Irish media needs to take a look at how it is covering pandemic

The way the crisis is being reported is adding to public anxiety

I am a big fan of Irish journalism. It has uncovered untruths, exposed corruption and held to account our leaders; as it should. And yet, I am increasingly concerned - anxious - by the ‘easy’ issues being targeted as part of the Covid-19 coverage; issues that guarantee visceral reactions from an already worried and disorientated public. The adversarial nature of journalism in Ireland is, I believe, contributing to anxiety about how we as a nation can respond to and cope with Covid-19.

The interrogation of who is right - Nphet or government- is a case in point. This simplistic portrayal particularly during the last couple of weeks, obscures the reality that each can hold different view and both can be correct. The idea that it must be ‘one or the other’, is an example of what psychologists call “dichotomous thinking”. Under stress people may do this to make their world simpler, but it also may make it harder to manage. The at times implicit suggestion, from journalists, that we need certainty, provokes anxiety in its inevitable absence.

Another example of this either/or thinking is that we should either go for ‘heard immunity’ or ‘zero infections’. In this globally networked pandemic a journalist can always find an ‘expert’ form somewhere to talk about, well, just about any idea. The Carlsberg remedy - there’s never just A or B - is perhaps less striking; C may be the middle more sensible, conventional ground, but less ‘newsworthy’.

In reality we are driving down the road of Covid-19 looking in the rear-view mirror of the instance of infections that have been reported sometime earlier. What better to stoke our anxiety than the daily dose of dire data. Each individual is of course a concern or indeed in some cases a tragic loss; but the data themselves are often dreadful statistically - sometimes accumulated over days, weeks and in one instance, months before, but only reported on that particular day.


It would of course be more informative statistically and less anxiety provoking, if we didn’t have the daily diet or morbidity and mortality, but instead had a weekly average, reported, I would suggest, on a Monday evening (after the weekend). This would allow us - the public - a much better impression of the trends (while Nphet and others worry away at understanding what daily fluctuations might means for modelling and preventative practices). So, I have to ask, to what extent are the media briefings driven by media hunger, knowing the visceral worries it will provoke, and the viewers and readers it will ensnare?

What else could our media do to help us manage our worries and protect out mental health? It could give much more focus, for instance, to studies showing that the first lock-down did not result in a significant increase in mental health problems.

It could report how also there was not a massive increase in the prescription of psychotropic drugs (such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs). It could focus on how well the population managed the first lock down and what lessons can be learned - not just from pre-loaded ‘experts’ but also form Mary and Joe down the street, or across the fields. Why did we manage so well? What worked best for whom? While not underplaying the real and tragic effects of Covid-19, nor should we ignore the life affirming effects it had for others.

There is of course a fine balance between interviewers and reporters arguing the toss, giving awareness of alternative views or interpretations or toeing the line. All of us must use our own best judgement, with incomplete information, and without the benefits of a crystal ball to predict the future. But finding that our ‘experts’ disagree is quite unsurprising, but more to the point, if not thoughtfully, sensitively and skilfully handled, the reporting of this in itself may undermine peoples’ motivation to embrace the precautions necessary to keep us safe, well and alive. Visceral journalism can kill.

Helping us to construct a Covid-coping narrative which doesn’t seek simple dichotomous heroes and villains, but rather embraces the honest efforts of ordinary people and ‘experts’ alike, to think through the difficulties and uncertainties of Covid-19, would be a real contribution to the national good. The freedom of the press is critical for our confidence in creating a just and healthy society - can the press exercise that freedom in a healthful manner? If ye can, then we need you more now than ever!

Mac MacLachlan is Professor of Psychology & Social Inclusion at Maynooth Univesity