REPORTING THE PANDEMIC – Essential guidelines for journalists

The Covid-19 outbreak has caused major disruption around the world and become the biggest news story of a generation. It’s meant journalists are facing new challenges in all aspects of their workHere, media Law expert David Banks assesses the legal and ethical implications of reporting during the pandemic. 

There are a number of overlapping legal and ethical issues that can arise when covering the pandemic. 


The Editors’ Code of Practice, Clause 4, tells us this about dealing with such issues: 

“In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.” 

You can legitimately make one, polite approach to a bereaved family. If they refuse to talk to you, then you must respect that and not approach them, or other relatives again. 

If there is a substantial change to the circumstances – some material new revelation about the death – that can sometimes justify a second approach, but caution must be exercised – what is the change and does it really warrant another approach? 


When dealing with children off school because of the pandemic, remember that any interview about a matter concerning their welfare – such as coronavirus –must be obtained with the permission of a parent or custodial adult. 


For people who are diagnosed with coronavirus, we also need to pay attention to privacy rights – which include details of a person’s health and medical treatment. 

Therefore revealing that a person has coronavirus, against their wishes, could be a breach of privacy. If it is something they have put in the public domain themselves – eg on unlocked social media feeds with substantial numbers of followers – it may be very hard for them to argue that the information is private. 

Furthermore, if the person suffering from the virus is a person of public standing – someone for example who is responsible for government responses to the pandemic, then revealing they had been infected, while private, could be a matter of public interest. 


Medical personnel are bound by patient confidentiality and in the unlikely event that they breached that, we would be bound by confidentiality for any information they revealed. 

They are also bound by contractual confidentiality for any information revealed as ‘whistleblowers’ – such as a lack of PPE. However, in such a situation it is highly likely that we would argue such revelations are in the public interest. 

Note the Code of Practice tells us that we must protect confidential sources. Some health professionals have been threatened with misconduct proceedings for talking to the media. It is important therefore that we do not do anything to identify sources who wish to remain anonymous. 


There is also the tort of malicious falsehood to watch out for. This is where you say something about someone, or a corporation, that is false and causes them damage – usually financial loss. The claimant also has to show malice on your part, but malice here is a failure to check properly – recklessness. 

This is theoretically possible if you say that a business has closed in the outbreak, where it hasn’t, thereby causing it loss of custom. Make sure you check such information for accuracy. 


You also need to take care of yourselves. While journalism to keep people informed about the pandemic has been deemed essential by the government, we should still be aware of social isolation rules. Do we need to go out on every job – what can be done from the home, office or remotely? 




David Banks


NUJ Training Cymru Wales