On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. According to the WHO, there were more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and more than 4,000 people lost their lives to the virus. This date marked the beginning of unparalleled events. A virus whose origin was unclear. Uncertainty and a sense of panic spread.
In the following months, scientists experienced massive support for researching the virus and countermeasures. Alongside this, a wave of disinformation, fake news, and misinformation flooded the internet. The motives ranged from misleading and out-of-context content (disinformation) to intentionally false information (misinformation). Thus, accurate reporting by the media was more important than ever.
The challenge for journalists was to balance their reporting accordingly.
Report accurately on an uncertain topic, be the government's watchdog and keep up with fast-paced scientific developments. A big challenge is also for consumers.
Tell apart journalism from fake news, suddenly deal with complex science.
The result: An infodemic
Overwhelmed and overstimulated
By April 2020, half of the world's countries had their citizens in some form of lockdown. The world's first globalized virus. Next to the virus spread another problem: an infodemic. The WHO defines an infodemic as: "Too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak".
People suddenly consumed more news and spent way more of their time online. In the US, media consumption rose by 215 % compared to 2019. Twitter exploded with tweets mentioning COVID-19 or coronavirus. Breaking news after breaking news. A world caught off guard. Problematic was also the supposedly trustworthy scientific studies. Publications came rapidly, but the quality was lacking, a meta-analysis concluded. Results from those studies still made it frequently to the news, which made the situation even more unclear. People asked themselves, overwhelmed and overstimulated: What kind of information is to trust? Who reports correctly? Can I even trust the media? Journalistic reporting had to compete with ideological disinformation and be cautious of the information it spread. Due to the sometimes messy information situation, some turned their backs on news consumption. But not everybody. Many consumers placed trust in journalism. They went to the media as a tool to navigate through overwhelming information. The media could regain some lost credit. Especially trusted brands benefited, most notably in countries with strong public service media. Despite fake news and false information on the corona, faith in media rose globally on average by six percent, according to the Reuters Digital News Report 2021.
But what did it look like apart from the average? Let us dissect trust in media during the infodemic in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Portugal.
“I believe that the loss of trust is definitely related to the digital age.
But that's no surprise: It's all about reach, clicks, speed, so that money can be earned with
advertisements in the first place. Unfortunately, the balancing act between speed and
accuracy has gone wrong more than once.”
Noah Matzat (journalist from Germany)
The trust in the media in the Czech Republic remained low during the pandemic. Only 34 % of the citizens trust news in general, according to the Reuters Digital News Report 2022. Before COVID-19, in 2019, the trust score was 33 %.
The public broadcasting services, radio and television news, have the highest trust scores. But the overall trust in Czech television fell by 4 %.
This tendency is also noticed by Tereza Brhelová, journalist at the private online television DVTV: “There are some statistics that say that trust in media like Czech television definitely went down in the past years and I think part of the blame is on the disinformation websites. I guess that’s one of the wars we have to fight these days. It is how it is, and we have to get used to the fact that people believe in sources that are not true.”
According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2022, only a few Czechs think that the media are independent: 17 % think media are independent of undue political or government influence, and 18 % think media are independent of undue business or commercial influence.
Ing. Lukáš Vandrol, a college graduate from the Czech Republic, does not trust the media in general: “One reason why I don’t believe the media is because every media outlet is owned by someone. There are some media which are independent. But they are dependent on the people that read them. And they need feedback from people, so they need emotive news. But there is only a very small group of media which are truly independent.”
"[The] trust in journalism is in flux to some extent. I think it takes time to build trust, but one can lose it very quickly." - Michael Steinbrecher, professor of Television and Crossmedia Journalism (TU Dortmund)
One development was the rise of the COVID skeptics and conspiracy theorists in the Querdenker (lateral thinkers) movement. The movement openly questions the existence of the virus and views countermeasures as authoritarian oppression. They often chant Lügenpresse (liar press) at protests. So trust in media seems to decline? It is a prime example of how faulty perception can be. During the pandemic, trust in journalism rose in the general public. According to the Reuters Digital News Report, from 2020 to 2021, trust in media went up from 45% to 53%. In these confusing times, people went to journalism.
“The classic gatekeeper no longer exists. Today, every piece of information is thrown out and thus accessible to the recipient.”
- Manfred Uhl (Editor-in-Chief at Radio MK, Germany)
Especially Germany's public service media proved to be a trusted cornerstone for information. But journalists still had to face severe criticism for their reporting. Critics complained about too much government-friendly reporting and a lack of critical or skeptical voices on the pandemic, for example, in talk shows. Though studies show that, for example, two of the most influential political talk shows in Germany did provide the ground for dissent. An endeavour to actively fight misinformation in public. An issue with the crisis was (and is) that people needed some form of scientific literacy to understand what was going on. The crisis was de facto also a crisis of education. The lower the coronavirus-related health literacy was, the greater was reported problems on whether they could trust media information on COVID or not. The pandemic showed that science journalism and media/science literacy were of utter importance for trust in the news.
"The success of individual formats in the corona crisis bears the temptation for television and radio to build up a new cult of stars around individual researchers — and to offer them a stage that is hardly ever accompanied by journalism." - Holger Wormer, professor of Science Journalism (TU Dortmund)
In global comparison, Portugal is one of the countries where people trust the news the most. According to the Reuters Digital News Report 2022, 61 % of the citizens trust the news in general, and the most trusted brand is the public broadcasting service RTP.
Before COVID-19, the overall trust score in Portugal was lower: In 2019, 58 % trusted the news, according to the Reuters Digital News Report.
Nuno Santos, Head of News, CNN Portugal
In global comparison, Portugal is one of the countries where people trust the news the most. According On the other hand, the overall interest in news fell significantly during the pandemic, by 18 %, between 2021 and 2022. The Reuters Report indicates that more and more people are avoiding news due to the infodemic.
Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic had a massive effect on our media use. The infodemic influenced our media perspective and our trust in the news. Still, the changes have not been the same in every country.
While Portugal has one of the highest trust scores, the trust score in the Czech Republic is only almost half as big - even though both countries are in the European Union. Germany, the overall trust score being lower than in Portugal and higher than in the Czech Republic, can be found in the middle.
Interestingly, in all three countries, the trust rates grew, comparing the trust score before COVID (2019) with today (2022). So one conclusion of our project is that the pandemic could have had a positive effect on the trust in the news.
Additionally, it should be mentioned that there are countries not covered by international media reports - for example, Pakistan.
As Pakistan is not part of big media reports such as the Reuters Digital News Report, it is harder to find data about it. We still wanted to gather numbers about media usage because we think it is also important to report about that country.
There are some studies about media trust and media usage during the pandemic in Pakistan. According to research from the Pakistan-based non-profit organization “Media Matters for Democracy” from 2020, 57 % of the people trusted the mainstream media for COVID-19 news and information. Most of the respondents used television to inform themselves about the pandemic.
Ussayed Shakeel Abbas studies Computer Science in Pakistan. He continuously checks multiple resources since, in his opinion, parts of the newsrooms are influenced by politicians and business tycoons.
Also, social media platforms are an essential source of information in Pakistan. According to a study by Pakistan researchers published in the journal “Webology”, most people use YouTube and Instagram as a source of information about the pandemic.
Journalists all over the world face the task of securing the trust of their recipients. One option can be being transparent about the ways journalism works.
“I can strive for objectivity, but never quite achieve it. Transparency, on the other hand, I can guarantee!”