Insidious, Invidious Covidious

This article first appeared in Village magazine, September 2021 edition

Covid inspired an appetite for quality media but they then bored people

It used to be said that no ministerial career could survive three Sundays in a row on the front pages of the national newspapers. Any story so big that it could sustain public interest for that long was a scandal that had to end in resignations, firings or other measures to appease voters and allow a government to move on.

So what happens when a single story stays on the front pages not for three weeks, or even for three months, but for twenty months and counting, and potentially into a third year? Indeed, for the second year running, it feels like there hasn’t even been the traditional respite from serious news offered by the Summer Silly Season.

The pandemic may have a deep impact on how we consume news for years to come. A new study suggests that prolonged exposure to a single political issue causes audiences to switch off, taking measures to try to avoid the news.

Clearly, this is bad news for newspapers. Many of them experienced a circulation bump in the early months of the pandemic. The Irish Times, for example, saw operating profits jump to €8.3 million in 2020, compared to €3.8 million the previous year. Reporting the results at the end of July, the paper said the increase was largely due to growth in paid subscribers in the early months of the Covid crisis. This growth compensated for falls in other areas, notably a 20 percent drop in advertising revenue.

However, the appetite for reliable information in the early months of the crisis, as disinformation spread rapidly online and new research changed public understanding of Covid on almost a daily basis, may wane over time.

The Irish Times made a point of announcing that healthy 2020 financial results meant it was in a position to return the €3 million it received in pandemic wage subsidies. But the results also showed that overall revenues were down by over eight percent, even as costs fell even further, resulting in greater profits.

A study of Swiss news consumers and Brexit found that over time the preponderance of coverage of the issue led to annoyance, anger and boredom with the issue, and in turn to negative evaluations of the news media reporting the issue. In turn, this led to news avoidance.

Covid would seem to be a story of a much greater magnitude that Brexit. While Brexit declines in importance the further one moves away from the UK (Ireland, sharing both a land border and a common language, probably received the brunt of Brexit fatigue) the pandemic, is international and omnipresent. There is no aspect of life it does not impact, from education and healthcare to public transport, work patterns and work/home balance, manufacturing, food production, and entertainment.

The Brexit study – by Swiss PhD student Gwendolin Gurr and German professor Julia Metag – found that sustained exposure to a large news story can lead to disengagement from politics, and reduced trust in the press.

Issues such as vaccine denial are already used by extremist groups as recruiting tools, exploiting distrust and public anger, to the extent that some denialists have taken to ingesting horse dewormer to combat Covid. The longer the pandemic continues, the more likely it is such sentiments will continue to grow. Even if Ireland does reach close to total vaccine coverage, other countries remain at much lower levels, either because citizens refuse vaccines, or because their governments are unable to secure supplies.

The story may retreat from the front pages here, but it is unlikely to disappear completely. And that in turn may leave newspapers, broadcasters and online news media in the paradoxical position where strong and sustained factual reporting on an issue of major political, cultural and economic importance led to a decrease in public trust for the press as an institution.

A second study, this time of Dutch news consumers by Marcel Broersma and Joëlle Swart in the early months of the pandemic, with a follow up in Autumn 2020, found some users (heavy users and news junkies) consumed more news during the pandemic, while others reduced their news consumption “avoiding it based on the emotional weight and feeling of helplessness it produced.”

And in Norway, researchers Brita Ytre-Arne and Hallvard Moe also found that many people started the pandemic with more intense news consumption, before cutting back due to information overload and emotional drain. However the Norwegian academics argued that news avoidance was not permanent reduction in information gathering, but more likely to be a strategic decision to limit news consumption to avoid overload.

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash