News coverage served to guide the behaviour of citizens in order to protect themselves and listened to more sources, advances a joint study of three Portuguese universities and a research centre.
Journalism reinforced its importance in the context of the pandemic and constituted an “effective weapon” in the fight against covid-19, concluded a research team from three Portuguese universities and a research center that analyzed about three thousand news published during the vacancies in the pandemics that have plagued Portugal.
“In the first wave, the epidemiological situation was not as serious as we thought, but the news coverage was very intense and anticipated the worsening of the health situation, contributing to guide the behaviour of citizens in order to protect themselves”, begins by explaining Felisbela Lopes, researcher at the University of Minho and work coordinator.
However, news coverage eased during the second wave and was slow to start with the same strength as it did in March 2020, when the epidemiological picture started to worsen in January 2021. According to this study, the number of news about covid-19 published in the first wave was three times greater than in the third wave, in an equivalent period.
“These fluctuations can have consequences. It is important to recognize the role of journalism and make it a partner in situations of health crisis”, stresses Rita Araújo, researcher at the Center for Studies in Communication and Society at the University of Minho.
According to the study, in the first wave the news mainly focused, in addition to the epidemiological portraits, on themes of a social nature (21%), namely around work and education. However, in the second phase, social issues lost strength (7%) and national politics gained prominence (20%).
“It would have been important to refocus attention on other topics, because politicians have gained more visibility, but that visibility has not always been the result of real actions,” says the study’s coordinator.
The second wave was also richer in news about medical-scientific research, mainly because of the expectations surrounding the clinical trials of vaccines (9%). The third wave, on the other hand, was marked by a particularly negative news, which focused on the situation portraits (23%), namely with regard to the counting of deaths by covid-19. Within social issues (17%), education once again gained news space, which is explained by the closure of schools.
The analysis of the researchers says that it is the government that focuses communication on the management of the pandemic in periods of greatest tension (12.3%). However, there are differences between the rulers. The prime minister occupies the place of greatest evidence (2.7%). Next are the ministers of Health, the Presidency and Labor, Solidarity and Social Security. Only then do the Ministers of Education and Economy appear.
The President of the Republic, despite the communications addressed to the country at key moments, such as the prolongations of the state of emergency, takes on a discreet place (1.2%), which may be related to the prophylactic isolations to which he was subjected in the first and third vacancies and with the option to remain “more distant from the media space” during the pre-election campaign related to the presidential elections in January of this year.
The space left open by Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa may have been used by the government, namely António Costa, who, according to the researchers, were well from the communicative point of view in the first wave, but who promoted zigzagging communication in the second wave.
“The success of the government’s communication in this third wave can only be gauged after seeing how the deflation will be communicated”, explains the investigation team.
More diverse sources
During the periods under study, journalism also listened to more sources, extending the siege to voices that usually have fewer opportunities to make themselves heard. Among the sources that have gained ground are professionals from different areas and specialists. Official sources are the most heard when it comes to covid-19 (with results ranging from 22% to 29%), but professionals from different areas and specialists have gained a new strength and almost rival the first (with rates between 20 and 25%, if only those who hold positions are taken into account).
“It is important to know how to keep these sources in the media after we leave the pandemic. They contribute to the quality of journalism and have shown answers that have helped to sustain the political decision-making process”, defends Olga Magalhães, researcher at Cintesis – Center for Research in Technologies and Health Services.
The study, which focuses on more than 3000 news texts and about 6000 sources of information from two daily newspapers (Público and Jornal de Notícias), integrates a broader research project, which aims to analyze the health communication about covid-19 in Portugal.
In addition to Felisbela Lopes (CECS / Universidade do Minho), Rita Araújo (CECS / Universidade do Minho) and Olga Magalhães (Cintesis), are part of the research team Clara Almeida Santos and Ana Teresa Peixinho (University of Coimbra) and Catarina Duff Burnay ( CECC-FCH, Universidade Católica Portuguesa). DP