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GUEST BLOG | New Guidelines for Journalists Reporting on COVID-19

By Matt Walsh, member of the IMPRESS Code Committee, and Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University. 

New guidelines for journalists reporting on COVID-19 have recently been released by Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Director of Research Development and Environment at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University.

The guidelines, written to support the work of the Welsh NHS Confederation during the ongoing pandemic, contain essential universal advice from which journalists across the UK can benefit in understanding how best to safely cover the crisis, without adding unnecessarily to the exisiting burdens on the national health service.

On this guest blog post, Matt Walsh, a contributor to the document, provides key highlights from the new guidance, as well as some answers to pertient questions on best practice when reporting on COVID-19. 

>> Information about relevant clauses of the IMPRESS Standards Code is included below. 

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge increase in the public appetite for trusted, reliable news. With increased traffic to digital stories and large jumps in audiences for broadcast news, journalists are under pressure to produce accurate, reliable stories while also facing unprecedented challenges in their newsgathering.

As the National Health Service redeploys resources to treating the sick, its communications teams are also facing demands from journalists looking for stories. To help manage the increased demand from news-desks, the Welsh NHS Confederation asked Cardiff University to produce a practical guidance document to help journalists understand how best to safely cover the crisis, without adding unnecessarily to the burdens on the health service.

The resulting guidance was produced by Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen in collaboration with a team of 15 academics and journalists from leading universities around the United Kingdom. 

The guidance is informed by several key principles: that coverage of the crisis is an important public service, that journalists have a right to free speech, and that the privacy and safety of patients and medical staff should be protected. The full guidance is available to read and download here.

In summary, the guidance says:

The guidance is intended to provide practical advice for journalists covering the pandemic, including helping them to understand the rules of engagement for filming in sensitive medical facilities. It also aims to reduce the load on NHS communications teams by helping journalists to understand what information is available from different online sources.

The public demand for information has led to a vast amount of half-truth, misinformation and disinformation being circulated on social media. For publications regulated by IMPRESS, the guidance, used in conjunction with the Standards Code, can help in the safe production of trusted information informed by the highest ethical standards.

 

FAQs: 

  1. Who should I contact to verify and fact-check information I have received about COVID-19?

Don’t call the NHS first. Look to the specialised factcheckers in the UK or internationally because they may already have factchecked it:

Full Fact 

Channel 4 Fact Check

AFP 'Busting Coronavirus Myths' page

World Health Organisation

  1. I want to interview a member of NHS frontline staff. Is this possible, and how should I go about it?

Interviews with frontline staff make for powerful stories and can be both visually and emotionally appealing. However, such interviews should not interfere with medical care. If you intend to visit a hospital, make sure NHS teams are aware of where and when the item will be published.  When making requests for interviews or information, be specific about who you need to speak to, and where, what and how the information will be used.

  1. I've found some interesting COVID-19 information on social media. Can I use it?

Be wary of unverified rumour. The verification of any social media information about the outbreak is the responsibility of journalists, not the NHS. The NHS will regularly update information about the outbreak, including through their social media channels, so these should be checked regularly.

  1. I would like to film or photograph inside a hospital as part of my COVID-19 coverage. Is this facilitated and how should I go about it?

Filming or photographing inside hospitals is strongly discouraged by public health experts because of the risk associated with such activity. Use pooled footage and materials as a default. If filming is allowed, any such activity requires adherence to strict safety measures, including journalists wearing full protective gear. All equipment must be cleaned in front of NHS staff before entry into hospital.  Journalists must provide their own personal protective equipment. 

  1. I'm a reporter at a local or independent publisher. Does my reporting need to be 'risk assessed'?

Yes. Risk assessments should be conducted for every site visit.

 

About Matt Walsh 

Matt Walsh is a senior lecturer in journalism at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University and former head of the department of journalism, media and performance studies at the University of Northampton. Prior to joining the University of Northampton in 2014, he spent 20 years as a journalist in broadcast and digital media. 

Matt combines teaching with industry work for international organisations, such as Thomson Reuters and Al Jazeera, and writing a PhD on the impact of social media on political journalism. He is also a member of the IMPRESS Code Committee. 

 

IMPRESS Standards Code: Relevant Clauses 

Accuracy

1.1. Publishers must take all reasonable steps to ensure accuracy.

1.2. Publishers must correct any significant inaccuracy with due prominence, which should normally be equal prominence, at the earliest opportunity.

1.3. Publishers must always distinguish clearly between statements of fact, conjecture and opinion.

1.4. Whilst free to be partisan, publishers must not misrepresent or distort the facts.

Discrimination

4.1. Publishers must not make prejudicial or pejorative reference to a person on the basis of that person’s age, disability, mental health, gender reassignment or identity, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation or another characteristic that makes that person vulnerable to discrimination.

4.2. Publishers must not refer to a person’s disability, mental health, gender reassignment or identity, pregnancy, race, religion or sexual orientation unless this characteristic is relevant to the story.

4.3. Publishers must not incite hatred against any group on the basis of that group’s age, disability, mental health, gender reassignment or identity, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation or another characteristic that makes that group vulnerable to discrimination. 

Privacy

7.1 Except where justified by the public interest, publishers must respect people’s reasonable expectation of privacy (…)

7.2 Except where justified by the public interest, publishers must:

a) Not use covert means to gain or record information;

b) Respect privacy settings when reporting on social media content; and

c) Take all reasonable steps not to exacerbate grief or distress through intrusive newsgathering or reporting

More information on the IMPRESS Standards Code.