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An editorial team questions its work every morning

A text by Dorian de Meeûs, editor-in-chief of “La Libre Belgique”

Criticism of the media treatment of the health crisis is salutary, but it cannot be summed up in a few slogans: “anxiety-provoking”, “at the boot of power”, “touting” … This would be to ignore certain indisputable realities. First, the fact that Covid-19 is an extremely contagious and potentially fatal virus for the weakest among us. The virus is therefore anxiety-inducing in itself. Then, and we have perhaps not said it enough, journalists discuss daily how to deal with the news, and all the more so in the midst of crisis management. An editorial team questions its editorial work every morning, on the basis of internal questions, criticisms, encouragement and discussions with readers, but also with scientists, political leaders, or even with the associative world, social and economic.

Like the rest of the population, this epidemic, then pandemic, stunned us. Such a crisis affecting all dimensions of life was unprecedented. We had never experienced a comparable event. Our editorial staff had to reorganize to bring together journalistic forces to cover the countless health, political, economic, social issues… Many journalists were thus relieved of their content. The requirement for responsiveness and flexibility has rarely been so important. Faced with possible errors in judgment, some approximations or too anxiety-provoking titles in 365 days of the pandemic, it is fair to recognize that an error or a broad coverage, perhaps disproportionate, is not manipulation.

Explaining, analyzing and detailing the decisions of governments and other consultation committees is a journalistic duty. However, the press does not take on the role of spokesperson, because, hardly relayed, the journalists comment on these measures, compare them, criticize them also, often even. This work must be honest and as neutral as possible.

The over-media coverage of experts

Several scientists, sometimes in spite of themselves, have become media stars. This observation is undoubtedly explained by the extreme complexity of an unknown virus which has spread at an unexpected speed. Explanations, even uncertain or evolving, were needed, and scientific answers to the countless questions raised by the situation. Very quickly, too, the general public discovered that virologists, epidemiologists and doctors did not always agree with each other. These heated debates between “experts”, which traditionally take place at universities or in specialized publications, have appeared in the general media and on social networks. This emphasis has paralyzed some, excited others. These confrontations sometimes turn out to be violent and remain difficult to arbitrate by journalists. The confrontation of these points of view was intended to be constructive and enriching, but it could also have caused some confusion or overdose. This is the flip side of transparency.

On March 3, 2020, La Libre published in the front page a photo of a woman wearing a surgical mask. Enough to raise some criticism, even from other media which, however, even today, still require the wearing of masks to their hosts and journalists as a sign of exemplarity. At the time, the government did not recommend the wearing of masks, much to the chagrin of leading scientists. Was our blanket that day anxious or just a reflection of a sad reality looming? Today, this front page would no longer be debated, of course.

The repetitiveness of the instructions, the detail of the health precautions and the daily publication of figures have legitimately provoked fears, mockery and criticism. Although sometimes alarmist or infantilizing, this information is essential to understand and judge the unprecedented measures that result from it. Whatever the media’s position has been on just about all the subjects inherent in the health crisis, they have been singled out. The slightest aspect causing a cleavage between the pros and the cons, those who tell the truth and the others. The loyalty of readers and subscribers is not based on attracting headlines, but on contextualized, independent and rigorous information. Beyond an inappropriate title or a poorly chosen illustration, the information on the virus, the tests, the tracing, the containment, the curfew and the vaccine were not very encouraging or reassuring.

For journalists too, reporting so much bad news was a burden on a daily basis. We therefore sought to highlight other news and created a daily newsletter of good news in full containment, but the virus was systematically coming back to the charge as the need to understand or denounce was substantial. And it stays that way.

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