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How Pandemics Changed Journalism

This was a project for my journalism history class at Michigan State University. The goal of the project was to write about a historic event that has impacted journalism.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is the eighth deadliest pandemic in the world, with over 4.3 million deaths worldwide. Since the pandemic started back in March 2020, conspiracy theories and myths have almost made it impossible for the public to get full transparency on the virus and how it is affecting millions of lives in the present day. As the pandemic continues, journalists have a battle of their own: reporting the most accurate information available to the general public. This issue has proven to be a challenge since fake news outlets and misinformation have caused xenophobia and fear among the United States.

Xenophobia is one of the main challenges in reporting on pandemics. The Spanish Flu had a case of xenophobia as well. The Spanish flu was incorrectly labeled because it was reported to have started from Spain. Whether it was intentional or not, this promoted irrational fear and stigma among nations during World War I. This had serious repercussions, resulting in more people dying from the flu.

Since the first case of COVID was reported in Wuhan, China, there has been an uprise in hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans. People have labeled COVID-19 as the "China virus." Over 2,800 cases of hate incidents were reported, ranging from verbal abuse to physical attacks. The up-spike in these hate crimes was blamed on Donald Trump, who blames China for spreading the virus to the United States. People since then have started support groups and safe spaces that provide people of the APIDA communities a place to feel safe and voice their opinions on the pandemic.

The government's response to the Spanish Flu in 1918 very different compared to the response of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Except, the government can talk about the COVID pandemic and may report on it. This wasn't exactly the case in 1918. The government basically banned government leaders and journalists from reporting on it. This caused devastating results among the population. The flu killed about 50-60 million Americans and about 100 million people worldwide because of the many restrictions put in place by the government.

One of the misleading pandemic statements was the Spanish Flu of 1918. The term was originated because many people believed that it originated from Spain. “It gets called the ‘Spanish Flu’ because the Spanish media did their job,” said Lora Vogt, who’s the curator of education at a WWI Museum and Memorial. However, this statement is false because of the amount of reporting done on it back then. The press from Spain was neutral in reporting about the pandemic and Spanish king Alfonzo XIII contracted this flu, which led many to believe it had originated there.

The Spanish Flu was downplayed by the media due to censorship and limited reporting on the issue. President Woodrow Wilson made no public references or statements regarding the pandemic. This resulted in no assistance from the Food and Drug Administration. Newspapers, which were the primary news source before radio, attempted to sugarcoat the truth about the flu and censorship became a role in letting that happen.

Censorship was a predominant role in reporting on the Spanish Flu. "The viruses don't care where they come from, they just love taking advantage of wartime censorship," says Carol Byerly, the author of the book "Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I. Her book talks about how censorship played a role. An example of this would be hiding the statistics behind the epidemic. According to the National Library of Medicine, local health authorities refused to reveal the real statistics. This made it very hard to assess the impact of the Spanish Flu. As stated before, Spain remained neutral throughout this pandemic. But other newspapers were refrained from reporting on this to avoid an alarming panic.

According to On The Media, there were other reasons that the media downplayed the seriousness of the Spanish Flu. John Barry and Brooke Gladstone spoke on how different restrictions barred people from reporting on the flu.

One thing that was mentioned in this podcast was the Sedition Act of 1918. This act imprisoned, fined, or deported any individual who was deemed a threat or published false writing against the United States government. A congressman was sentenced to 10 years in prison for publishing malicious statements against the government. This, in turn, scared many journalists that would report on the flu back then. The Act was put in place to protect morale during World War I and minimize any damage that newspapers and media outlets would have caused.

The Sedition Act tested the first amendment of the U.S. constitution, which grants the right to freedom of speech and press. This resulted in the act being repealed in 1920.

The Spanish Flu was one pandemic that posed a lot of challenges for journalists. It resulted in censorship among the population, resulting in more deaths. This pandemic reminds us that there are challenges when it comes to reporting on public health crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way journalists report. Since the pandemic started, there has been an increase in xenophobia and violence. According to Amnesty, governments have been criminalizing journalists and shutting down various media outlets for reporting on this pandemic. This makes it a challenge for the public to determine the seriousness of the virus.

