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Complete and utter official narrative and a bit of fake news: how online media covered coronavirus

26.11.2020, 16:27

Lately, the coronavirus pandemic has become hot issue once more. Almost every week, Ukraine sets new coronavirus anti-records, and the authorities find it increasingly difficult to take everything under control. That’s why, it’s important that the population could get reliable and timely information about coronavirus facts. 

IMI analyzed how leading Ukrainian online media covered the pandemic, as well as what sources of information journalists used in their stories *.

As the monitoring study evidenced, two-thirds of all information about the coronavirus came from official data and various official reports. In second place (13%), this was an information from foreign media, mostly reports on covid cases recorded globally. And only 3% of all stories and news items about the coronavirus came from experts and physicians. 

According to the results of the monitoring study, the main topics as to the coronavirus pandemic were statistics, as well as information on lockdown restrictions and related zoning. Ukrainian online media also paid a lot of attention to international news about the fight against the virus, which accounted for 14% of news.

According to the study, the reports on the Russian "Sputnik V" prevailed in the news about the vaccine: it accounted for more than half of all mentions of vaccines.

Lockdown restrictions and zoning 

Lockdown restrictions and zones accounted for 21% of coronavirus news. Most of such news came out on the TSN website (12%), the least did on the "Ukrainsky Tyzhden" (1.5%).

This topic covered introduction of weekend lockdown and restrictions it ment:

"Stepanov told what restrictions the weekend lockdown understood - 112 Ukraina" (112.ua)

"Lockdown in Ukraine will be strengthened on weekend: OBOZREVATEL learned the details, exclusive " (Obozrevatel)

"Weekend lockdown may be introduced in Ukraine at a Cabinet meeting on November 4 - Stepanov" (Strana)

As well the media spoke of division of the country into quarantine zones: this information was provided with reference to the Minister of Cabinet of Ministers Oleg Nemchinov or the Chief Sanitary Doctor Viktor Lyashko:

" How Ukraine was divided into quarantine zones " (Strana)

"Five cities on the brink of red zone, Kyiv including " (TSN)

Therefore, some media distorted even such official information. For example, some manipulations have been found on “Strana" website, where they published the news "Kyiv and four other regional centers to become" red in a week", because Victor Lyashko noted that these regional centers were located on the border between the orange and red zones.

The site "Politica" presented this news under a headline that contained somehow excessive emotions: " Kyiv is one step away from red zone: chief sanitary doctor of Ukraine scared  residents of capital ."

Sometimes, the media relied on the words of opinion leaders and did not check them in alternative sources of information, which translated in fake news. This happened with the news about the alleged introduction of another quarantine zone, the "black" one. Sonya Koshkina posted such a message on the social network, and some media published it.

Weekend lockdown: another zone to appear in Ukraine, says Koshkina 

Later, the news was refuted by the Minister of Health Maksym Stepanov who called it a fake news: " Stepanov said that no" black zones " for Ukraine."

The source of the information in the news was officials such as Health Minister Stepanov, Chief Sanitary Doctor Viktor Lyashko or Prime Minister Denis Shmygal.

Statistics

The same speakers were also the main newsmakers about the number of sick, recovered or dead. In addition to them, this information, but already on a regional scale, was often reported by the heads of regional state administrations. The Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klichko also spoke of the statistics of cases in the capital at his briefings. All, without exception, the sites we have been monitoring, published the statistics daily: as national ones and in the capital. Sometimes, there were reports with statistics at the regional level, but mostly in the regions where there was a significant increase of death cases. However, for example, the Public broadcaster (Suspilne) website was daily reporting the statistics on almost every region separately.

Within a day, in Sumy region coronavirus confirmed for 367 people, two of them died of complications "

In Zhytomyr region, coronavirus confirmed for 367 inhabitants "

Within one day, in Dnipropetrovsk region they registered 438 new coronavirus cases"

So, the largest part of stories with statistics is accounted on this site : 28%.

International news

The third topic in the coverage of the pandemic was the fight against the virus in other countries: it accounted for 14% of all materials about the coronavirus.

The main source of information in this news was the foreign media. The largest share of such stories came out on the TSN website: 12.5%.

This is mainly information about the growing number of patients or about new restrictions introduced in other countries:

In the United States after the election, the number of coronavirus cases is growing: more than 120 thousand per day "

“ A record number of COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed worldwide. Half of cases in Europe. ”

The Danish government self-imposed isolation, as Minister of Justice had COVID-19  " 

Lockdown in Italy: curfew and partial lockdown imposed "

Completion of hospitals and beds 

Hospitals and beds completion accounted for 6.5% of all coronavirus stories.

Apart of the standard official, this news cited the management of hospitals and policy makers as sources of infornmation.

Such stories are of great importance because they speak of the charge of the whole medical system. And, they report not only about the number of taken beds, but also about deployment of new mobile hospitals.

