A UK Parliament select committee heard yesterday that the government must continue to improve its provisions of covid-19 data as the public demands reliable information.
Senior figures from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), Sky News and Facebook gave evidence at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, focusing on data transparency and accountability around covid-19.
Richard Fletcher, senior research fellow, RISJ, said that covid-19 has merely accelerated pre-pandemic trends, with TV and online becoming the dominant source of news content. The surge of interest in covid-19 coverage seen around April has since died down and is unlikely to return.
Despite traditionally low levels of trust towards the media in the UK, at the start of the pandemic around 60 per cent of people said they did trust the news. That fell to around 45 per cent, likely as a consequence of prominently featuring politicians in the news.
"It's not unusual, for example, in times of crisis for approval in institutions to receive a bit of a bump," said Fletcher.
"As for the decline, the crisis increasingly began to be seen as a set of political decisions which of course has consequences for trust in the government. The trust in the government and the trust in the media are often intertwined and [media] trust can suffer as a result of covering political decisions."
Because of this, Fletcher said that news organisations must refocus their efforts to feature more trusted sources to recapture the heights of trust first seen in the early stages of the pandemic.
Responsible and transparent reporting on covid-19
From Sky News' perspective, there has been a real thirst for in-depth analysis as well as content which goes against preconceptions, according to economics editor Ed Conway.
Studies have shown that most of us feel that we observe covid-19 rules better than others. Conway criticised the use of long lens cameras - widely seen across the summer - to play into this divisive narrative to depict overall public compliance.
"That is not a responsible way to report what is actually happening with compliance with these rules," Conway says.
"A more responsible way is to look into the data. After we saw that coverage, we did our own analysis on the extent to which there is compliance."
This piece backed-up surveys on compliance with footfall data across retail, and weighed it against the larger issue of days in isolation being observed. Conway said that it is not the job of news organisations necessarily to encourage compliance, but to explain the rules, why they are being imposed and what context they are in.
"Our role in this is just to go back to primary source material and say 'they're saying this, is that really what the numbers say? And is there an alternative prism in which you could be looking at these numbers that would come out with a different view?'"
The problem is that primary source material has either not been available, or not easily accessible. Conway said that while transparency of data has improved since the start of the pandemic, there is still room for improvement. Ambulance response time data is only available on a monthly basis and private sector contracts have only been published as a result of leaks. Meanwhile, more prominent data around the Test & Trace app and the furlough scheme, as key examples, have been hard to come by.
"Early on, the data we had on the furlough scheme was abysmal. The most important economic intervention that we've had in this country for decades, and yet, the number of people on furlough was dribbled out occasionally on Twitter or in press releases, but never through a proper release," he said.
"The good news is that has improved, but it's still not as good as in other countries like France, in terms of the level of data and what's going on."
He called on the government to be transparent with data for all decisions they make, especially as the country heads into an important moment around reporting the distribution and effectiveness of the vaccine.
"If decisions are being made on the basis of data, which they are and we're being told they are, then it goes without saying that we need to see the data. And that might seem like a statement of the obvious, but that hasn't always been followed through thinking about some of the restrictions announced by the Prime Minister back in October," he explained.
Role of social media platforms to keep audiences informed
Much of the burden of keeping the public informed also falls on social media platforms that have to deal with misinformation that festers there.
Richard Earley, public policy manager, UK for Facebook spoke about the work the platform has done throughout the pandemic. He said that Facebook has been surfacing NHS and government covid-19 guidance attached to posts, as well as tackling misinformation directly.
Last year it partnered with Poynter to launch a $1m grant programme to support fact-checkers throughout covid-19, and works with Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and USA Today through other third-party fact-checking initiatives.
This helps the platform identify and take action on posts which go against a set of community guidelines. Facebook releases a quarterly transparency statement including information on its policies around removing content, as well as other periodic updates to covid-19 policies.
Earley told the committee that in November 2020, Facebook has removed 350,000 posts globally, of those, 35,000 were from Europe. These were posts which went against their community standards because they contained false information which its partners have indicated could lead to genuine real-world harm.
A lot of other misinformation is allowed to live on the platform intentionally, however.
"Rather than removing a broader set of misinformation, we work with fact-checkers who are able to determine [if] claims are false, and then we take a number of actions," says Earley.
This means attaching a fact-check to the post, 'shielding' the image so that the user must click-through it to access the content, and then down-rank the post within news feeds and search results. In November, this action was taken on 22m posts in November globally, of which, 3m in Europe.
At the same time, Earley said that 120m people globally visited the covid-19 info centre containing guidance from health authorities and governments. The platform wants to continue working with governments to help improve public trust.
"We feel we have a duty to put the data that we as Facebook have to good use to support governments and researchers in meeting the challenges they face," Earley concluded.
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