The information ecology has in the recent past been inundated with materials that have often proven to be either misleading or completely false after subjecting such information to thorough scrutiny.
The preponderance of such information has not only become widespread but has also largely polluted the information ecosystem, putting the end receivers of information at risk of taking actions that may be injurious to their person or the greater society.
These misrepresented facts, commonly termed ‘fake news’ (Shu et al, 2018), manifest in forms such as satire, false context, imposter content, manipulated content, false connection, leaks and hate speech on both traditional and social media platforms (Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017).
A more generic terminology called information disorder, as proposed by Wardle & Derakhshan, is now widely accepted in deconstructing and unpacking the large swath of contortion in the information ecosystem. The concept categorizes and contextualizes misrepresented facts into three broader scopes – dis-information, misinformation, and mal-information
The taxonomy explains dis-information as false information that is knowingly shared with an intent to harm and misinformation as false information shared without the intent to harm. Mal-information, on the other hand, refers to the use of true information with the intent to harm.
At the core of information disorder is the treatment of messages, news, and facts in media spaces; and the expanse of information disorder typology has further enabled the deconstruction of media messages for researchers to better understand the import of disseminated information. Often, treatment of the media messages is explained within the context of media framing.
Nonetheless, how media messages are presented or framed for audience consumption and the angle or perspective from which a news story is told is not always the exact representation of reality but rather a reconstruction from various angles of a small section of reality.
Framing of messages and images in the media in the wake of the outbreak of the coronavirus has reignited the debate on how the media treat and represent reality. Thus, in the coverage of the COVID -19 pandemic, the media, more often than not, presents reality from the perspective from which they observe events and unfolding actions in society (Critical Media Review, 2015).
Therefore, the dichotomy between information disorder and framing of media messages is widely amplified in the coverage of the COVID–19 pandemic (UNDP, 2020). In most cases, the treatment of stories on the pandemic is characterized by an avalanche of misleading information presented on media platforms and the frames into which these media messages are presented accentuate the thematic underpinnings that constitute information disorder.
An evaluation of selected media messages is analyzed in this text to highlight how media framing of the pandemic is laden with paradigms spawned by constructs of information disorder. A postmodern perspective in assessing information is applied in evaluating the various media frames and situating them within the broader spectrum of information disorder.
Media Framing of the Pandemic
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus diseases a pandemic, media organizations and media platforms have been giving attention to all aspects of the pandemic. Key among them are media assertions of a found cure or a supposed cure for the disease that is causing a global meltdown and killing tens of thousands of individuals across continents.
In Ghana, for example, the first two cases of infection from the virus were reported on March 12, 2020. Since then, the cases have spiralled and have crossed the 40,000 marks, causing over 200 deaths. The state of confusion that the virus has thrown the world into has made all persons edgy and are readily clutching onto any information without verification, so long as it will help save them from the ravaging impact of the virus. In telling their story, the media has given varied slants to the perspectives from which it reports on the COVID-19 pandemic. It ranges from stigmatization, fear peddling, false hope to pseudo-science.
The novel coronavirus disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei Province with a population of 11 million, after an outbreak of pneumonia without an obvious cause. The virus has now spread to over 200 countries and territories across the globe, and was characterized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020 ( Zhu, Wei, & Niu, 2020).
Headlines across the media spectrum have been buzzing with stories on the pandemic. However, the visibility given to the pandemic is sometimes diluted with information that is quite worrying. Media headlines such as one attributed to the President of the United States of America calling the virus the ‘Chinese Virus’ and another newspaper headline ‘coronavirus made in china’ were but a few of the reports that did not only stoke the flames of stigmatization against the Chinese but also portrayed china as the cause of the world’s woes.
Though it is factually correct to trace the origin of the pandemic to homeland China, a further association and renaming of the pandemic as a Chinese virus or a virus made in China is a subtle stigmatization of the People’s Republic of China as carriers of the virus. In Ghana and some other parts of the world, some medical equipment from China were either received reluctantly or rejected outrightly, in fear that since they are coming from China, they may have been compromised. This phenomenon, also amplified by newspapers on their front pages is a typical example of mal-information within the information disorder spectrum – though it is true that the origin of the virus can be traced to China, media slants to the publications soiled the image of the country in the eyes of the world at large.
Media reportage on the pandemic again suggested strongly that the aged are most at risk when they contract the virus to the extent that death appears inevitable. This representation in the media on one hand emboldens the youth to disregard safety protocols and on the other hand creates fear in persons in the 65 and above age bracket.
