The press, the pandemic and the public. How it’s getting worse for journalists

Press freedom groups have blasted governments around the world of taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to pass repressive media laws, punish journalists and censor information.

While groups such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) measure freedom by the way authorities respond and act, there is less focus on the public attitude towards the press and its understanding of the role of journalism.

In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, RSF placed Romania in 48th position, a drop of one place since last year.

Romania is three places below the United States in press freedom terms, but its press is freer than in Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece.

Norway, Finland and Denmark have the world’s freest press, the press freedom group says in its annual report that lays out the landscape for journalists in 180 countries. Journalists are least free in North Korea and China.

I am lucky. Unlike China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, I report from a country where journalists aren’t imprisoned for what they publish, or physically attacked or killed.

Christian Mihr of Reporters Without Borders told Deutsche Welle on Sunday that the pandemic has seen journalists, threatened, maligned and jailed.

Nonetheless, the situation for journalists has deteriorated, especially at a grassroots level.

Ordinary people are less tolerant of journalists and their work this year and not only here in Romania, I fear. People call regular news stories, the bread and butter daily reports, “fake news,” “journalism on command” or plain “lies.”

Part of me finds such comments ridiculous, too silly to be taken seriously or even commented on. But people aren’t always rational, let alone reasonable, especially on public forums.

The journalists I know are open-minded and tolerant of fair criticism. When comments are toxic, the delete button is often the best option. People scrolling through a post may not have the full picture or grasp what is going on.

The coronavirus pandemic has made people anxious and tetchy. Blasting the press is a way to blame someone. U.S. President Donald Trump set the tone for this attitude during his presidency and election campaign and this hostility has trickled down to the general public everywhere.

The press of course is not above reproach. Mistakes should be corrected swiftly and clarifications made where necessary.

But when the leader of the free world launches daily attacks on journalists, others are emboldened to let rip on reporters.

Just as the coronavirus was beginning to take hold in Europe, I was called out for reporting about shoppers stockpiling rice, oil and toilet paper in early March, even as hypermarket managers were confirming it. “Just look at shoppers’ trolleys,” one told me.

I found shouts of “fake reporting” about that incident absurd, but people are scared and some would rather journalists didn’t report what was going on.

A photograph I took of one customer’s trolley in a supermarket enraged one shopper and her partner so much, that she started shouting publicly and threatened to close down the news site, saying she knew where I lived and “You report bad things about Romania.”

Nerves are stretched, and understanding is thin. There is little respect.

Many don’t understand the role of journalism Maybe it’s our job to spell it out more often. What’s obvious or second nature to us, isn’t to others.

„The primary role of the free press has always been to hold the mighty to account. To fight injustice, to ask searching questions of the rich and powerful, and to represent the interests of ordinary families when the state becomes oppressive or overweening,”the Daily Mail wrote this week.

We don’t always get it right, but most of us try.

Our job is to report what is happening and relevant where we are reporting from, to give content and explain where necessary.

I’ve heard from people who would rather journalists didn’t report stories that could upset or disturb people.

While serious journalists have a job to refrain from gratuitously publishing excessive violence and deaths (showing footage of an ISIS beheading isn’t necessary, nor is a prisoner’s death by electric chair in the U.S.)

But by these standards, the Holocaust wouldn’t be reported. The media would “pass” on a plane crash or “spike” a terrorist attack.

That would be censorship, and we would deny the public the right to know. That could stop people being informed about their history for journalists are the first scribes of history. And who would decide what could and couldn’t be reported? Isn’t censorship and a cover-up a tool of authoritarian governments everywhere?

But it’s not all bad in 2020. There are many appreciative readers who understand a journalist’s job, who come forward with story ideas, quotes and encouragement.

As for Romanian authorities, they are mostly far more willing to engage and respond to journalists than they were even a decade ago.

The problem is at a lower level.

There are already some wonderful non-governmental organizations doing a great job supporting journalism.

But maybe schools and even social media giants like Facebook, who have devoted considerable energy to purging disinformation, could use their influence to constructively educate the many millions on what a professional press does and its place in a democratic society.

Journalists are usually too busy chasing a story.


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