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By Thomas Baekdal - May 2022

Preventive journalism, the confused public, and what we (the press) need to change before the next pandemic

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today I have several stories for you. First, I have a story about what we need to learn about the pandemic, and then we are going to talk about something I now call preventive journalism.


What we (the press) need to change before the next pandemic

For the past one and a half years, I have been trying to write an article about some of the problems I have seen in the way we have talked about the pandemic in the western world. It has taken me this long because there are so many complications, emotions, as well as many differences between countries.

But, as the press, we do need to talk about this, because ... well... we didn't really do a great job in the west. The problem isn't about technology, money or anything like that. It's about what kind of culture we are creating.

So take a look at: What we (the press) need to change before the next pandemic.


Preventive journalism. If we want to stop the next pandemic, we need to do it before it becomes a news story

One thing I did not talk about in the above article, is how we can actually prevent the next pandemic so that it doesn't become such a big problem. Now, I'm obviously not a virologist, nor a healthcare professional, so I'm not going to talk about it from that perspective. Instead, I'm going to talk about it from the press perspective.

The trick to preventing the next pandemic is to create the right conditions so that it never happens in the first place. In other words, the best way to deal with the next pandemic is to act in such a way that it never turns into a news story.

Think about it like a house fire. If you are building a new house, what do you do to prevent it from going up in flames one day? Well, for starters, you would choose materials that don't burn. Like using a form of insulation that is fire resistant/retardant.

Secondly, you install smoke detectors so that, even if there is a fire, you will know about it so early that you can put it out yourself, before it turns into a much bigger problem that would require the fire department to come.

The absolute worst thing you can do is to do nothing. Just wait until there are flames coming out your windows, and then call the fire department.

But think about it from a press perspective. What do we do?

Well, news is almost always reactive, meaning that we wait for something to happen, and only then do we report about it. So, we wait until someone's house is on fire, and then we send out a journalist to take some pictures and write a story about it.

We did the same about the pandemic, even while we were in the middle of it.

For instance, here in Denmark, while we were heading into another big wave of COVID, we could see headlines like this one in the news.

Basically, we kept telling the public not to do anything to prevent the virus from spreading because it wasn't 'bad enough' yet. And then, a few weeks later, when suddenly we were in the middle of another huge wave, then we demanded action.

This is the wrong way to do journalism.

What we are basically doing here is to report to the public: "Don't focus on preventing a fire in your home until the flames are pouring out your windows!" If anyone ever said this about fire prevention, we would label them as being complete idiots, but this is actually what we did with COVID. We told people, don't worry about it until the spread is so crazy that it's absolutely everywhere.

To fix this, we need to think about pandemic reporting as a form of preventive journalism. The real story is not when the next pandemic hits (or when we get yet another wave of COVID), that's too late. Instead, the real story is now. It's about what we can do as a society to prevent us from getting to that point in the first place.

So what are we going to do? What kind of innovations do we need? How are we going to get the data? How do we detect another virus early? What kind of international corporation do we need? There are so many stories and so many elements to this.

But the shared element of all of this is that we cannot wait to do this until the next pandemic hits. This is journalism that needs to happen now.

And it's not just about the next pandemic either. It's about COVID. Many people are currently saying that "we should just live with it", but having 6 million die every two years because of a single virus is a terrible future.

So what can we do now to prevent COVID from having the same severity going forward? I don't think we have the will to actually stop it anymore, but what do we do to minimize it? How do I make it so that the effect of it is always trending down?

This is the kind of journalism we need today. We need to think about the next pandemics needing preventive journalism.


It's our job to create valuable journalism

Another thing I want to talk about today is the problem we often see with journalism disconnecting itself from what we are writing about.

As we all know, there is a general culture in the press that journalists never get involved in the stories they write about. We are supposed to be the neutral fly on the wall, sometimes holding others to account by asking critical questions, but becoming a part of the story.

This is fine, of course, until we get to a type of story where it's actually our problem to solve it. I want to give you an example of this.

We have an election here in my country coming in a couple of weeks where we are voting on whether Denmark should be fully part of the EU defense agreement, similar to how Sweden and Finland are voting to become part of NATO. It's a pretty important vote considering the problems we currently face in Europe.

However, I came across this headline.

This is a typical kind of news story where someone did a study, and now we report about it. And then, it goes on to ask questions about the information campaigns run by the politicians.

In other words, this story is about the survey and the politicians.

Here is the problem, though. It's not the job of the politicians to solve this. That's our job as the press. And so when the public feels this way, that's not because the politicians did a bad job. It's because we didn't make things clear enough.

Wait a minute, you say. What do you mean it's not the politician's job? Surely they are responsible for explaining what people should vote for?

Well, no. But let me explain. Whenever there is an election, the job of the politicians is to convince the voter to vote for whatever they want you to vote for. So, if a politician wants to vote 'yes', then that's the focus of their information campaign. They will emphasize arguments that are in favor and deemphasize arguments that are not. Similarly, a politician who wants you to vote 'no', will do exactly the same, just emphasizing and deemphasizing the opposite.

Most politicians don't do this with malice, but you never get a clear and unbiased perspective from the political information campaigns.

For that, you need the press. It's our job to provide that perspective, and to help the public understand the nuances, details, and the scope, as well as fact check what others are saying so that, on election day, the public is as informed as possible.

And so, when we see a study showing that voters lack knowledge, this is not actually about the politicians at all. That study is more about the effectiveness of the press, and it indicates that we haven't done a good enough job making the public informed about this upcoming election.

This is just a simple example, but it's a problem I come across very often in regard to the public being confused about things. Here your readers are saying: "We don't know what is going on", and as a newspaper we respond by saying: "Hey, some people don't know what's going on, so let's discuss political campaign tactics".

That's not useful. You are separating yourself from the story to such an extent that you are not actually listening to the very people who need your journalism to help them.

If the public is confused, we are the ones responsible to fix that.

And mind you, I'm being very hard on this particular newspaper because, an hour later, they posted another follow-up article where they tried to clearly explain exactly what it meant to vote one way or the other.

And they also published this:

So, they actually have done a good job. But the point still remains.

As the press, we have a specific and very important role in society. That role is to provide information, create clarity, and ensure understanding. This is why we are here.

And we need to get much better at creating this value. Too often we talk about things as being "someone else's problem". But when it comes to providing information and clarity, this is literally the product and the service that people pay us for.

And so, if we see any kind of study that shows that the public is confused or even misinformed about something, then that's all about us. It is our job, and our role in society, to make sure this isn't happening. And to provide this to our readers in a measurable definition of value.

It's never someone else's problem to make the public informed.


Want to know more?

If you haven't seen them already, don't miss out on the 'known to work' series, where I talk about the things we know work for publishers.


Support this focus

Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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