing which, upon close inspection do suggest that the profit motive is getting in the way of good journalism. Firstly, the reporting around the rate at which the virus is spreading vs the actions we’re taking. Secondly, the reporting around the death toll.
I should preface this section by saying that I categorically do not mean to make light of the situation we face. This is not a call to question or ignore the government’s actions. In fact, I wholly endorse them. Heed the social distancing mandates. STAY HOME as much as is possible. Our healthcare systems are truly stretched and we need to slow the spread to support our medical care workers. My intention in writing this article is purely to remind you to question the motive of the media outlets that you read, with the hope of finding the facts beyond the headlines and avoiding unnecessary panic. Unnecessary panic is a major part of the pain of this pandemic, from empty supermarkets to feelings of stress and terror.
‘Biggest daily increase in cases’ — read: The virus is spreading uncontrollably and it keeps getting worse!
My concern regarding our reporting of the spread of the virus so far is that it seems to totally ignore what we know about the virus and the fact that we have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the near future.
We know that the virus might spread asymptomatically, has a long incubation period (5 day average, up to 12) and that the the virality co-efficient is greater than 1 (i.e. it’s very contagious, 1 person gets more than 1 other ill) — these are all reasons you should be socially distant, to reduce the virality to <1.
The result: we fully expect exponential growth in the number of cases in the near future. This is no matter what we do, as there is a big lag between actions and outcomes — particularly in death rates, as there’s both a lag between actions and number of cases and then a second lag between cases and deaths. Note also that increases in case rates is heavily determined by how much we test and who we’re testing (the already critically ill, or wider populace). As we get access to more test kits and test more, we’ll confirm more cases that already existed.
We have several examples to model against. You can see comparisons of the virus’s growth across Europe from UCL here. Early indications suggested it was likely that we should expect results similar to Italy. In fact, our early growth is remarkably similar to Italy’s (though we now seem to be slightly lagging behind):
This is a painful reality to accept, but it’s no longer unexpected. What is not unexpected should not be major news. The cases that will be reported in the coming week or so are unavoidable as these people are already infected and we’re just waiting for them to present symptoms and/or get tested. Likewise for the deaths, though they’re further along that same road. Despite the fact that this is all very well known, we seem to see headlines every single day that incredulously state that there’s a new record for number of cases and deaths reported in a day. These numbers are totally expected. This is likely to be true of each day for quite a while longer. This is not a helpful headline. In the case of Italy, it took nearly 2 weeks of lockdown to see daily increases in cases peak and start to decline.
So why are these headlines appearing? Remember the perverse incentives we’ve discussed before. ‘New record for single day death toll’ sells more papers than ‘Virus continues on expected path, we remain optimistic that our actions will stem growth in April’!
The big issue with such headlines is that, without that context vs expectations, it has the effect of implying both a correlation with current measures and that they’re so far futile. This, again, induces panic, and panic’s annoying byproduct behaviours, as well as putting pressure on the government to act more severely. This is evident in the ramping of measures over the last week or so despite the fact that we actually aren’t expecting to see the results of our earliest efforts to feed through for a while yet.
Don’t get me wrong, one of the great checks and balances of liberal democratic society is that the media can stoke sufficient public sentiment to force government into making a change. I can see a totally fair argument that the government made a mistake by not applying a more severe lockdown as early as possible, so perhaps this pressure from the press is welcome. The problem is that, in a healthy liberal democracy, this pressure should originate from high-integrity journalism which makes a rational and valid case for this change, not as a by-product of trying to sell more papers.
Such pressure could legitimately arise by, for example, journalism which highlights the differences in modeled outcomes given earlier action or comparing actual outcomes for nations that did and didn’t react early and swiftly (South Korea vs Italy) - and to some extent this journalism does exist, from both known media outlets and even here on medium through the likes of Tomas Pueyo!
However, this pressure should not come as an accidental by-product of the incentive to terrify the nation into purchasing more newspapers. We want a healthy, rational and skeptical society that can reliably create this pressure whenever appropriate. In the circumstance of responding to pressure from ‘highest single day death toll’ headlines, this pressure arises by a coincidental byproduct of the newpapers’s profit motive. We must be extra skeptical of this. Wrongs which produce positive outcomes are some of the most dangerous wrongs, as they can be disguised by sheer coincidence.
Carefully consider this. You may think the pressure is positive now, but we may feel very differently about how much further we’re willing to go after more and more strict measures are introduced. At some point, we start to seriously impinge upon our collective social and mental wellbeing for a potentially negligible decreases in virality. I.e. in cost-benefit terms, at some point further strictness does more harm than good. We can’t measure the impact until weeks after implementation and we may have to live like this for months, so we can’t allow our feedback cycle to be dictated by headlines instead of facts.
‘X thousand dead and counting’ — read: This virus is a killing machine, none shall be spared.
Along a similar vein, I think headline reporting of the fatalities of this disease lacks vital context around who’s dying. The result is totally disproportionate panic and terror amongst the populace. You can read the stats of 5% death rate and hence think your typical nuclear family of 4 (mum, dad, 2 kids) has a 20% chance of losing a member. This is not the case, because that stat doesn’t control for other factors as well as being very biased by who we use our spare few tests on (the obviously and critically ill). The truth of the matter is, unless you work in a hospital then the next 12 weeks are very likely to be mundane for you.
