Prime Sarmiento and Jan Yumul
The novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the key role of the Asia-Pacific media as the timely and trusted source of information, giving people around the region the tools to understand and cope with the impact of COVID-19, media industry leaders and experts said. Publishers, editors and academics who participated in the Dec 23 webinar on the pandemic’s impact on the media noted that like most sectors, the economic shock has also dented the revenue of media companies. At the same time, however, the pandemic also encouraged more people to turn to traditional media for reliable, current information. Zhou Shuchun, Standing Committee member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee and publisher and editor-in-chief of China Daily, expounded on the critical role of the media during the pandemic. “Our media colleagues have made unprecedented efforts, especially those in the Asia News Network. (They have) engaged in different extensions and made full use of technology,” Zhou said in his welcoming remarks at a webinar organized by China Daily, ANN, University of International Business and Economics and Shanghai International Studies University. Founded in 1999, ANN is a coalition of 23 leading news organizations from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia. Zhou cited Chinese President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on building a community of a shared future for mankind. To this end, he said, “the media have undertaken the mission of increasing information flows in advancing social development”. He cited Chinese journalists and how they have “braved hardship and danger to record heartwarming battles to tell the story of China's fight against the pandemic, which boosted the morale of frontline warriors and the whole nation”. Even though the pandemic has prevented ANN members from meeting each other in person, Zhou pledged continuous cooperation and friendship with ANN members who “all play a greater role in the progress of human civilization”. Xiang Debao, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Shanghai International Studies University, said the pandemic has slashed media budgets worldwide and thrown thousands of journalists out of their jobs. “(But) audience trust for journalists has increased …this is a good phenomenon for the journalism industry,” he said. Xiang cited a global survey by the International Center for Journalists which showed that more than 40 percent of the respondents said they felt audience trust in news organizations had increased during the pandemic. Xiang said the media industry “provides the bridge and link (to information). So when we are in the (COVID-19) crisis, we are in most urgent need of information”. Professional media outlets are becoming “more and more popular” and “have gained popularity and credibility.” Pana Janviroj, executive director of Asia News Network, said many Asian media appear to be weathering the storms “better than expected”. “But more importantly there is a consensus from bottom to top of the newsrooms, despite the dwindling resources and advertising revenue plunges, the relentless determination to do their jobs.” “The reporters are determined to do their jobs because readers and public at large appreciate their works. The COVID-19 era has endowed long-awaited public appreciation of mainstream national media and journalism,” he said. Juliet Labog Javellana, associate publisher of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said the pandemic has shown “the essential and critical value of free and independent media”. She noted that her publication has “to sift through the noise and confusion (to) counter the ‘disinfodemic’, or the proliferation of misinformation about COVID-19, which poses grave dangers to people’s lives”. Vivian Hsiao, a reporter at the Taipei-based China Post, said “the responsibility of the media increased greatly this year”. But she said that such responsibility has to be tempered with caution. “We wanted to give our readers the (latest) information but (we also wanted to) avoid (creating) unnecessary panic among them as well,” Hsiao said. Chen Zhiming, deputy director of China Daily’s international news department, said the organization’s global reach has allowed it to tap its pool of reporters posted in different regions to report on COVID-19. “This means that (during) critical moments in COVID-19 coverage, we have noses, eyes, ears on spot,” he said, adding that having a local presence is “invaluable” to China Daily’s coverage. He also underscored technology’s role in news reportage, noting how “the new media has been able to keep people informed”. Min Thaw Htut, executive director of Myanmar’s Eleven Media Group, said that one of the key lessons that he learned from the pandemic is that media companies have to remain “trustworthy, reliable and independent to do our main core functions”. “The other thing that we have to be mindful (about) is that the attention for eyeballs is very competitive. How do we survive this? It’s by creating good quality news,” he said. It is maintaining high standards of journalism that will allow the media to perform their role, given the amount of misinformation that has proliferated during the pandemic, according to John Gong, professor of economics at the University of International Business and Economics. “People are receiving messages through relays of information…the kind of reporting that we’re seeing these days is becoming more extreme,” he said, noting that this has made it more difficult for readers to get objective and fact-based information. He said media publications should not sacrifice their journalistic standards just to get higher traffic and that the government needs to take actions to counter misinformation. Media industry leaders said despite the challenges, the pandemic has also brought opportunities. For example, lockdown measures have pushed more people to go online, opening up new revenue streams. Choo Joon Kian, deputy editor-in-chief of Malaysia’s Sin Chew Daily, said the publication’s online platform memberships have increased to 240,000, without providing a time frame. Sin Chew Daily plans to set up a paywall next year. Nitish Kapoor, ANN’s editorial coordinator at New Delhi-based The Statesman said while the publication’s revenue decreased at the start of the pandemic, they have managed to recover these initial losses thanks to increased online traffic. Ly Tayseng, chief executive officer of the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia, said while advertising revenue for its print media went down by 30 percent, subscription numbers remained the same. He has also seen an increase in digital revenue. Ziaul Hoque, news editor at The Daily Star in Bangladesh said the pandemic has been “unsettling” and trimmed their revenue. He said the pandemic is pushing them to adopt a new business model. Philip Golingai, news editor at Kuala-Lumpur-based The Star, said the pandemic has been “challenging but there is also growth,” noting the continued presence of online news organizations in the country. “For me, with the retrenchment in most of the media organizations in Malaysia and also downsizing and some closures, having at least three new or four or five news organizations is very promising for us,” he said.