"The Ministry of Health reports that 66.8% of places for patients with coronavirus occupied in Ukrainian hospitals 

" Coronavirus in Transcarpathia - Uzhgorod hospital completely filled with patients " 

Several hundred more beds for patients with COVID-19 to be deployed in Lviv hospitals "

The highest percent of news speaking on this issue was also recorded on the Public broadcaster’s website (Suspilne) (18%).

This topic also had some pieces with attributes of an order in favor of Petro Poroshenko. The politician demanded that President Zelensky open a departmental hospital "Feofania" to receive coronavirus patients: " Poroshenko gave the government 72 hours to open departmental hospitals and" Feofania "for patients COVID-19 ."

The head of state snatched the opportunity to react to the Poroshenko's statement and announced that “Feofania” was already accepting such patients: " The OP said that Feofania clinic has been accepting patients with COVID for two months ." The news said that this was Zelensky's initiative (" At the initiative of President Volodymyr Zelensky, it was included in the List of public health facilities that provide care to patients with coronavirus infection ").

However, it is possible that the president meant himself and Ermak, because they were treated in "Feofania": Zelensky and Ermak with coronavirus sent to "Feofania ".

So the battle between politicians and main rivals is on.

Tests and testing 

3.5% of stories about coronavirus infection accounted for information about tests and testing.

The materials report on the government's purchase of new rapid tests (" Ukraine to purchase 2 million rapid tests on COVID-19 - Shmygal "), the cost of these tests for the population (" In Ukraine, PCR tests cost from 720 UAH, most of them financed by state ”), explain the principle of such tests (“ Express test for coronavirus antigen in Ukraine: the doctor showed and explained the principle how it works ”).

Vaccines

Vaccines accounted for 3% of coronavirus stories. However, the majority (56%) of this information relates to the Russian “Sputnik V” vaccine.

The highest percent of materials related to the Russian vaccine was published on the websites of pro-Russian politicians Viktor Medvedchuk :112 and Newsone, 37.5%, as well as on the pro-Russian website “Strana”: another 16.5% of information.

The main newsmaker on the promotion of the Russian vaccine was Viktor Medvedchuk, who said that the Ukrainian authorities should have bought that vaccine without delay: " Viktor Medvedchuk: Ukrainian authorities must immediately continue negotiations on purchase of a Russian anti-coronavirus  vaccine."

Some of news from Medvedchuk about Russian vaccines was outright fake news. For example, the politician said that there was no other vaccine against coronavirus infection at that time (" Medvedchuk: There are no other coronavirus vaccines in world, except Russian ones. Ukrainian government should negotiate authorization to bring vaccines in Ukraine ").

However, this is not true, as several international pharmaceutical and research institutions have already announced their vaccines, which have already passed all the necessary clinical trials. These are Pfizer and Moderna : “ What is known about potentially first effective vaccine against COVID-19 from Pfizer and BionTECH? ”, Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccine: what is known about them and who among Ukrainians to be vaccinated in the first place ”.

Oxford University also said it had developed its own vaccine: "The Oxford vaccine has been shown to be 70% effective ."

Other sites disseminated information about the alleged demand for Russian vaccines in the world:

Russian coronavirus vaccine ordered at Israeli hospital "

Hungary will buy Russian vaccine against COVID-19 - Siarto "

Important topics that mass media don’t speak on

IMI has already spoke of topics related to coronavirus, which they cover not sufficiently in mass media. The monitoring showed that, indeed, there was little information in mass media from doctors or other medical staff: only 3%. However, we found a topic that has zero presence in mass media : how the coronavirus pandemic affected the treatment of other diseases. We have information that more and more hospitals are converting to COVID hospitals and more and more doctors are involved in counteracting the virus. Instead, how this did affect the treatment of other diseases, which apparently did not disappear with coronavirus, this is absolutely not clear.

We also did not record any journalistic investigations into counteracting the coronavirus. The vast majority of stories were presenting the position of the government, the actions of the government and official statistics, which were almost impossible to verify, but one can not hope this was an absolutely objective journalism.

Another problem was the huge amount of official information that could make unintelligeable other important reports about doctors, vaccines, coronavirus mutations or research.

* Monitoring was conducted in the period from 4 to 6 November 2020 inclusive in the following media: Obozrevatel, Politeka, Channel 24, Gordon, Ukrainska Pravda, UNIAN, Segodnya, TSN, 112.ua, Newsone, RBC.ua, Liga, Interfax -Ukraine, Suspilne, Ukrainsky Tyzhden, Dzerkalo Tyzhdnya, Bukvy, Censor, Strana. The sample covered all news in a row, published on the sites for the specified period (more than 20 thousand news)

This study was made possible by the support of the American people through the USAID Media Program in Ukraine, implemented by the international organization Internews Network. The contents are the sole responsibility of the Institute for Mass Information and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the US Government or the Internews Network.

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