| 8.4°C Belfast


Malachi O'Doherty

Banal way the media covers the coronavirus crisis numbs us to the reality of what is coming

Malachi O'Doherty


Journalism has a habit of ignoring events which cannot be reduced to a simple storyline, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Close

'I am not impressed with how journalism is responding to the coronavirus. This is not like reporting the advance of an asteroid, or an invading army heading for the capital. All we have is the numbers of the known infected and the dead.' (Jane Barlow/PA)

'I am not impressed with how journalism is responding to the coronavirus. This is not like reporting the advance of an asteroid, or an invading army heading for the capital. All we have is the numbers of the known infected and the dead.' (Jane Barlow/PA)

'I am not impressed with how journalism is responding to the coronavirus. This is not like reporting the advance of an asteroid, or an invading army heading for the capital. All we have is the numbers of the known infected and the dead.' (Jane Barlow/PA)

I am not impressed with how journalism is responding to the coronavirus. This is not like reporting the advance of an asteroid, or an invading army heading for the capital. All we have is the numbers of the known infected and the dead.

So, a major news programme reports that a man in his 80s, with an underlying health condition, has died after becoming infected. Given that 80-year-old men with underlying conditions are dying every day, this is not a headline that many professional journalists will have expected to write.

And in three or four months from now, when the epidemic is working its way through the population with more vigour, there will be no time to report the deaths of individuals, unless they are famous individuals.

The daily count will not be rising by a dozen, or few, but by much larger figures - probably; that is what we are being warned to prepare for. Then, the idea that a news programme might lead with a single death will seem like a reminder of a time we might hanker for a return to.

So, how is the story to be told? At the weekend we had both Boris Johnson and Ryan Tubridy on television demonstrating how we should wash our hands, as if we were being taught an obscure yoga exercise. Most of us, I take it, have washed our hands before.

But for want of a way to respond to the mounting calamity we revert to discussing it as one might on Blue Peter.

Last week I said that I would fill you in on whether the writers gathering for a party in London would be kissing off to the side, or making contact, perhaps adapting their technique to the new conditions. Worse, the party was actually cancelled.

This is another news story type that the virus has brought us, a change to our way of life in which we will now avoid crowds.

Social media and the internet were regarded as blights themselves until now, at least in the more superficial media. Now, they may be the saving of us as we are encouraged to stay at home.

When I first started writing for newspapers I delivered my copy on typed sheets of paper and these were passed around from the news editor to the subs to the compositors, so that any microscopic spot of spit that I might inadvertently have spluttered onto it would have jeopardised at least three people.

Now, the danger is to myself, that I might be morally waylaid into online pornography, or camera reviews, when I should be contemplating the coming pestilence and trying to find a new angle on the news that our culture and economy are readapting to a calamity that has not yet befallen us.

Part of the problem is with journalism itself, which tends to ignore events and processes which are not communicable as stories. It doesn't easily grasp with changes that are not visible and tangible.

Historians of the 21st century, if we survive long enough to produce any, are likely to reconsider processes, rather than events, which did not preoccupy us very much as they were happening.

War in Syria is far more important than Boris Johnson's latest pregnancy or the death, however tragic, of a celebrity broadcaster.

Medical advances against cancer and dementia make great stories at the speculation stage, but the real reduction in mortality hardly registers.

That a woman survived breast cancer is never going to be as big a story as that she died of it, though it will be very exciting news for herself and her family.

The coronavirus is changing the way we organise public events. It is making us wary - as it should - of accepting loose change into our hands. Who knew that paying for things by tapping your card would be such a lifesaver?

Perhaps we should also change the way we do journalism. Grasping for a headline is not an impressive response to a calamity that is taking its time. The rate of progress is slow and insidious. It is not going to give us a story every day.

A time will come when we will stop publishing the figures for the infected and the dead. Even by now we should have accepted that we don't really have them.

The one thing we can be sure of about the figures that are topped up daily is that they are the vaguest estimation.

Unless every person in the country is tested every day, then we have only notional estimates of how widespread the virus is.

The person coughing on the bus behind you probably just has a cold, or has choked on something. You don't know.

The virus reminds us that even now we are still vulnerable to nature. We will no doubt get control of this virus, but a lot of people have died and more will die first.

It forces us to rethink public health. Successive Tory Governments have eroded the National Health Service. As in the US, the clever dicks who think that low taxation is the route to greater freedom for all imagined that health was a personal concern.

The citizen was to take responsibility and pay insurance and a basic service would remain in place for those in desperation.

Meanwhile, a private sector would take care of the hip jobs of those who really couldn't wait.

The virus reminds us that health is communal. There is ultimately no substance in the fantasy that you can look after yourself and let the rest of the world do the same or go hang.

That thought might prompt us to consider whether the same need to consider the whole of society applies when you are dealing with crime, or education, or public transport. Discard one section of society and you place a burden on all.

We know we are in this together. Maybe we are in everything together.

There are those who tell us that this story fails because thousands already die of flu every year. Well, maybe this will make us more aware of them, too, and remind us to take care how we sneeze for their sake.

For now the news story about Covid-19 is that it has a tentative toehold in Britain and Ireland. As it progresses, news reportage of the advances, or the advances against it, will do little to inform us.

There is even a danger that the banality of the coverage will numb us to the reality of what's coming.

Indeed, perhaps there are some cynics who hope so.

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph