COVID-19 pandemic creates opportunities to strengthen public trust in media in South East Europe

COVID-19 pandemic creates opportunities to strengthen public trust in media in South East Europe

As the unprecedented pandemic of COVID-19 has been leading to a parallel infodemic, the past months indicated that people still strongly rely on traditional independent media to be informed with verified and accurate information in times of crisis.

This is good news in a context where trust in media has been declining over the past decade across the world, including in South East Europe. UNESCO’s recent policy brief Journalism, Press Freedom and COVID-19, highlights how the pandemic boosted the audiences of major news organizations and how journalists have helped the general public in better understanding the pandemic, with trust in news media rating significantly higher than information received on social media. According to various surveys, the COVID-19 pandemic showed that social media is facing the biggest “trust gap”, with only a minority of persons considering this source to be trustworthy.

In South East Europe and Turkey, press and media councils are currently taking stock of the effects of the pandemic on the media landscape and, indirectly, on trust in media. There are major worries over the economic impact of the crisis in particular the plummeting of advertising revenues for media outlets. However, in a region considered among the most vulnerable to the spread of disinformation, media councils highlight how news media have enabled access to reliable information on the pandemic vs. the disinformation shared on social media.

A webinar on the “Impact of the Corona Crisis on Press Councils”, organized on 6 May 2020 together with 17 press councils belonging to the Alliance of Independent Press Councils in Europe, provided the opportunity to highlight media’s efforts to comply with the highest professional and ethical standards in crisis situation. Notwithstanding the efforts, several press councils reported several ethical breaches, notably concerning privacy issues and sensationalist coverage of the pandemic.

Within the framework of the EU-funded UNESCO Project Building Trust in Media in South East Europe and Turkey – Phase 2, press councils from the region repeatedly called on media to avoid sensationalism when reporting on COVID-19, reminding them of their crucial role in responsibly and accurately informing the public through sharing specific guidance (such as a video Albanian Media Council). In parallel, self-regulatory mechanisms reached out to their audiences to remind them of their right to file complaints about unethical reporting. Few complaints have so far been handled by press and media councils in South East Europe.

To further build trust in media, the Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM) has now launched a competition to award professional coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by journalists in North Macedonia. The Call for Best Journalistic Stories is open to all professional journalists and media having covered the health crisis in North Macedonia.