How well the media holds the UK government to account over its handling of the pandemic is a question that has been fiercely debated over recent weeks. Journalists have been attacked for asking difficult questions at press briefings, while broadcasters have been criticised for challenging government decisions.
But with the four nations of the UK weighing up different policies on dealing with the coronavirus, media reporting on their achievements will be critical to how the public responds. It will shape how they view government decisions and how trust is engendered as lockdown measures are relaxed.
May 1 represents an important point in time to compare coverage of the government’s handling of the pandemic. It was the day after the deadline for reaching the target for 100,000 tests per day set in early April by health secretary Matt Hancock.
On April 30 at the government’s 5pm briefing, Hancock claimed that the government had “smashed” this target and achieved a total of more than 122,000 tests that day.
Broadcasters reacted in various ways. Even within the BBC, there was a striking contrast in how the story was reported. The BBC “Breaking News” Twitter feed simply repeated the government’s assertion that it had met the target.
The BBC’s Reality Check account, however, cast doubt on the figure – repeating the line that the 122,000 figure included testing kits sent out to homes but not returned or analysed.
The BBC’s editorial judgements are significant because they not only help set the news cycle, they are seen to provide an impartial judgement about an event or issue. By reporting whether the government had met an important policy target, in other words, the BBC can help legitimise or question that claim in the minds of the public. For example, the minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, retweeted the BBC Breaking News item not long after the the government’s announcement in order to add credibility to the idea that the target had been met.
Our comparative analysis of news bulletins revealed striking differences between broadcasters. While the BBC News at Ten repeated the government’s claim in its opening headline, a subtle caveat was later added. This revealed the figure “includes nearly 40,000 test kits posted out, which may not yet have been used or returned to laboratories”.
ITV more explicitly questioned the government’s claim, with the anchor saying: “Now, you could say, and many have, that the government is effectively fiddling the figures, by adding in tests sent out, rather than actually returned”. Channel 4 was more circumspect, stating: “It was the day the government promised 100,000 tests a day. And whether or not they reached it depends on how you count them”. Sky News said there were “questions over how they [tests] were counted”.
Public want factual reporting
As part of our ongoing qualitative study with just under 200 participants drawn from a representative mix of the population, we showed them the beginning of News at Ten bulletin and the Reality Check tweet from May 1, and asked about how broadcasters should handle factchecking more generally.
Reactions were mixed. One respondent said: “It [BBC News at Ten] was just stating exactly what they [government] had done”, while another believed “the BBC headline led with the impression that the target had been reached, and buried that it had been done so by kind of dubious means.” Only a few participants agreed the BBC’s headline was too critical of the government’s claim.
But there was overwhelming support for the greater use of factchecking by broadcasters to ensure accurate reporting. As one respondent told us: “There are so many headlines and stories relating to the coronavirus and lockdown that it’s impossible to know which one is true and which one is misleading … they should take the time to factcheck certain stories.”
Others made specific points about holding power to account: “factchecking should be included in reports where it is likely to be beneficial, such as those covering tenuous claims”, one person said. Another told us that “people should be made aware of all the facts in a story so they can make a reasonable conclusion based on all the information not just what the government deems is important”.
One participant stated: “I would watch the news on TV more if things were more regularly factchecked.”
Ramping up factchecking
In the run up to the 2019 election, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, wrote in The Guardian that the broadcaster had “ramped up” its Reality Check service to ensure campaign claims were rigorously checked.
There’s a strong case for a similar level of rigour now from all broadcasters, with David Spiegelhalter – a participant of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – even questioning the government’s use of statistics in daily press briefings.
Above all, our study showed many people wanted a departure from journalists pursuing speed and speculation to verifying facts and questioning misleading statements. By factchecking more prominently in TV news bulletins, broadcasters may also encourage politicians to think twice about making dubious claims.