By Lara von der Brelie
As we pass the grim one-year mark since the start of lockdown, six leading female journalists look back on a year of reporting Covid-19.
An eight-year old carer forced to look after her mother and young siblings, children with no access to laptops, glaring health inequalities and public mistrust were some of the issues journalists covering the pandemic brought to their audience’s attention.
Ashna Hurynag, the Sky news correspondent who covered the story of the young carer, was joined by Laura Collins, editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post, Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent at the Sunday Times, Eva Simpson, Mirror columnist and commentator, Stephanie Baker, senior writer for projects and investigations at Bloomberg and Pippa Crerar, the Mirror’s politics editor.
The session hosted by WIJ and Women of the World Festival explored the great challenges, and small joys, of reporting in the era of Covid-19. It was chaired by Mirror editor, Alison Phillips.
The panelists reflected on how the pandemic had pulled back the veil on hidden injustices. They urged the audience to not lose sight of these stark realities as the UK begins to return to normalcy.
Collins said: “When you report untold stories, it makes people realise they are not alone; you give people the chance to share their own experiences.”
Christina Lamb described the crammed living conditions she’d witnessed in East London tower blocks; she’d seen families of seven squashed into two-bedroom flats, where five children shared one computer for school. As an international reporter, she was shocked by the level of poverty which still existed in the UK, she said.
News organisations don’t just have a duty to report these issues, said Crerar, they also have a responsibility to hold the government to account for its failure to address this inequality. When people are following the rules, and suffering as a consequence, they have a right to know if members of government are living by a different set of laws, she said.
Local newspapers have played a particularly vital role in highlighting and advocating for those who have struggled during the lockdowns. Collins described how the Yorkshire Evening Post campaigned for laptops in schools after learning that half of children in Leeds did not have access to computers for virtual learning. “We used our connections within the community to get this off the ground,” she said, adding that, “the support we’ve received is a testament to the power of the local press in organising everyone together”.
Indeed, the panelists reminded us that the events of the past year had not only highlighted that society, government and the media needed to do better, it had also shown that we could do better. Lamb said:
“I hope after all of this we don’t forget all the good that’s come out of [communities] …we’ve all seen, on a local level, the support that people have given to each other; it would be very sad if, after all these deaths and this terrible year, people just go back to how things were before.”
But we still have a long way to go, Simpson explained. The potency of fake news stories during the pandemic has been a stark reminder of the dissonance between mainstream news and minority groups.
“If on the news and in our newspapers the people who are saying that the vaccine is safe don’t look like you and lack cultural similarity, there’s going to be nothing to connect you to the people giving the message.”
And it’s not just a lack of diversity which has caused widespread mistrust. Self-appointed experts, social media groups and even presidents have all contributed to the problem as well.
At the same time, science has gained a new standing in the eyes of the public. Baker said that during 2020, people had “learnt how important scientists are and how important government investment in R&D [research and development] is, especially in the long term”.
So what will they take from their experiences reporting in a pandemic, asked WIJ chair Alison Phillips.
“Our challenge as journalists is to not forget what has happened,” said Crerar. As the vaccine rollout continues apace, and the world begins to reopen, it will be tempting to forgive and forget. But it’s vital that policymakers learn from their mistakes to avoid the tragedy of 140,000 deaths ever being repeated.
The media must also do more to ensure that no one is left behind in its reporting. “There is so much inequality and poverty which we, in our media bubble, just wouldn’t have been aware of in the past,” said Simpson, “we can’t allow eight-year-old kids to be looking after their mums and young siblings.” Many will be suffering right now – addiction, poverty and domestic violence have all increased – and these individuals need to be at the heart of our reporting going forward, added Hurynag.
Beyond our borders, we must also remember that most people have not benefitted from a state-run vaccine programme, said Baker. She told the audience that at the current rate, those living in developing countries would not be vaccinated until 2024.
People inside and outside the UK have continued to face violence, persecution and injustice, said Lamb. It is vital that, just as society risks turning more insular in the wake of a pandemic, journalists do all they can to ensure that our news reflects and represents the interests of all those who live in it.
Don’t miss our next event with Caroline Wyatt, former BBC defence and global religious affairs correspondent, on April 6. More information and tickets can be found here.