The Covid Report

The Covid Report: How the British press is reporting on the pandemic looks at IPSO's response to the pandemic and examines complaints and case studies of Covid reporting which explore some of the key themes of the Editors’ Code.

The report also looks at how IPSO’s privacy notice service was used during the period and gives insight into how Covid impacted regulated publishers’ operations. 

 

Key findings 

  • Less than 10% (9.7%) of complaints received related to reporting of Covid despite it dominating the news agenda.

  • Of Covid-related complaints, 83% were made under Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code which covers accuracy.

  • IPSO opened 77 investigations into Covid related complaints resulting in 47 rulings and 38 corrections.

  • Key themes around complaints made by the public included: use of photography, coverage of science and research, social media, opinion pieces and concerns about possible discrimination.

Complaints statistics

IPSO received 3,102 complaints about 1,270 separate articles relating to Covid, around 10% of what was ultimately a record year in 2020 for IPSO complaints.

Over 30,000 were received January to December 2020, and nearly 32,000 received during the analysis period of March 2020 to April 2021. Nearly half of the complaints received in the analysis period related to one article on the Stonehaven train derailment, which represented nearly 58% of total complaints received during the period.

Covid was one of a number of important issues covered during this time. Other notable topics with high numbers of complaints included Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and domestic abuse reporting.

Podcast

Listen to Chief Exec Charlotte Dewar discussing the findings of the report in a special edition of the IPSO podcast.

Listen now.

Timeline

Almost half of all Covid-related complaints were received during the first half of the analysis period. Owing to the unprecedented nature of the health crisis, complaints relate mostly to the likelihood of lockdown measures being instituted and the accuracy of presentation of scientific and epidemiological information.

As national lockdown was implemented, April complaints turned towards coverage of the Prime Minister’s battle with Covid-19, “claps for carers” and the rising death rate of the first wave. May was dominated by complaints about lockdown compliance.

The summer and autumn saw low numbers of complaints surrounding Covid-19 (though high numbers about matters unrelated to Covid-19 including BLM, JK Rowling and Stonehaven). An increase in complaints numbers is not seen again until the end of the second lockdown, around teachers returning to the classroom and uncertainty over lockdown restrictions over Christmas.

Case studies

Various v Daily Express
Photographs which allegedly showed lapses in social distancing led to complaints about distortion in images

IPSO received 22 complaints that a photograph published on the front page of the Daily Express was inaccurate. The image, of large crowds on Brighton promenade, accompanied an article about warnings for breaking social distancing rules. Complainants said the photo had been taken last summer, and claimed that some cranes appearing in the picture had since been removed.

The Express denied the image was inaccurate. It provided the metadata for the picture, which showed it had been taken a day before publication. The publication also provided a Twitter post by a member of the public in which they apologised for initially alleging that the article was inaccurate. This person had since stood from where the photograph was taken from and confirmed that the same cranes that had appeared in the photo were present.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee did not uphold the complaints as metadata provided by the publication demonstrated that the photo was contemporaneous and therefore not misleading.

Bromley v The Spectator
Publications are free to publish articles, including those by subject experts with a specific point of view, and to defend their choice of valid data and statistics to support this

Adam Bromley complained that an article in The Spectator headlined “Ten reasons to end the lockdown now” was inaccurate. The article was an opinion piece, which outlined why a columnist believed lockdown should end. It included the assertion that “Somewhere around 99.9 per cent of those who catch the disease recover”. The complainant disputed this figure and said that the article was inaccurate because no peer-reviewed or reliable studies had put the infection death rate of Covid as low as 0.1%. He provided sources which put the death rate much higher ranging from 0.3% to 1.4%.

The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It made the distinction between infection fatality rate (percentage of people who die of all those infected, including asymptomatic patients) and case fatality rate (amount of people who have died divided by the number of confirmed cases). It said that it would take months, or even years, to know for certain what the infection death rate is which is why the article had not said a certain figure but had described the number as “somewhere around”. It provided multiple studies which reported that 0.1% was within the range of the reported infection death rate.


The publication had provided studies which demonstrated a range of infection fatality rates and the figure of 0.1% fell within this. The figure had been proceeded by “somewhere around” rather than asserting as fact that the true figure was definitively 0.1%. The article was a comment piece which affected the way in which readers would have understood the passage. On this basis, the publication had not failed to take care to avoid inaccuracy and there was no significant inaccuracy requiring correction.