Just 10% of complaints received by the UK’s biggest press regulator during the first year of the pandemic were about Covid-19, despite the pandemic dominating the news agenda.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation said it received 31,953 complaints between March 2020 and April 2021 but only 3,102, concerning 1,270 articles, related to coronavirus coverage.
IPSO regulates most of the UK’s national and regional newspapers, with the notable exceptions of The Guardian, The Observer, Financial Times, The Independent and Evening Standard, which all choose to regulate themselves. Impress regulates many smaller local and hyperlocal publishers.
IPSO’s report said it was “ surprising and notable” that so few complaints related to Covid-19 “at a time when it dominated the news agenda to such an extent”.
IPSO chairman Lord Faulks said: “This represents a vanishingly small slice of the coverage that Covid attracted throughout the UK press, from the time that the scale of the story started to emerge in February 2020 – including countless reports, graphs, ‘explainers’, comments and investigations.”
Some 16,860 of the complaints received by IPSO in 2020 – almost 58% of the total – related to a Scottish Sun front page describing the fatal train derailment in Stonehaven as “death express”.
Excluding this story due to the disproportionate volume of complaints it received, those relating to coronavirus coverage made up 21% of IPSO’s total for the year.
IPSO opened 77 investigations into Covid-related complaints, resulting in 47 rulings and 38 corrections.
Some 83% of the Covid-related complaints fell under Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice while 27% related to privacy, 18% to discrimination and 17% to harassment. Privacy and harassment complaints related mostly to “super spreaders” and those infected at the start of the pandemic.
Meanwhile IPSO said: “Given the fast-moving nature of information during the pandemic and some of the challenges of reporting, it is not surprising that many concerns related to accuracy.”
IPSO identified several main themes relating to Covid complaints.
The alleged misleading use of photos, particularly around social distancing during lockdowns, was a recurring theme. IPSO did not uphold 22 complaints against a Daily Express front page showing Brighton seafront in April 2020 after the newspaper provided metadata proving the photo had been taken a day before publication. However it did rule against Mirror Online which had pictured an identifiable group of cyclists and claimed they were ignoring lockdown rules.
IPSO said the use of statistics was a “common concern” and “extremely challenging given the fast-moving nature of the data and the fact that data sets were of varying quality”.
It ruled against an October 2020 splash from Metro which reported the number of people dying at home from non-Covid illnesses had “rocketed since lockdown” even though deaths had actually been redistributed from hospital to home.
IPSO chief executive Charlotte Dewar said: “In some cases, there is no one ‘right’ answer; at those times, transparency is particularly important.”
The use of scientific research in reporting and comment pieces must also be used carefully – for example, the Mail on Sunday was rapped when a columnist misleadingly claimed a study had showed face masks were “useless”.
Press Gazette previously reported that most media misreporting of Covid-19 was down to misunderstanding scientific research, according to analysis of Full Fact’s fact checks. Researchers later separately found that most false news spread by mainstream media in the UK was due to errors in reporting academic findings.
However Fiona Fox, chief executive of The Science Media Centre which works to improve science coverage in the UK, said: “Unlike in other countries the UK press has managed to hang onto its science and health specialist journalists, and this was critical to the high standards of reporting we witnessed during the pandemic.
“Research showed that what readers wanted was in-depth reporting that they could trust and the simple explainers that would help them understand all aspects of a complex new virus. The scientific community I work with understood and appreciated the value of responsible science journalism more than ever before. When the public needed the very best standards of journalism the UK press rose to the challenge.”
The accuracy of opinion pieces was cited as an area of concern, “specifically where particular data had been selected to support a point of view”, IPSO said. The regulator said The Telegraph breached the Editors’ Code when Toby Young claimed having a cold could offer protection against coronavirus and that London was approaching herd immunity in July, due to his misrepresentation of the data.
However IPSO backed a Spectator article that claimed “somewhere around 99.9 per cent of those who catch the disease recover” because the columnist was able to defend his use of the statistics. The regulator said publications are free “to marshal and defend their choice of valid data and statistics to support their point of view”.
Dewar said: “In a number of cases IPSO faced the challenge of balancing protection of freedom of expression (and particularly contrarian views) with the rigorous requirements of the Editors’ Code in relation to accuracy.
“The course of the pandemic demonstrated the value of protecting dissent; some views that were initially considered controversial later came to be widely accepted, and others that were initially mainstream were later discredited. Critical to these decisions was consideration of whether evidence cited in support of the opinion was presented accurately and without distortion.”
IPSO also said it had heard of potential discrimination against groups of people in reporting the origins of Covid-19 and, as a result, of “possible wider societal impacts”.
However the Editors’ Code requires specific instances of discrimination and the concerns around Covid-19 were often that inaccurate or insensitive reporting could lead to discrimination, rather than about any directly pejorative references. For example, a complaint that a Mail on Sunday article reporting on the re-opening of “squalid” meat markets in China discriminated against Chinese people was not upheld.
Lord Faulks said he had “no doubt” that coverage of the pandemic by the UK and global news media had been “saving lives”, but that IPSO hoped publishing its findings from the past 18 months would “inform editorial decision-making over the next period of the pandemic and beyond”.
Notable non-Covid themes among the complaints received by IPSO in 2020 included reporting of religion, including a Sun comment piece by Rod Liddle allegedly “victimising and ridiculing” Pagans, reporting of domestic abuse, including a Sun article containing comments from JK Rowling’s ex-husband saying he was not sorry for slapping her, and Black Lives Matter protest coverage. IPSO did not consider the complaints about either Sun article as Rowling herself did not complain and there was no complaint of discrimination against an individual in the Pagan case.
Broadcast regulator Ofcom has upheld seven serious breaches of the Broadcasting Code since the start of the pandemic, mostly at small niche operations. Four of the breaches related to Christian TV channel Loveworld where presenters shared unsubstantiated and potentially dangerous claims about Covid-19, including its origins, comparisons to the flu, and vaccines.