The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has posed huge problems across every section of society, with hundreds of industries greatly affected by both the virus itself and the nationwide lockdown enacted by the government to curb its spread. And while there can be no doubt that the real heroes throughout this crisis are those working in hospitals throughout the country, there are several other industries which also have a vital part to play in the fight against the virus.
One of those industries is that of public service journalism – with the public turning to the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 for the latest news and updates in record numbers since the outbreak began. Rachel Corp, who is the Editor of ITV News, spoke to RadioTimes.com about some of the challenges that the crisis has posed for her team – explaining how this is unlike any story she’s had to cover in her career up to this point.
“We identified it as a story really early on,” explains Corp recalling the early days of the virus. “We have a permanent bureau in Beijing, Debi Edward is our correspondent out there, and at the beginning of this year she went to Wuhan.
“She went in for two days and did the story and got out, but then continued to cover it as it grew as a story within China. So obviously we had that very first hand experience right from the beginning.”
As the story continued to grow, and the virus began to spread first to other parts of Asia and then to the rest of the world, having that first-hand experience remained absolutely vital for the ITV team, says Corp. As it became clear that the situation was particularly troubling in Italy, Europe editor James Mates was sent to cover the story – and although the country was beginning to bring in extreme lockdown measures, Mates opted to stay and report from the ground.
“We’re journalists who want to tell stories by being at the heart of the story and talking to the people at the heart of the story, not taking it from elsewhere,” explains Corp. “We as journalists have that duty to be in there, to talk about it. So from the start it was very much let’s be where we need to be, but do it carefully.”
“What became apparent was that it was turning into one of the biggest things that the world is ever going to experience in our generation – but not knowing quite what form it would come. It became and it still is a really fascinating story because it’s breaking news but you can see it coming at you before it breaks – a long running breaking news story, which is something that we’ve never experienced before.”
As experienced news journalists, many members of the ITV news team have previously covered disasters of all sorts – whether that be natural disasters or man made, earthquakes or terrorist attacks. However while the team are used to those sorts of disasters and the safety risks posed, something on the scale of coronavirus offers unique challenges. With those other kinds of disasters, Corp explains, at some point, you leave and go back to what you know is safety – either your country or your home.
“But this one is really different from that,” she explains, “Because yes, we’ve had some experience of covering Ebola or things like that, but that was much more contained to certain communities. This we knew was going to be everywhere and all around us.”
One of the most notable quotes to have come out of the coronavirus outbreak came from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation. Speaking at Munich Security Conference in February, he claimed that we weren’t just fighting an epidemic, but also an “infodemic” referring to the vast swathes of misinformation and fake news relating to the virus which have spread rapidly on social media.
Of course fake news and misinformation are hardly new phenomena, but at an extraordinary time like this – when being aware of the facts has never been more crucial – the threat they pose is all the more potent.
“This is for me why you need public service broadcasters,” says Corp, pointing out that those working in public service journalism are amongst those listed as key workers by the government. “We’re needed more than ever, as you can see in our viewing figures.
“We’ve continued to go out and about, go to the heart of stories and interview people. A lot of it’s been done over Skype, but we are going into the field and visiting all the places being affected and talking to people safely – continuing our eyewitness journalism and reporting from the ground.”
Corp points out that some viewers have asked why reporters are still going out and about when the rest of the country is in lockdown, and she says that while she understands those concerns, it is vital that her teams are still able to be mobile.
“To me, this is why we’re key workers who are allowed to move around, because we do need to get to the story and report back faithfully,” she says. “That’s very different to the swirl of rumours online and the fake news, and the misinformation and people being able to say this is all being spread by 5G and all that kind of rubbish.”
Although she claims it is vital to prevent the spread of misinformation, however, Corp believes the way to tackle this is not by attempting a myth-busting approach – instead claiming that it’s better to simply focus on getting the facts across without giving any attention to false information.
“What we don’t do is say here’s a list of fake news stories today that we’re going to trash,” she explains. “Because that’s giving them too much credence. For me, it’s just about being consistent and putting out the facts.”
Striking the Right Tone
Of course, with a story as big as the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not just which facts are reported that is important, but also ensuring that the correct tone is adopted, and that the right people are called upon for expert analysis.
From an editorial standpoint, Corp says that her stance from the very start has been that the most significant role of ITV news is to get the government message across – and while it’s crucial to hold the decision makers to account, it’s equally important to ensure the message doesn’t get lost in that.
“We’re a really important part of the government messaging,” she says. “We’re not mouthpieces for the government, but we do have a role to play in making sure that government messaging is heard.
