Covid Silence and How The Media Works

An insider explains why the most important stories often get the least attention.

Reading the newspaper over coffee.
Original artwork by @ronniefurbear on IG

If I hadn’t spent the last 15 years working in media and public relations, I too would interpret the media silence around covid and new covid research/science as a sign that there is nothing to worry about.

But I have. So there’s some things you need to know.

The first thing to know is that the volume of coverage in general mass media about an issue is not an objective indication of its importance. Maybe I’m telling you something you already know because everyone is fairly media savvy these days, but it needs saying. Just because you’re not seeing covid research in the headlines, doesn't mean covid has become a non-story in relation to its potential impacts on your health, your future, our societies or economies.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there’s some kind of conspiracy to actively hide covid stories or other big stories. It’s just the way the mass media works.

Which is like this:

A press release gets written for a client, it gets sent out to a big list of journalists, the PR agent then phones around the journalists in whatever sector they’re working in to try and get them to look at the story, offering interviews with the key players. Most stories you see in the headlines are the result of a PR agency. I would say >90% of all stories you read start as a press release. And depending on the news, the PR agent might not send out a release en-masse but “sell in” the story as an exclusive to just one outlet. I don’t know if the press release origin for most of our news is a dirty little secret or widely known due to the aforementioned media savvy-ness of people, but it’s how it goes.

And the bigger the PR agency, the more likely you are to get a journalist to bite on your story. And this is a major problem. Because the bigger the agency = the more expensive the agency. So the biggest, richest clients hire the biggest, richest agencies with the most brand recognition and media connections, and these agencies are responded to most favourably by editors and reporters.

And of course, the bigger the agency, the bigger the budget you have to entertain journalists, go out for lunches/dinners, even organise things like PR agents vs journalist football tournaments (yes this happens). Which enables the fostering of human connections that mean the journalist will respond favourably to your next press release/call pitching a client story.

In addition to this, many PR agency bosses will be members of the same private members clubs as the media bosses, with a lot of informal “work” done during these evenings. A major national newspaper in the UK once published an opinion piece for a client of mine because the editor of the paper owed my client a favour. Did my client have something fascinating and ground-breaking to say? No. But they got a national newspaper headline. Conversely, I have also worked for organisations and clients that did have consequential news that should have made headlines but never did.

Important stories go largely uncovered all the time.

That's how things work.

Covid flip-flop: from saturation to silence

So how does this relate to Covid?

Well, Covid doesn’t have a PR agency, and most studies are coming out of niche research labs or universities that have very limited or non-existent PR teams/agency support. And even when it’s coming out of a big university, the media teams at these unis are spread thin and often don’t see the humdrum science research as something to prioritise when it comes to media. It doesn’t raise money, it’s not that sexy etc.

Unless it’s a breakthrough piece of research, you’re unlikely to see it. And even then you might not. It’s no surprise that when you do see a covid story it’s been published in a high-profile medical journal like The Lancet that has a bigger media team and more connected PR officers.

You might be thinking: but what are you going on about, covid was all over the news for 18 months. Yes, it was. But this is because there was no denying we were in a genuine global emergency/event. Governments led and media had to respond. It was, for a time, the only game in town. So all the media outlets put their journalists onto covid, looking for sector-specific angles. If you were the health or science reporter, you’re reporting the latest about infection rates, impacts on the human body, vaccines etc. If you are a travel reporter, you’re looking for stories about covid’s impact on the tourism sector, the aviation industry. If you’re the economics editor, it was all about the economic impacts. Etc etc.

For those first 12-18 months of heavy pandemic coverage, many stories will still have been coming from PR agents, but the whole ecosystem at that time was flipped to covid and covid only. Journalists will have been asking agencies for their stories around covid, and agencies will have been crafting every story into something covid-appropriate for all their clients.

But over time, and especially as the vaccines began to be rolled out, the messaging from political offices and the media shifted explicitly and implicitly - the emergency is over and it’s time to get back to normal. It would have gone something like this: The press officers for No.10 or the White House or any head of state office would have called (or had lunches or dinners) with editors to talk about the need to move away from the emergency framing to transition back to normal. I suspect country leaders themselves would have talked to newspaper owners about the need for normal.

These political offices and leaders will have been making this push to media off the back of their own conversations with businesses about the need to get back to normal. The push to return to a pre-pandemic mode will have been coordinated between the highest political and media offices, with business CEOs well in the mix, if not the originating node, of this push. And it was hegemonic, with all in agreement. I suspect the only major points of tension were public health agencies and political offices of health who may not have been so keen to get back to normal so quickly but of course were never brave enough to say anything.

They went along with it.

It’s over plebs

This is the broad context for the media silence on covid. It’s over, and they helped make it over. And if something’s over, it can’t be news.

The dynamic is slightly different for the climate crisis, where there is no denial about it being an ongoing event, so we do get sporadic coverage. The omissions here are often of a subtler form and consist primarily of failing to platform research and experts who advocate solutions that do not conform to a capitalist economic growth agenda.

The latest batch of stories was a good example: article after article telling us we’re going to breach 1.5C but without any decent critique of why this is happening and how we can stop it, beyond “reduce emissions.”

Which is why what I do here and on social media for covid (and climate), is to try and push against a media culture weighted heavily in favour of the biggest, richest businesses and PR agencies whose reason for being is not to inform people of threats to their health, livelihoods or futures, but to propagate specific agendas that consolidate business-as-usual.

Read Nate Bear here and on Substack.

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