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Media bias is politicising the coronavirus pandemic coverage

March 17, 2020 at 12:03 pm

Disinfection works are being carried out by specialists, wearing protective suits, at Beylerbeyi Palace as part of precautions against the coronavirus (COVID-19), in Istanbul, Turkey on 16 March 2020 [Erhan Elaldı/Anadolu Agency]

Slanted news coverage has a major impact on public perceptions of the topic in question. Media bias doesn’t exclusively mean content bias, though; the presentation style of the report could also create prejudice. This includes the placement of the story and its size. For example, a front-page story receives more attention than a brief comment on page three, and the picture selection is a key factor that reflects bias, whether chosen by subject or size, as is the caption used.

Coverage of the coronavirus pandemic is a case in point. The BBC has used irrelevant images from Turkey in its coverage of the crisis for two consecutive days despite criticism from the Turkish authorities. In the first instance, the BBC, the New York Times and CNN International all decided to use images related to Turkey and Istanbul with their news stories about the outbreak of the virus in France. Later, the BBC used an image showing Turkish football fans wearing the Turkish flags and putting on masks. Surprisingly, the story was headlined “Trudeau and wife isolate after she tests positive”.

Criticism of linking images of Turkey with the virus outbreak has come from the Turkish Embassy in Washington, which challenged CNN International for “deliberately” using irrelevant pictures of Istanbul in news items about coronavirus developments. The embassy described the selective CNN coverage style as deplorable and asked the channel to interpret the significant correlation between an image of a mosque in Istanbul and Congress visits or California prisons. Like the BBC, the New York Times and CNN International used the photo of a Turkish worker deep cleaning a mosque as a cover for stories that have no direct connection to Turkey.

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The New York Times used images of Istanbul’s most famous mosques to report US President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions to and from the EU due to the virus outbreak. Interestingly, Trump’s directive doesn’t actually include Turkey, which has so far largely succeeded in containing the spread of the virus and minimising its infection rate. People in Turkey are furious that their country is apparently being targeted deliberately by such major media outlets.

These outlets’ track records in this respect should ring alarm bells. In the wake of every democratic event in Turkey, be it a presidential, parliamentary or municipal election, or a constitutional referendum, despite the fact that the country uses well-established, transparent democratic procedures, some European and international media insist on presenting reports as if it is heading towards tyranny and autocratic dictatorship.

Articles such as “How a constitutional amendment could end Turkey’s republic”, “Turkey’s Elected Dictator”, “Just one step away from dictatorship”, “Will presidential referendum kill Turkey’s democracy?”, “Turkey is about to take another step toward dictatorship” and “Turkey, Facing Disunity Under Erdogan, Finds an Enemy in Europe” all explicitly denote Turkey as a democratic country that is about to turn into a disastrous dictatorship under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

President of Turkey and in Ankara, Turkey on 11 March 2020 [Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency]

President of Turkey and in Ankara, Turkey on 11 March 2020 [Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency]

Evidently, none of such writers’ expectations actually materialised. On the contrary, Turkey has made major advances in its economic, industrial and service sectors. The ruling party, which was predicted to turn the country into a dictatorship, lost its majority in the main cities during the last municipal elections.

The media overwhelms us with fake news, including the mainstream outlets noted above, which have all been accused by politicians and international leaders of this. If they are truly innocent and such allegations are groundless, their coverage style should reflect it. Otherwise, “fake news” essentially describes their output in the sense that the term is not meant exclusively to describe a story that has been made up entirely; it also means the striking bias and the manipulation of facts. Indeed, fake news is a broad category meant to symbolise everything that is not factual or authentic. Thus, slightly slanted or biased reporting, propaganda and selective reporting styles are contributing contextually to “fake news”.

Coronavirus is affecting the whole world, will it unite us - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Coronavirus is affecting the whole world, will it unite us? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In all these respects, much of what is categorised as “fake news” could be disguised as an opinion, hypothesis, carefully selected truths and truths distorted by prejudice. In 2005, during hurricane Katrina, two similar images were circulated by the US media. Both pictures showed survivors wading through floodwater carrying bags of food. How were they interpreted? The first was a picture of a black man who was described as “looting” the grocery store, while the other was of a white couple, who were described as “finding” food there. Such dangerous reporting reveals the racism and prejudice of the journalists and media outlets involved. It is a complex issue. Fortunately, public outrage and criticism forced the New York Times to remove these particular images.

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According to Anadolu Agency, the governments of more than 26 countries have asked their Turkish counterparts for help in combatting the coronavirus. The list includes Italy, Iran and South Korea. It’s definitely not a coincidence that Turkey has so far managed to hinder the progress of the virus. During the initial phase of the outbreak, when just a few countries were infected, Turkey was among the few to impose thermal screening on travellers at its borders.

Turkey’s procedures to fight the pandemic have been upgraded consistently. All passengers coming from China have faced additional screening and quarantine, as have those from other major centres of the pandemic. Its citizens who were performing Umrah pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia were asked to return to Turkey immediately where they faced detailed screening procedures and quarantine. The people of Turkey thus have every right to expect the mainstream media to cover their country’s success story accurately instead of politicising the pandemic coverage.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.