By Ben Norris and Jamie O’Dell
As Stroud heads back into lockdown, local debate over anti-vax and anti-lockdown protesters continues apace after one individual unlawfully filmed empty outpatient wards at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital in an attempt to misrepresent the true impact of Covid-19 on our healthcare services.
While most publications would probably distance themselves from any group that deliberately spread misinformation in an attempt to undermine vital messaging about a global pandemic, the Stroud News and Journal made the rather questionable decision to publish a letter from a member of this group as their ‘Letter of the day’.
The letter, which has also been reproduced on their website, asserts: “In the case of these vaccines that the information put out by the vaccine companies, ministers with shares in vaccine companies, medical experts sponsored by vaccine companies and branches of the media receiving grants from these same companies cannot be relied on to provide a full and independent risk analysis of the products.”
The assertion that the medical experts endorsing the safety and importance of these vaccines are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies is baseless, and no further explanation is offered to verify these claims. If nothing else it demonstrates the commitment of those running the high street ‘vaccination hub’ to sharing deliberate misinformation and inciting paranoia. Having previously spoken to Stroud-based medical experts such as GP Dr John Salter about the vaccine rollout, we feel that enabling this kind of paranoia is dangerous and has the potential to be counterproductive to the wider uptake of the vaccine.
With that said, why is it that the Stroud News and Journal, which has a responsibility to Stroud’s residents as a vehicle for reliable and accurate information, is offering itself as a platform for these views? And if they are to be published, why is there no editorial note cautioning against fake news and misinformation?
Part of the broader issue could be a journalistic commitment to fairly portraying an issue from all sides of the narrative. This is a principle long enshrined in journalistic practice; conventionally it’s good form to explore a topic or argument from every angle to allow for the facts to be portrayed without bias. As evidence of this, the Stroud News and Journal has today published a letter from Stroud District Labour Group Leader Doina Cornell thanking doctors, nurses and volunteers and condemning “inflammatory falsehoods being put round on social media regarding COVID 19”. While this was presumably done in an attempt to offset criticism of the previous ‘letter of the day’ by presenting both sides, it doesn’t change the fact that it was carried in the first place.
The issue with this approach is that with topics like climate change and the spread of the coronavirus there is no ‘dual narrative’; while there is legitimate scientific debate on the most appropriate approach to dealing with the pandemic, you can’t present an emotional counter-argument because you disagree with what’s being said on a personal level. In the same vein, you can’t present two contradictory viewpoints in two separate articles and expect members of your audience to ingest the points made in both.
The danger here is that by providing a platform for a handful of misinformed individuals, the Stroud News and Journal is helping to facilitate the spread of their narrative that coronavirus is a myth and/or that we should seriously question the safety of approved Covid-19 vaccines. Misinformation which could ultimately cost people their lives if they don’t believe the severity of the threat posed by Covid-19 or protection that vaccines offer. For a news organisation committed to keeping its readers informed on events in their community that has previously denounced the spread of fake news, this seems like a real slip in standards.
What’s more upsetting is that this kind of practice is likely not what the journalists at the SNJ signed up for. Since the advent of digital news and social media outlets in the 00s, local and regional outlets have struggled to keep up with a rapidly changing news environment that prioritises sensationalism and shares. Conventional daily and weekly local papers are reliant on advertising revenue to supplement their income from sales; following significant falls in newspaper sales both nationally and internationally, newspapers of all sizes struggled to find ways of staying afloat.
As their audiences increasingly moved online, a significant amount of the advertising followed suit. However, the amount of ad revenue generated by online content is much lower, and hinges on how many page views and interactions the site receives. Following this, it becomes a matter of attracting web traffic, at which point you stop being a news outlet and you start becoming a click farmer; the business model rewards sensationalism.
It’s something I’ve witnessed firsthand at a different regional news outlet also owned by Newsquest, the company behind the SNJ. At this other outlet, they had a screen showing their web stats for the top 10 articles by page views, and they kept a monthly tally of their total views because they’re in competition with other Newsquest titles to demonstrate the biggest amount of ‘success’ through corralling web traffic. One reporter told me about an article they wrote about a Holocaust survivor giving a talk at a local school. It was a well put-together article on a touching and important topic, but it received a fraction of the views that a brief shill article about a local C-list celebrity got.
However, even if they are the victims of a business model that incentivises sensationalism in order to attract audience views and interactions, the Stroud News and Journal has no business in facilitating misinformation. The most extreme consequences won’t be for the individuals who peddle it, but for the Stroud residents who become convinced that the coronavirus vaccines currently being rolled out are potentially harmful on the basis of little if any evidence, while rejecting the considerable evidence that exists regarding their safety.
Letters pages can be a brilliant opportunity for the community to contribute their own views and thoughts through citizen journalism – we personally believe that offering a voice to the community is an essential part of the democratic process – but there should be a level of caution exercised to prevent the spread of deliberate hyperbole and misinformation. The reality is that we are living through a pandemic right now, and this virus doesn’t care about whether you believe in it or not. Some facts cannot be argued with, and some truths shouldn’t be disputed.