One study says the coverage of Covid-19 was too negative. But how should journalists write about a pandemic?
Scenes like from an epidemic film on the German-Polish border in March Photo: Florian Gaertner / photothek / imago
I would like to tell you: everything will be fine. Mishaps happen, Söder can handle it and Bob Dylan recently released a new album. But I’m critical, grumpy, and not a bloody happiness manager. But a journalist.
Every day, we journalists write what goes wrong, where there are how many dead, who hits whom and how, and what abysses our world is heading towards. We are talented playwrights, in love with tragedy. And that’s a problem sometimes. Because right now in the corona crisis, an old journalism dilemma is noticeable: journalists write too negatively, dull readers or turn away. If journalists write too positively, they make themselves suspicious, partial or uncritical.
Recently, two cultural scientists from the University of Passau analyzed the special editions of ARD and ZDF since the beginning of the pandemic in a study. And came to the conclusion that too negative and too much had been reported about Corona. And also too dramatic.
Despite its predictability, the study was widely discussed and criticized. The broadcaster bosses of ARD and ZDF defended themselves. The ARD editor-in-chief Rainald Becker protested on Deutschlandfunk: “Journalism is not there to find solutions or to point out possible solutions. Others have to do that. Politics has to do that, business has to do that, people have to do that. The job of journalism is to describe a reality, an event. “
Christian Drosten, the hero
But this reality is never simply described, it is always designed in a narrative. The authors of the study, Dennis Gräf and Martin Hennig, examined the coverage of Corona from a philological perspective, among other things – in relation to how the staging was done. There was talk of “Hollywood aesthetics”, “dystopian apocalyptic mood” and “pre-evening soap”.
It is worth taking a look at the media presentation of the pandemic: Were the measures for pandemic protection in 2020 a tragedy? The characters and their cast would at least fit: Christian Drosten as a hero, responsible, hostile, but sacrificing himself to higher goals (“there is no glory in prevention”), at times the anti-heroes Hendrik Streeck and Armin Laschet with their unsuccessful PR for the Heinsberg study .
And there is the chorus of deniers. The question is not always just to what extent reality is correctly depicted – but also whether reporting falls into patterns that then become clichés and lead to disinterest. Because how much tragedy can a person take? Before the audience stops reading news about Corona just because it’s about Corona, one can at least consider changing course.
With a view to a “second wave”, how could the story of the pandemic be narrated differently? No, I don’t mean the K-word: “constructive journalism”. As I said: I’m not a bloody happiness manager. But the storytelling could be better.
Not every text needs a “corona twist”
First: Not every article needs a “corona twist”. Portraits and reports on other subjects work well without reference to the terrible times we are currently living in. Yes, what happens in this world takes place under special conditions: football matches, concerts, government meetings, elections. Nevertheless, there is no need for corona causality – not everything is related to the pandemic.
With the dutiful interweaving of the mask requirement, the distance, the digital conferences, the references back to the lockdown, the C-word creeps into life like the construction work in front of the window – it’s annoying, it’s loud, you ignore it.
Second, the dramaturgy: are Coronanews always cover stories? How many masks do you need on a page? Which aspect has to be in the headline? The fact that Norway classifies Germany as a risk area says something about the drama of the number of cases, but it also says that Norway may have a very cautious policy and simply has fewer case numbers.
So do we really need a breaking news here? If a report about stressed parents because of the closed schools is cut on television immediately after a report about the health risks of reopening schools, the tragedy pattern is perfectly fulfilled. Problem is cut to problem. And that is exactly what the hopelessness suggests, a core element of tragedy – no matter what the characters do and how they act, they act wrong.
And finally: In addition to tragedy, the comedy is also a means of emotionalising, and even in this pandemic there are funny moments that are worth telling. Because – Shakespeare already knew – the comic relief, the relieving laugh, is part of a good tragedy. Therefore nothing has to be watered down, sweetened or withheld. The narrative instruments may vary even in crises.
Speaking of instruments. Bob Dylan has a new album. It’s called “Rough and Rowdy Days”.