60% of Flemish television news focused on Covid-19 in 2020, research shows
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60% of Flemish television news focused on Covid-19 in 2020, research shows

Credit: UAntwerpen

Over the past year, 60% of all television news in Flanders was spent on news about the coronavirus, research by the Univerity of Antwerp (UAntwerp) shows.

The researchers analysed all 7:00 PM episodes of ‘Het Journaal’ (on VRT) and ‘Het Nieuws’ (on VTM) on Dutch-speaking television between January and October 2020. On VRT, 23 episodes of the news were exclusively about the coronavirus, on VTM, there were nine.

In total, 60% of all broadcast time of the news programmes were dedicated to the virus.

“These are some serious results,” said political scientist at the UAntwerp, Stefaan Walgrave. “Some themes suddenly did not exist in the news in 2020 – migration, for example – and the normal political game between government and opposition was also completely disrupted.”

While there was a clear link between infection rates and hospitalisation figures on the one hand, and the share of airtime on the other, the media attention was also focused on the virus during better periods.

“There was clearly a need for information among the public, because a peak in the coverage of the coronavirus was invariably accompanied by a peak in the viewing figures,” researcher Ine Kuypers said.

According to the researchers, diversity turned out to be the biggest victim of the excessive Covid-19 reporting.

The share of political news halved, and other topics that were prominent before 2020, such as crime and the environment, also suffered. Additionally, less attention was given to foreign news received, and a large part of it was also about Covid-19.

Additionally, the pandemic also had an effect on which people were invited to speak.

While in regular times, about 10-15% of talking time during political news is reserved for the opposition parties, this shrank to less than 5% in 2020. Medical experts were most present, but non-medical experts barely got a chance to speak.

Prominent virologist Marc Van Ranst was the most present medical expert, speaking for a total of 26,136 seconds. The most talked-about politician was Ben Weyts (N-VA), who spoke for 8,644 seconds.

The one-sidedness of the news worries the researchers. “For a while, Flemish news resembled that of Russia or China,” Walgrave said.

“There was one dominant angle, and the government dominated the news as never before,” he said. “News diversity is a great democratic good and it is not healthy for one theme or emphasis to dominate the news as much as what we saw in 2020.”

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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