• Over 1,100 experts have shared with us their concerns about COVID-19 and COVID-impacted areas in the immediate and longer term future.
  • This report outlines media and communications concerns.
  • Experts worry that Government messages are unclear. They note that there have been inconsistencies in information shared by different parts of Government. It’s also unclear what the UK public is legally required to do, and how these requirements vary across the UK. Beyond that, there are concerns about the overarching Government communications strategy, the scientific evidence behind it and the number of people it has reached.
  • Experts are also concerned about the role of mass media during the outbreak. They are concerned about inaccurate reporting and how it could damage the public’s trust in mainstream media. They’re also concerned about the economic impact of the outbreak on independent media outlets. A financial downturn could lead to closures, limiting access to news for a segment of the UK population.
  • Finally, experts are concerned about misinformation. They worry that the UK Government is not doing enough to call out misinformation and stop its spread.
  • You can find all our horizon scanning work on COVID-19 here.

Our survey of over 1,100 experts asked them what their most important concerns were in the short (next 3 months), medium (next 3 to 9 months) and long-term (beyond the next 9 months) relating to the COVID-19 outbreak. Their responses were analysed and synthesised. This synthesis comes from survey responses submitted between 3 and 30 April. Experts raised 146 concerns relating to media and communications. Below are the areas of concerns that experts have relating to this area.

Government communications

Over 100 concerns focus on Government communications about the COVID-19 outbreak in the short, medium and long-term.

In the short-term, many experts are concerned that Government messages are unclear. They note that some information shared by different parts of Government has been conflicting. They also suggest that it has not been clear to the public which behaviours are legal requirements and which are encouraged guidance. Some experts note that the public may also be unsure how requirements differ across the UK and that this needs to be clearly communicated. Other short-term concerns include how the Government can explain the science of the virus to the general public. Some experts note that understanding the scientific basis of advice (such as washing hands or staying away from others) could increase adherence. Some experts also suggest that accurate data on deaths and infections should be released to the public to inform their behaviour.

Experts also express concern in the short-term about the Government’s communications strategy. Nearly 60 concerns focus on the behavioural science evidence behind the Government’s communications strategy. Experts want to know what level of adherence to the guidance the Government was expecting. They also want to know what evidence was used to decide how to deliver messages about social distancing and other behavioural changes. Some experts express concern in the medium-term that people will begin breaching guidance. They want to know how the Government plans to use its communications strategy to prevent that.

Some experts are concerned in the short-term that Government communications are not reaching all communities equally. For example, they note that key messages are less likely to reach people with English as a second language. Experts suggest that effective communication that reaches all UK citizens requires a segmentation strategy. This is where the content and method for delivering a message is tailored for different segments of society. Experts also question why the Government has not used different types of media more effectively to spread important messages. For example, they suggest that communications campaigns could have used online advertising, social media, billboards, leaflets and posters to reinforce messages delivered via television news channels.

In the long-term, experts express concern about how the Government can change recommendations over time as new evidence becomes available without confusing the public. Some experts also want to know what the long-term strategy is for ensuring that people continue good habits (such as hand-washing and maintaining distance from others) to prevent future waves of the COVID-19 outbreak or other pandemics. Other experts suggest that there should be an assessment of the success of the communications strategy in the future so that the UK can learn what works for future emergencies.

Example of a typical short-term concern in this area: We need more sophisticated communication of the impacts of social distancing on transmissivity and circulation rates, both to inform exit strategy from the lockdown and to avoid stigma for those unable to observe it.

Media

Experts express concerns about how the COVID-19 outbreak will affect mainstream media in the short, medium and long-term. Some experts are concerned that some media organisations are not reporting accurate information or are diluting Government messages. They note that this could confuse the public. Other experts are concerned that the public may lose confidence in the mainstream media because news outlets do not have enough access to data and Government strategies, meaning they are not able to provide up-to-date information to their audience.

Another area of concern raised by some academics is the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on independent media. They note that many independent media organisations (such as local newspapers or smaller news outlets) were already experiencing financial difficulties before the COVID-19 outbreak. They suggest that an economic downturn could cause these independent media organisations to close. They note that independent media reaches a different audience to large mainstream media and also has a history of quality investigative journalism. They suggest that the loss of independent media would have a negative impact on the diversity of news coverage in the UK.

Example of a typical long-term priority in this area: Even if the crisis passed and the lock-down was lifted within a month, there will be lasting impact on independent news media especially at the local level, what can public policy do to help ensure the consequences do not further exacerbate socia[l] and geographic inequality in news provision?

Misinformation and fake news

Some experts express concern in the short and medium-term about misinformation and fake news relating to the COVID-19 outbreak. They note that unchecked misinformation could lead to people trying dangerous ‘cures’ or lead to anti-democratic or racist views becoming normalised. Experts are concerned that the UK Government is not doing enough to call out misinformation and stop it spreading. Some suggest that the Government should be tracking the spread of accurate information and misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak. This would allow it to understanding more about how to tackle misinformation in general in the future.

Example of a typical short-term priority in this area: How to deal with problems arising from the current information environment – for example the proliferation of fake news (for e.g. 5G) or hate speech (blaming specific groups for coronavirus).


You can read the methodology of this work here. All researchers who contributed to this survey are listed under Acknowledgements.

You can find rapid response content from POST on COVID-19 here.

You can find more content on COVID-19 from the Commons and Lords Libraries here.