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Journalism in the time of COVID-19

  • Date

    Thu 9 Apr 20

Tim Fenton

Our Director of Journalism, Tim Fenton, linked up with more than forty other journalism lecturers around the world to talk about the industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The online seminar was organised by Christ University in Bangalore, India, and followed Tim's participation in a University of Essex delegation that visited Bangalore in November 2019. He gave the first presentation providing the viewpoint from the UK and was followed by similar contributions from France, India, Australia, Sri Lanka and the US.

“Journalism has a vital role in fighting the pandemic,” said Tim, a former Managing Editor of BBC News Online who now leads our journalism programme at Essex. “We have all seen examples of false and potentially dangerous information circulating on social networks. People need trusted sources of information and we are seeing that reflected in very large increases in traffic to, for instance, BBC News. At the same time, the news media’s role in holding the powerful to account cannot be compromised. And we’ve seen evidence of that in the UK Government’s response to press criticism of its testing plans.

“This is a difficult story to cover both in practical terms, because of social distancing and limitations on travel, but also in terms of finding the right balance between the public interest and what interests the public. That was a common thread to all our contributions. Most participants are current or former practising journalists and so could bring a very real sense of how these dilemmas are playing out in newsrooms now.”

"This will accelerate change"

Some students from Christ University also took part and were particularly interested in how the crisis might affect the future of the journalism industry. “This will accelerate change,” said Tim. “And in places like India where ‘text’ journalism still largely means ‘print’, could do significant damage. But the online subscription model is faring much better. If this encourages a move in that direction, the overall effect might be positive.”

All the speakers also reported a focus by their national news media first on their own domestic situation and then on countries regarded as indicators of what might happen next locally.

The seminar was conducted on Zoom with participants using the ‘share screen’ feature to display slides. According to Tim, the professional version provided by the University made participation significantly easier. The seminar was organised by the Head of Media Studies at Christ University, Professor M M Padmakumar. Further seminars are planned.