What is the Role of Press in a Pandemic?

     “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” This phrase is credited to The Washington Post’s publisher Phil Graham, but from whom it first originated is still a mystery. Nevertheless, it has become the motivation and responsibility of journalists around the world, serving as the tenet in how and why they should chase the epitome of truth.

     In a pandemic, this phrase carries more significance and duty than it does on “normal” days. When the comfort of normalcy is gone, people are reminded that the world never stops making its history – something everyone tends to forget in ordinary days. With the pandemic, “history” becomes more recognizable in people’s lives, and journalists, not so much being given more duty, are having their words magnified . 

     The effect of such magnification is multilateral. Readers are more receptive to information due to fear and vulnerability, but are also more likely to publish information into the web. Journalists, while reflecting on how to capture the pandemic in words, need to ensure the accuracy of their news and respond to readers through further reporting and investigation. They are the ones who, amidst all the uncertainties and fear, have to stand firm, face whatever they encounter, and write it down the same way as it appears. 

     But it has always been this way.

     Journalism has always been the pursuit of truth; the pandemic has just made it a harder task due to all its mysteries and complexities of connections, profits, and politics. Even so, journalists are the ones who should not be involved in any of this. No matter how hard it is, they should always hold firm to the principles of journalism. That is what has been extolled in books and movies, like how All The President’s Men and The Post portray perseverance and courage of journalists exposing the Watergate scandal.

     Yet ten, or twenty years later, will people make movies to extol what journalists have done in this COVID-19 pandemic? 

     Biased news reports on different countries due to national political stand; racist titles of news stories; proofless claims on where the virus originated; exaggerations on the situation to attract more viewers; seditious content to call for more replies; misinformation; blames; and criticism. This is not just a pandemic anymore, but a competition between nations, in which newspaper campaigns compete to win more audience over, so that they all can participate in this feast of blame and slander.

     Has it always been this way?

     There are journalists who are trying their best to honor what journalism really stands for. The ones who risk their lives to report in hospitals, writing down exactly what they see. The ones who do not focus on a single story of one nation, but try their best to include the good and the bad. The ones who make sure everyone’s story gets heard, whether it’s the stress of low-income families or the gratitude from survivors. The ones who expose companies and businesses that are trying to gain profits in this global emergency, even if their careers or safety are at risk. 

     Only after the pandemic can people look back and examine all the means and ends of it. Perhaps then the role of press in a pandemic will be realized, the ones who stayed true to it will be extolled, and the ones who did not will be criticized. But that is not the concern right now. Legacy of journalism is always less significant to the people who have left it, but more meaningful to people who will read, see, or hear it.

     A hundred years later people will be asking “so this coronavirus thing really happened in 2020?” like how the current generation talks about the Spanish Flu in 1918. No one will be able to explain in 2120, “yes, it happened, and…”, but history will. The history of which journalists are writing the “first draft.”