The one thing booming amid the pandemic : TV news

By Peter Meikle, Head of News

While stock-markets continue to plummet, illustrated by graphs full of jagged cliff-drops that reveal just how astonishingly bad things are getting for the world’s economy, the charts showing the viewing figures for TV news are going the other way – lines shooting skywards, record audiences being recorded.

BBC News and Sky News saw around three times their normal audience during parts of this weekend.

On BBC1 and Channel 4, the most watched programmes are now the news bulletins.

Online, the BBC News website has seen a huge surge with well over half-a-billion page views of coronavirus stories in just four weeks leading up to March 11.

The public’s appetite is understandably unquenchable as people crave to be updated on a crisis that is, without argument, the biggest story of modern times – and a story that will leave no one untouched.

And this spike in the number of people devouring news is set to jump higher as millions of us begin to work from home – and get greater access to watching and reading the latest news developments.

It’s a time for level heads – and the responsibility our news broadcasters currently have is immense.

Not only are they tasked with walking the tightrope of responsible coverage, they also do need to report on the worst-case scenarios in a balanced way, attempting to avoid scaremongering and causing panic and anxiety among their audiences.

Getting that balance is not always easy in these extraordinary times where the best scientific advice needs to be simply explained.

I’ve heard it said that journalism can be boiled into two words: simplify and exaggerate. But this is a story that requires no exaggeration to get attention.  Even at the least scary end of the scenario sliding scale, the disruption we face to our lives is impossible to overstate.

And in a matter of days, that disruption is only going to get more pronounced for the people bringing us the news.

The very process of getting the news out on our TV screens will become increasingly difficult as more and more staff are expected to be forced to stay away from their newsrooms.

And what about the increasingly likely possibility of newsrooms having to shut down if staff test positive? What then?

London’s Evening Standard newspaper has already tested putting out a dummy edition with everyone working from home. It was a success. But putting out a TV news bulletin with no-one able to enter the building – that could be a very different story.