The coronavirus has changed the world. It has disrupted our lives and affected virtually every human activity, and it has also greatly influenced journalism, the way we communicate and the credibility of the media in the eyes of the public. This situation of transformation requires a profound reflection on the role of the media and journalists. The first thing is to analyse how we have acted in the face of this global tragedy. To have the data of what happened, how it was told and what credibility the media had in relating what happened.
A good starting point for understanding how journalism has acted in the pandemic is the field work of 19 journalism professionals in 19 different countries. Our colleague Pedro Lechuga was employed in this line of investigation and mobilised as many colleagues in different parts of the world to take an emergency look at how we have acted in the face of this invisible threat, which at first was distant but which has become increasingly close and deadly. This text by Javier Martín-Domínguez, president of the International Press Club, served as a prologue to the book resulting from this field research.
We lived in the heart of abundance. A world shortened by travel, a reality sprinkled with 'selfies' with monuments behind and the sky as the only limit. And suddenly, we found ourselves confined to the perimeter of a house, of a room, with a single window to that old global world: the Internet, with its digital windows as the only breath of air.
Marshall McLuhan has already written his prophecy of the global village and the media as an extension of man. But in a twist of fate, the new dystopian nonsense placed humanity seeking its ticket to Mars under extreme confinement to escape the evil of an invisible enemy: the Corona virus, which emerged from the new China and spread out across the planet. We were left prisoners, unable to control the world, yet with a communication tool they had never dreamed of in the ancient plagues. Locked up, but informed. The question was the degree of confidence in this information and the responsibility of those who were producing it for an audience held captive.
Not even during the great wars, called "world wars", was suffering and death so widespread and common. There are no borders for a virus, especially in a time of true globality like the one we are living in. The vast reach of communications, the ease of means available for any kind of travel from one corner of the planet to another, have allowed the movement of people and goods. And also that of property or pests.
This generation of peace, of a world without walls, of unlimited growth, and also of pollution, noise and dizzying speed, has suddenly found itself in a situation of war against an invisible enemy, which attacks unexpectedly and causes havoc of different but always devastating natures: it undermines people's health, exhausts health resources and sinks economies.
From the initial surprise and disbelief, we move on to shock and disappointment, fear and horror, helplessness and anger... Mixed feelings that opened the door to many unanswered questions and new situations: makeshift hospitals, medieval techniques of confinement, frozen freedoms. Without a clear cure for the disease, the debate moved from the health field to the political and communication fields. Are we sufficiently informed? How should communication be in a state of crisis? Have democratic safeguards been bypassed in states of alarm? Are the official medical reports reliable?
It is repeated as a true mantra that "the first casualty when war comes is truth.” Also in pandemics. Whether due to the lack of warning signs to inform, or the interest of governments in covering up their inability to respond adequately, whether due to ignorance of the scientific world, or due to manifest deceit by intermediary agents..., in this blind war the informative truth has faded away flagrantly.
In few cases are the media as recognized as indispensable in helping citizens to find a solution to their problems as in situations of vital risk for individuals and the community. The first defence against this crisis is information, being sufficiently alerted with objective and intelligible data. Just as the sign is the key to identifying a content, the symptom of the disease must be recognised in order to know that we must isolate ourselves and ask for help. That is why the media have emphasized in this case of pandemic the basic information of identifying situations of contagion, the ways to avoid it and - if it has been contracted - to seek the best form of cure: from isolation to hospitalization and appropriate treatments.
The big problem detected at the beginning of this pandemic has been that of "Peter and the wolf" syndrome. We have been warned of so many ailments in the past, that the arrival of this virus from China was taken as a danger to the locals and ultimately as a distant crisis that would never come to knock on the door. Were the means of warning not diligent or not comprehensive? Probably not. Perhaps those who did not want to see the danger - because of their interests mixed up with trade and business - were governments, unaware of the real scientific knowledge and investments in sectors that are less eye-catching than the usual infrastructure or festivities.