On closer inspection, there is quite some solace to be found in the data. In the case of Italy, the worst hit country in the world, of those who have died the average age was 78.5 (average life expectancy there is 82.5). Furthermore, 99% of those who died were suffering at least 1 other illness, with nearly 50% suffering from 3 or more other illnesses. Given the fact that almost all sufferers were ill with other conditions, I’d say it’s a good assumption that the life expectancy for this cohort, had they not contracted Covid, would be below average.
To put this in context, malaria (an eminently treatable disease) has averaged something like 400,000 people killed per year in the 2010's, with an average age at death of 25 (particularly targeting under 5's), versus a life expectancy in Africa, the most affected region, of about 65. So in one year, that’s well over 1.5 million years of life lost.
Quality adjusted life years is a standard consideration used in medical decision making. It’s the number of years of life, multiplied by the quality of life on a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 means dead and 1 means perfect health. If we accept a <82.5 covid victim life expectancy and note that the quality of life without covid is likely low, as victims are generally very old and already ill (remember, 50% had 3 or more other illnesses), that means that, by a back of the envelope guess-timate, a malaria death represents a quality adjusted loss of life years of something like 50x a covid death. Covid is novel and local while malaria is not but malaria is much more harmful. So why do ominous malaria deathtoll updates very rarely make the news? Could it be because they don’t panic people in the West? We know those are far away deaths and that it’s a treatable disease for the rich. That means such headlines don’t sell newspapers.
Whilst this isn’t intended to make light of Covid deaths (all avoidable deaths are, afterall, avoidable and anyone close to the deceased still cares greatly about every month lost) looking at it this way may help alleviate some stress versus reading that death toll out of context. It’s the difference between thinking that we’re social distancing to desperately save ourselves (obviously extremely stress inducing) versus understanding that we’re participating in a civil duty to help the most vulnerable and to relieve pressure on our medical staff. This is not the apocalypse, you’re just temporarily experiencing how the average twitch streamer lives.
Reassure your children that they must be responsible but needn’t be terrified. For your part, remember that panic driven behaviours like bulk buying are unnecessary and do more harm than good. There is no risk of civil society collapsing due to the disease, only due to panic! And again, please follow the social distancing mandates. Those stats aren’t so ugly with some context, but the more pressure we put our health system under the uglier they will become.
Is there hope that we can change our media?
In the past we have been unable to come up with a regulatory framework that can remove this perverse incentive and ensure that media is both a useful tool for society and a functioning check and balance on power. Facebook has continually dodged all requests to reign in illicit advertising or content (as this obviously contravenes their profit motive). In the UK, we literally held an inquiry (the Leveson inquiry) that produced recommendations including the creation of a independent watchdog. This has since been ignored by the conservative governments which have held power since 2012 .
But, as Einstein said, “in the midst of every crisis is great oppportunity”. COVID has the potential to hold a miror up to our media and remind us that, much like our social support and healthcare systems, years of neglect have left it woefully ill-equipped to step up the plate when we really need it. We don’t have access to the necessary motivation to make such changes under business-as-usual, but now we’re going through a period with the extreme impetus for change that’s needed to make such huge reforms (like paying 80% of furloughed worker’s wages, or finally investing more into our healthcare services).
The responses aren’t as obvious and stark as social policy and healthcare policy, where immediate response is obviously mandated. However, we already see some positive movement. After refusing for so long to properly moderate their platform, Facebook have finally confirmed that they’ll block content which contains false information regarding covid. Whilst this hasn’t been perfect, perhaps this is the foot in the door that regulators needed. If they are willing to block covid fake-news, why not anti-vax? Also, if they are willing to waiver on their principles and moderate medical posts, perhaps we can, in time, build this into pressure to remove political fake news (and hopefully political ads altogether).
The first and most urgent step is for governments to step up with coherent messages and call out both falsehoods and fearmongering. There should be large fines for publishing falsehoods with fees varying between negligent fact checking standards up to business ending fines for being willfully misleading.
As a reader, pursue facts for yourself and read widely. Those close to me know that I’m a natural contrarian, but everyone should temporarily adopt this mantle and question every single headline they read. Note that, for example, looking at the 25th’s figures the UK has now fallen to roughly 1/4 of where Italy was 14 days ago in terms of daily deaths (43 vs 196). This is good news considering we were on a very similar path until about the 19th/20th of March! If the papers won’t highlight such information, we must seek it out ourselves.
My hope is that with careful ongoing reflection as to the role that media is playing in this crisis, we, the people who consume this media, can apply the pressure needed to reform the incentive structures of these outlets. For now, this means carefully and skeptically assessing the news, actively boycotting media that is corrosive and calling out panic-focused headlines where possible. In time, this will mean pushing for governmental-level reform — both more fines and, for example, splitting the editorial and commercial functions of these businesses much more cleanly, amongst other key measures like those in the Leveson report. As in the Facebook example, even where there are glimmers of hope further success will require sustained effort.
In the UK particularly, my hope is that the inevitable inquiries into government actions around the crisis will help elucidate the role that undue media pressure played in pushing them to make certain decisions. Savy campaigners can capitalize on this and push for reforms. Be ready to throw your support behind this. We must push to finally apply the recommendations of the Leveson report and even take further steps to ensure that the profit motive of the media industry stops butting heads with the incentives of good journalism and a functioning democracy.
“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” — Albert Einstein