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Guidelines for Inclusive Media Reporting on Covid-19

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by Marina Tuneva, PhD

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every individual and all aspects of life, but its effect varied among different groups in society. Media are always a powerful actor during times of crisis, and the way they cover the crisis can impact people's perceptions and reaction to it. Besides reporting on different aspects and consequences of the crisis, media expose, but can also entrench, the inequalities and discrimination against already marginalized groups.

Suppose the media omits minority groups' voices and experiences in their coverage of a crisis. In that case, and following the idea that media plays the role of a watchdog holding power to account, the media becomes an enabler of a system that suppresses the marginalized groups that are then likely to be left out of institutional responses to the crisis - the government directs its work to those the media shines a light on.

The LGBTQI community has been particularly affected and discriminated against during the pandemic. For example, in March this year, Ukrainian media outlets disseminated a news report based on Patriarch Filaret's interview with Ukrainian Channel 4. The Patriarch noted that the pandemic originated
and spread “through same-sex marriages” and called people to take communion in religious buildings during the quarantine. Hate speech targeting the LGBTQI community and the calls for disregard of quarantine requirements were condemned by the Commission on Journalism Ethics.

Another group that has been a frequent target of stigmatization and scapegoating is the Roma community. This community has been alleged to spread the virus or fail to comply with security measures, regularly appearing in the news relating to these issues and being a target of negative statements from media
and politicians that contribute to creating a stereotypical image of Roma and fuel negative prejudices and antigypsyism.

Research shows that women's voices are drowned out by men's in the coronavirus-related news. Women are rarely consulted as authoritative experts, and they overwhelmingly appear as victims of the virus in media stories rather than as empowered individuals.

Disinformation, stereotyping, and stigmatization are extremely bad for outbreak control. The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has emphasized that “This is the time for science, not rumors. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged that all actors, including the UN system, redouble efforts to address violence, discrimination, and exclusion of people including minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people, people with disabilities and others.

In such an environment, journalists and media professionals hold a critical role in building awareness about issues affecting different groups in society, counteracting myths, wrong perceptions, and disinformation, and providing objective and balanced reporting.

In these Guidelines, the reference to “diversity” implies a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, age, ability, and more. Many of these are intersectional, and the list is not exhaustive. In terms of “diversity,” the codes of ethics and guidelines used in media self- regulatory bodies across Europe mainly refer to non-discrimination, respect of dignity and human rights of every individual in the society (e.g., in the Guidelines for Journalists of the Council for Mass Media in Finland, the German Press Code, the Code for Print and Online Media used by the Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina ). Some codes also emphasize the need to cultivate a culture of public speech (e.g., codes of the Serbian Press Council and the Council of Media Ethics in North Macedonia).

The recommendations in these Guidelines are in compliance with already existing professional standards and practices in journalism in diversity inclusiveness, both in normal times and in emergency contexts. They also contain recommendations as an addition to the broad provisions and standards related to the respect of diversity and inclusiveness in media reporting.

The Guidelines were developed as a result of consultations and sharing of practices with press councils in Western and South East Europe, analysis of documents (guidelines, recommendations, codes) of professional organizations in the field of media and journalism, as well as interviews with media experts, academics and representatives of CSOs working on protection of human rights of vulnerable groups.

They are primarily intended for journalists, students, educators, activists, and media management. They can also support various actors working in humanitarian contexts to address the needs of  vulnerable and marginalized individuals and groups.

Full report here in PDF Format: Guidelines for Inclusive Media reporting on Covid-19