One act of harm against journalists occurred in Turkey last May. Oktay Candemir and Rusen Takva were taken in for questioning based on information they had shared on social media relating to COVID. There was no motive as to why they were brought in for doing their jobs, but it's a clear indicator that local authorities were already harassing journalists for reporting on the pandemic. Other incidents that involved harm against journalists occurred in Madagascar, and Africa among other countries. Some countries have even banned and removed fake news outlets from publishing myths about the virus with no opportunity to appeal.

Misinformation play a key role in determining how serious Americans are taking the COVD-19 pandemic. Some myths ranged from the vaccines inserting tracking microchips into humans to even recommending dangerous chemicals to cure it. These myths alone have really caused serious consequences throughout the world. It has led to vaccine hesitancy and neglect. Throughout the pandemic, we have been exposed to a great deal of information, from facts to myths. This has led to what people call an "infodemic." Social media outlets, like Facebook, have been a plague of misinformation. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, reported that the platform has taken down more than 18 million posts alone. Experts say that misinformation is sometimes intentional for a malicious purpose (i.e., financial, political, etc.) This puts reporters and journalists at risk of harm when reporting about COVID.

The COVID pandemic has challenged journalism ethics since it was first declared. People rely on the news and media to take into account how serious this is. The pandemic has changed the way journalists work and relay important information about the pandemic. The increase in job cuts in media sectors have made it difficult for reporters because they are in uncomfortable situations.

According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment has declined about 26% since 2008.

The history of pandemics has reshaped what we think of COVID-19. Since the Spanish Flu, journalists and the public question what's right and what's wrong. The public does not know whether or not to listen to credible sources due to the amount of censorship and xenophobia that has been prevalent. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic happening, it is hard to get reliable information without being bombarded with conspiracy theories, myths, and lies. This has led to a lot of hesitancy and fear among populations. If false statements weren't present on the web, the public would have a much clearer picture of the pandemic and take more safety measures. Millions of lives would be saved and cases would decrease.

As we look at COVID and the Spanish Flu, the future of journalism is still in question. The current pandemic has led to a decrease in trust in media outlets. Today, journalism has been through changes, both in reporting and in health. Reporting on pandemics will prove to be more of a challenge because of infodemics. This jeopardizes ethical and journalistic standards and how it's portrayed to the public. New standards and reporting rules could be put in place to help combat infodemics and xenophobia across the world. News media outlets would rely more on credible sources to provide a clearer and transparent picture of a public health crisis. The future of journalism remains questionable as we deal with COVID, but it's up to the media to make the step forward.


By: Senami Kojah. “Ethical Considerations for Reporting on COVID-19.” International Center for Journalists, 28 May 2020,

“Fake News and the Flu.” Wellcome Collection,

“Journalists and Media Houses Targeted in Southern Africa as COVID-19 Escalates.” Amnesty International, 12 Aug. 2021,

Little, Becky. “As the 1918 Flu Emerged, Cover-Up and Denial Helped It Spread.”, A&E Television Networks, 26 May 2020,

“Mark Zuckerberg Says Facebook Has Removed 18 Million Posts with COVID Misinformation, but Won't Say How Many People Viewed Them.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 18 Aug. 2021,

Martini, M, et al. “The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: a Lesson from History 100 Years after 1918.” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, Pacini Editore Srl, 29 Mar. 2019,

Rachel Clamp PhD Candidate in History. “Coronavirus and the Black Death: Spread of Misinformation and Xenophobia Shows We Haven't Learned from Our Past.” The Conversation, 25 May 2021,

“Racial Discrimination and COVID-19.” OHCHR,

Shapiro, Walter. “How America's Newspapers Covered Up a Pandemic.” The New Republic, 19 Aug. 2021,

“Trump's COVID Diagnosis Reminds Voters of Xenophobic Comments He Made at the Debate.” The 19th, 6 Oct. 2020,

University, Stanford. “Combating Black Plague Was Just as Much about Politics as It Was Science.” Stanford News, 12 May 2020,

Walker, Mason. “U.S. Newsroom Employment Has Fallen 26% since 2008.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 16 July 2021,

“Why The Press Downplayed the 1918 Flu: On the Media.” WNYC Studios, 27 Nov. 2020,


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