“It’s not for us to criticise that message, we’ve got to let people hear it. But absolutely we’ve got to hold them to account. And we’ve got to analyse it, and interrogate it. And that does mean questioning governments and the scientists, but not letting the criticism drown the message.”
In order to ensure that this does get across, Corp says that there has been a greater focus on repetition than usual, in a bid to make sure that the coverage is consistent in its messaging. A range of new programmes have also been incorporated into the ITV News schedules, with more Q&As that allow for audience participation, and a clear focus on the practical aspects that people want to know, as well as targeted programmes that focus on particular aspects of the crisis.
This approach has clearly worked wonders so far – there has been a vast surge in viewing figures since the outbreak began – with March seeing the highest monthly average since 2015 across the lunchtime bulletin, the evening bulletin and the News at 10.
Meanwhile, while it is essential to deliver the message, and offer practical advice for viewers, Corp emphasises that it is also as important as ever for original journalism to flourish – and this is the means by which the government can be challenged.
“We were very early to pick up on care homes, as something that was slipping through the net,” she explains. “And we’ve been taking all sorts of groups of people who perhaps are being affected in a disproportionate way, and challenging the government on that, whether it’s ministers or other people in authority.”
Towards the start of the pandemic – and even now – many people across the country have understandable experienced a great sense of panic, and for this reason Corp believes that ITV News also has a duty to offer reassurance and an element of calm, rather than simply feeding into any sort of hysteria.
“We’ve tried to keep calm and measured,” she says. “Particularly at the beginning, it would have been very easy for people to get that sense of panic, so we try to get across that this is really serious, but keep it calm and measured.
“One of the things about ITV News is we don’t talk down at people, we like to get the sense that we all live in this country together. So we have had quite a lot of warmth and humanity from our presenters, and that sense that we are in this together – so we talk about ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ or ‘them’ and acknowledge at the beginning and end of bulletins that this is a difficult time for everybody. So showing that we emphasise and try to make everything very relevant to viewers and very relatable, without being too hysterical.”
Another way in which the team can make its content more relatable is by focusing on the experiences of ordinary people alongside the views of experts – to put “real people at the heart of it”, as Corp puts it, which she claims is very much “the ITV News way.”
“It’s going and talking to the nurses and the doctors in the heart of it, the community workers – that’s our starting point in the way we do news full stop, so I think it’s just been a continuation of that,” she says. “Right from the beginning, we were filming into care homes and talking with those frontline workers, rather than it just being scientists in suits because I think that that is really key.”
Of course, while public service journalists are considered key workers, and the work that they are doing is clearly very important in keeping the public informed and holding the government to account, it is nevertheless vital that the team themselves continue to follow the guidelines – to ensure both their own safety and that of the public.
Naturally, this has posed all sorts of logistical and practical challenges for Corp, but from very early on a number of new measures were put in place to ensure that the team could still deliver the news as efficiently as possible without taking unnecessary risks.
As well as taking obvious measures such as stopping handshakes, this process has included the introduction of practices ranging from using long boom microphones as opposed to clip on ones, studio staff applying their own make-up, and crews significantly reducing how much filming takes place inside.
“Anywhere where we had anyone vulnerable, like care homes, we’ve done a lot of filming through the windows,” Corp says. “Finding ways where they could open up their doors or their windows and filming that way. Sometimes we’ve been handing little GoPro cameras that have been sanitised in and letting people film inside and then pass them back to us.”
In the newsroom, distancing measures have been adopted, with the desks separated and no more than five people being present in a meeting room at one time. Meanwhile, only a skeleton staff are now present in the office – just those who are essential for the programme to go out – with many reporters working from home or taking more days off. Corp points to the work being done by Europe editor James Mates, as an example of how the team are able to work from home in an efficient and effective manner.
“James is not travelling at the moment because it’s pretty hard to get to any of the European countries, unless you’re a national,” she explains. “So we’re getting pictures filmed in those countries by locals and sent to us. James is looking at all the pictures and writing his script from his home in London, and then we are sending the pictures to our South Africa camera editor who puts the piece together and then sends it back to London. So nobody’s having to come into the office!”
Corp says that while overcoming these practical issues has naturally not been easy, she is pleased with how things have gone up to this point – believing that the quality of the show has not been affected by the problems posed.
“So far this is working,” she says. “We’ve maintained the service, and from the beginning, I’ve always said, let’s keep our journalistic standards as high as they’ve ever been, but if we have to reduce some of our production standards, then we will do. But I have to say, actually, I don’t think you can see that much difference in our programme. Actually, it’s working very well!”
ITV News’ Coronavirus Q&A with Nina Hossain airs tonight (Monday 20th April) at 8pm. Find something to watch with our TV Guide