Ian Haysom, a veteran journalist and writer, is a news consultant for CHEK. His coronavirus diary will appear here regularly.
Today the Ontario government announced that newspapers, radio and TV, as well as telecommunications providers, are an essential service. Britain, which is now in total lockdown, did the same thing a few days ago.
Finally, some respect!
We need the media more than ever in this rapidly-changing coronavirus saga. Readers, listeners and viewers are turning to established media, and their online websites, in greater and greater numbers.
Last night, in Britain, almost 30 million TV viewers watched Boris Johnson declare a national lockdown. That’s an astonishing figure, and close to the all-time viewing record, which was the 1966 World Cup Final when England won the cup for the first and only time in its history. Bigger even than the ratings for Coronation Street, another casualty of the virus. It’s been shut down for the foreseeable future. That’s a tragedy of soap-opera proportions.
Ratings for TV news shows across Canada are surging too at a time when the need for accurate and up-to-date information is at an all-time high.
The media — and I consume a lot of it every day — has been doing, in my opinion, an outstanding job of covering this story, internationally, nationally and locally. Carrying live press conferences from Ottawa and Victoria have been part of that, but the stories on the evening newscasts and in the newspapers and online have been first-rate.
News outlets have covered the big picture and the small, human interest stories. The dark side and, yes, the upside. A $1 a litre for gas? If only we could get to the gas station. CHEK’s news journalists should be proud of the outstanding job they’ve been doing on this story — and particularly for digging out the positives as well as reporting on the many negatives.
The analysis has been strong too, unflinching and honest, and the questioning of health officials and politicians has been helpful and constructive. I have become somewhat addicted to the media conferences and how the questions are asked and answered.
And not only the questions from the English, but also the French journalists. I knew Justin Trudeau spoke perfect francais (well, he would), but who knew Adrian Dix, our health minister, spoke such passable French too. A politician speaking French on the west coast is as rare as finding a Liberal in Alberta. A curiosity. Good for him.
Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war, but in this particular conflict, there has been little unquestioned propaganda. The journalists have covered the story passionately but without cheer-leading, not become an arm of or spokespeople for the government.
Some viewers and readers have complained, and I get it, that the media has stopped covering other news, apart from the coronavirus. That’s somewhat true (Joe Biden, Brexit and the pipelines have all moved to the back of the news agenda) but that’s understandable. No story, bar the Second World War, has had such an impact on the world in our lifetimes.
The story has ravaged our society and completely altered our lives. Businesses are shuttered, sports and entertainment is shut down, schools and universities are closed, tens of thousands are out of work and we are forced indoors by this 21st-century plague.
And the media is our window to this unsettling world.
The media is covering the story with some obstacles. Many reporters and camera operators are not going into their newsrooms, but are still out and about — with long-boom microphones — telling us what’s going on. The great CBC broadcaster Peter Gzowski once told us that the role of the journalist is to take us where we can’t go, and that’s certainly true now.
The irony, however, is that while this may be the media’s finest hour, it may also be the death knell for many newspapers and other news outlets in Europe and North America if this goes on too long. While businesses close, they stop advertising. And the ad model still supports traditional media more than subscriptions or sales. And while the model may be changing, and traditional media has been struggling for years, this situation doesn’t make it any easier, not in the short term. And right now, there’s only a short term.
The travel industry isn’t advertising right now, as it tries to figure out when we will all start travelling again. Ditto the entertainment industry. Retailers are suffering, and so are their ad buys locally and nationally.
I have heard rumours that some newspapers in this country may not be able to survive more than a few months, and many local radio stations are teetering. Some say this will be the worst year ever for newspapers in North America.
Without the news media, without TV, radio and newspapers, we wouldn’t be getting the critical information we need. And, yes, we will soon see more coverage of non-virus news. Including protests. If you’re physical distancing, it’s tough to march on the legislature.
We need the media to survive and thrive right now. And help get us through this.
Because, yes, it’s essential.
The best of times for journalism. The worst of times for the news business.
Read the other Coronavirus Diaries here