Opinion: Free media can be a life-saver in a pandemic; let's save it from extinction

A woman wearing a protective face mask reads a newspaper as she walks in a street on the deserted Ile Saint Louis in Paris. Photo by: Christian Hartmann / Reuters

It’s hard to think of a time in recent history when access to trustworthy information has been more important. Across the planet, millions of people are seeking out credible, potentially life-saving, news about COVID-19, and how to respond.

The BBC, as the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed this week, has seen an unprecedented spike in audiences, with over 70% of the U.K. population tuning into its peak bulletins and almost 600 million page views globally of its coronavirus stories. This pattern is being replicated in many countries around the world: in the Philippines, for example, the independent online news site Rappler is attracting record audiences; its founder, Maria Ressa calls this trend a “flight to quality.”

Yet, as we mark World Press Freedom Day this Sunday, the bitter reality for many independent media outlets is that, at a time when they are so desperately needed and valued as part of the social infrastructure required to beat COVID-19, they have never been under greater threat.

The impact of trusted, public interest journalism may be felt more indirectly than medicines, but it is an essential foundation of healthy democracies, especially during crises like this one.

The economic fallout of the pandemic is already biting hard. The Reuters Institute estimates that news organizations worldwide will lose more than $20 billion through the decline in advertising and other revenues brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.  

A $20 billion revenue loss would gut the news sector at the best of times. Even before the pandemic, the economic and political conditions for independent media were at crisis point, with a huge fall in advertising dollars going into news and the rise of authoritarian governments cracking down on robust reporting. This chronic decline has now been overlaid by an acute crisis that could easily lead to a “media extinction event.”

Nowhere is this financial evisceration of independent media more acutely felt than low- and middle-income countries where advertising and audience revenues are already dangerously low. In just one high-profile example, South Africa’s respected Mail & Guardian newspaper issued a plea for more subscribers to keep it afloat, winning a short term reprieve.

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It is in poorer countries that, according to recent analysis by London’s Imperial College, the worst impacts of COVID-19 will be felt. Governments will need to run huge public information campaigns to achieve the necessary social and behavioral changes; and yet the public interest news infrastructure needed to do this has never been weaker.

We have been arguing that a much more committed and concerted global effort is needed to support independent public interest media around the world. The pandemic reveals the challenge and the scale of the response required in shocking clarity.

In the immediate term, the world needs to mount an urgent emergency response to limit the decimation of public interest media during the pandemic. Some philanthropic foundations and tech companies have already set up funds to support the media, but further funding and better coordination are urgently needed, especially to ensure that independent media organizations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia stay afloat.

Many African newspapers in particular are on the endangered list. If these and other news outlets pause their operations, they may never be able to restart, leaving the free press brutally diminished and unable to play their vital role in society when this pandemic is over and when the next crisis hits.

But even if we limit the collapse of media outlets during the short-term, the compound impact on public interest news will be deep and long-lasting. It will take an extended global effort and substantial financial capital to revive independent media, especially in low- and middle-income countries, until new, sustainable business models take effect.

At present, a tiny fraction — just 0.2% — of U.K. official development funding goes to support media projects. This is simply not enough at a time when we need bold solutions. One such solution is an International Fund for Public Interest Media funded by international donors, governments, big tech companies, and philanthropists with a target of $1 billion a year. Only this level of commitment, alongside other interventions, will ensure that independent public interest media globally survive to act as a key line of defense against threats like COVID-19 and what comes after.

When it comes to fighting disease, global funds such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance have proven effective in coordinating and channeling donor funds to where they are needed most, saving millions of lives. An international media fund would play a similar role in keeping the world’s public interest media outlets alive.

The impact of trusted, public interest journalism may be felt more indirectly than medicines, but it is an essential foundation of healthy democracies, especially during crises like this one. It is a critical time to support media outlets that shine a light on our governments and societies: if we fail to do so, the world will soon be a lot darker.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • James Deane

    James Deane is head of policy at BBC Media Action, the BBC's international media support charity, where he has led the development of a feasibility study for an International Fund for Public Interest Media.
  • Nishant Lalwani

    Nishant Lalwani is a managing director at Luminate, a global philanthropic organization focused on empowering people and institutions to work together to build just and fair societies.