Uncertainty. Suffering. Fear. Anxiety.
These words define our experience of the past few months. The second wave of Covid-19 not only unravelled the state of our healthcare system, but also raised questions on the role and conduct of the media during times of crisis. How should the media report a panic-inducing ground reality? Should it be concerned about the psychological impact of the news? Should it also provide hope and solutions? Or should it simply reflect the widespread panic?
Neeta* used to be an avid consumer of news till a few months ago. The 51-year-old has spent the last two months consciously avoiding any news. The horrifying data of pandemic, lack of resources, and deaths shown in the news makes her feel anxious.
Shreya*, a 25-year-old, also finds the media’s coverage of the second wave of Covid-19 stressful. She said, “The way every news is pushed as breaking news — the tone and the way it is delivered — is anxiety-inducing. Mainstream media could have done a better job directing people to verified resources just like social media did.”
A research published in the Journal of Loss and Trauma last year found that those exposing themselves to Covid-related news the most amid the pandemic experienced more stress and depression. It said that Covid-19 has led to an infodemic where people are overwhelmed with more information than they can manage.
“The media depends a lot on the audience’s emotions, mainly the fear factor, to attract them to their content. So, it is natural that their content will impact the mental health of the audience,” said Sambit Pal, Media Researcher and Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Dhenkanal.
A group of Indian mental health professionals released an open letter in April, calling out the media for its hysteria and panic-inducing coverage of the pandemic. These professionals were from institutions such as NIMHANS and AIIMS and stressed that such coverage is fostering a hidden mental health epidemic with people becoming lonely, depressed and anxious. The letter said:
“Images of bodies burning on cremation grounds, emotional outbursts, relatives of the deceased wailing inconsolably, and hysterical reporters with cameramen swarming over the bereaved who are going through deeply emotional moments — these may help garner eyeballs. But there is a steep price to be paid for such coverage.”
The letter appealed to the media to show restraint in their coverage and infuse hope in the people without compromising facts or public interest. The question that arises is: how should the media balance sensitive reporting with its allegiance to truth and public interest?
“Ethical journalism is the only way out,” said Pal. “We know which visuals we should not use. We should not use ‘panicking’ headlines. The information regarding Covid-19 cure, prevention and vaccination should not be confusing and be attributed properly. They should clarify to the readers that the research in this area is a continuous process and each result has its context. Above everything else, the media should also report positive stories to bring some positivity among the audience in this time of despair,” he added.
*names have been changed as per request.