The overarching effect of such media representations has reinforced a sense of security for one generation and a no hope situation for the other in the face of the ravaging effect of the pandemic. Though evidence from many countries has suggested that the aged fell quickly to the virus, it was not exclusively a risk prone situation only to the oldies. Some media reports showed that children and the youth were also vulnerable to the virus, thus eventually causing their deaths. In Ghana, some medical practitioners in their prime have lost their lives while battling the disease.
Media portrayals of the aged as risk-prone to the diseases while the youth are risk-averse to the pandemic are thus misleading. A better story may have been told if the picture painted in the eyes of the public had been that the virus does not discriminate between ages and that all persons are at risk of the virus’ capacity to infect and destroy people, regardless of age.
Traditional and social media platforms have been flooded with a multiplicity of information to the effect that extracts from hibiscus flower (sobolo), a concoction made from the neem tree and a certain Madagascar tonic are considered by many as the surest antidote to the cure of COVID -19. Some media reports suggested further that countries in the tropics who are exposed to the harsh humid conditions from the sun are less likely to contract the disease.
The framing of such stories to suggest an African cure to the pandemic flies in the face of WHO’s continued insistence that there is still no known cure for the virus; hence, the suggestion that some plant extracts can cure the disease is not only false but is also willfully propagated to mislead.
Media reports on the COVID-19 pandemic are not devoid of pseudo-science. Technology has been widely attributed to the cause of the pandemic. Particularly mentioned is the emergence of 5G technology. Media reportage of 5G technology as the source of the coronavirus pandemic caused public uproar in some countries.
As often as experts continue to debunk a linkage of the pandemic to the technology, the media through its coverage gave credence to it. While originators of the information know the falsity of the information and still go-ahead to distribute such, others unknowingly redistribute a ‘false information’ they have believed in.
The increasing rate of information disorder comes with its implications. Generally, end receivers of information may take one action or the other based on a piece of information that its credibility is wobbly. Indeed, the acceptance by a section of the public that 5G may be the cause of the pandemic resorted to the destruction of 5G equipment in some developed countries. The act of destruction is borne out of fear that the technology, when fully implemented, will threaten the existence of the human race.
Also, the belief that some herbs hold the magic wand for the cure of the corona virus resulted in a number of persons trying any medication or herb that is reported in the media to fight the virus. The Madagascan tonic was touted as the invention that is here to save the world; ironically, its healing prowess is not full proof and the country continues to record increasing coronavirus cases with some deaths long after popularizing its own remedy for the virus.
As media messages fail to meet the expectations of the audiences, they will be dismissive of media messages. The phenomenon may result in audiences ignoring very important information that will need their support towards the promotion of the well-being of society.
It is evident from the discussion that the media is as powerful as it is in informing on key policies and serving as a conduit in promoting behavioural change, but misleading information on media platforms can create unnecessary anxiety and create a schemata for judging people. Framing of media messages often accounts for the contorted reality that the public is exposed to. The media, thus have a role in consciously ensuring that news and all other news enhancements are not skewed to mislead the audience across the globe.
Again, as cases of information disorder in all its forms – misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information – soar, fact-checking every claim has become a vital arsenal in media literacy, a weapon that will enable consumers of media messages to subject media publications to thorough scrutiny to ascertain the factual basis of the information distributed.
Critical Media Review (2015, October 19). What is framing? Retrieved from What is Media Framing?
Shu, K, Sliva, A, Wang, S, Tang, J, & Liu, H. (2018). Fake News Detection on Social Media: A
Data Mining Perspective. SIGKDD Explorations, 19(1). Retrieved from http://users.wpi.edu/~kmus/ECE579M_files/ReadingMaterials/fake_news.pdf
United Nations Development Programme (2020). Guidance Note: Responding to COVID-19
Information Pollution. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/NII/Desktop/dubawa/undp-bpps-governance-Responding_to_COVID-19_Information%20_Pollution.pdf
Wardle, C. & Derakhshan, H. (2017). Information Disorder: Towards an Interdisciplinary
Framework for Research and Policy-Making. Council of Europe. Retrieved from https://rm.coe.int/information-disorder-toward-an-interdisciplinary-framework-for-researc/168076277c
Zhu, H, Wei, L & Niu, P. (2020, March 2). The novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.
Global Health Research and Policy. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s41256-020-00135-6#citeas
The researcher produced this analysis under the auspices of the Dubawa 2020 Fellowship to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism, to enhance media literacy in the country and to contribute to a body of knowledge on information disorder in the country.