A review of the press reports from the initial moment makes it clear that the media did warn of the problem and the danger. Some of them were more intense than others. But the big headlines were already on the front pages and opened the TV news without governments rushing to stop the transmission of the evil.
Hygienists, doctors, researchers and specialists in pandemics are facing this case of Herculean dimensions as the challenge to provide a solution and learn from it in order to set up a health system that will preserve not just a few people or nationals, but the whole humanity from being affected in such a serious way that even survival is in danger. In the case of the effect on the media, it is also necessary to carry out a deep reflection, a multidisciplinary analysis to draw conclusions for any crisis that is about to happen, even the repetition of the same one in the future.
The challenges for the media are multiple. To be alert, to have specialists, to analyse the data conscientiously, to always contrast the official information, to adapt the medical or scientific information to the common language, to assess in the right measure the risks and the alerts that are communicated...
This is a good time to talk about "Camus' rat". There is no better recipe for overcoming a crisis than to face it with total realism, without hiding the facts, or hiding from reality. Only in this way - with transparency, we say now - can a community show solidarity and face up to the solution of an ensuing conflict as one. And act accordingly. This is the postulate of the premonitory novel by the French-Algerian author Albert Camus. In his work "The Plague", the doctor in the main role meets the first dead rat on his way, reflects and acts. The doorman of the building where the rat appears denies its existence categorically. The Camusian text begins:
"When leaving his Surgery on the morning of April 1 6, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment he kicked it to one side and, without giving it a further thought, continued on his way downstairs. Only when he was stepping out into the street did it occur to him that a dead rat had no business to be on his landing, and he turned back to ask the concierge of the building to see to its removal. It was not until he noticed old M. Michel’s reaction to the news that he realized the peculiar nature of his discovery. Personally, he had thought the presence of the dead rat rather odd, no more than that; the concierge, however, was genuinely outraged. On one point he was categorical: “There weren’t no rats here.”
Faced with this reappearance of the real plague in the 21st century, the technicians are once again acting responsibly, while rulers look surprised, deny reality, then look for culprits and finally take the lead in the demonstration.
In times of war - which is what this great health crisis has become - we are not here to reproach, but to analyse how we should act. And once the peak of the crisis has been overcome, we must look in depth at how the problem came about, who and how the citizens were told, how the management was, which means were put in place and which were not. All these angles have been part, in one way or another, of the way in which the media have been telling this story here and there, in Spain and in the other countries, because everyone has been affected in one way or another.
That is why this mosaic view proposed by the book on the appearance of the COVID and the account of its influence in 19 countries is as instructive as it is necessary. It is not a question of pointing the finger at a culprit, but of analysing the phenomenon and its journalistic translation from very different angles. Seeking the truth in order to save ourselves is the only objective that the profession dedicated to seeking the truth and telling it should pursue. In this book you will find a series of paths travelled in different parts of the planet to shed light on the greatest crisis experienced since the great wars of the 20th century.
When Hemingway gave the title to the story of the cruel Spanish war, he used a verse by John Donne, "For whom the bell tolls".
The complete poem begins by saying:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
All humanity is inextricably linked, in the happiness of globalisation and also in the anguish of the devastating effect of the virus galloping through all nations. Behind the pain lies the need for analysis and reflection. The contrast in how we have reported and recounted them, from so many and such different points on the planet, helps here to have a unitary vision of the phenomenon that allows us to see beyond our small window and feel the whole world as our own.
Closed with the technological window open to the world, our salvation lies in knowing the truth, and among the informative tangle of the network of networks only journalism is the guarantee against manipulation, propaganda and fakenews, the trick of information. Perhaps journalism is no more than a small technique of searching for and telling facts and opinions, but it has been demonstrated that without its informative contribution humanity remains alone, confined, mediatized and lost in the face of threats that are only fought with medicine and truth. This is the only way to have health and future.