Extensive social distancing measures, closures of schools, workplaces and public places, and the use of face coverings - all common measures now and back in 1918. What has changed in reporting from the 1918 influenza crisis and our current COVID-19 pandemic? Julia Wdowin reflects on her archival analysis looking at the economic journalism of then and now
Replace the term “influenza” with “coronavirus” in newspaper articles written back in 1918 and the years to follow, and you might think that you were reading about the current crisis. Reading through archived articles between 1918 and 1920 from the Financial Times, Daily Mail, the International Herald Tribune, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and others, the measures taken to control the spread of the influenza virus are familiar. Like now, we read of extensive social distancing measures, closures of schools, workplaces and places of public gathering, and the use of face coverings. So the kinds of measures being taken now have been seen before.
Yet there is a striking difference. Unlike now, if you were to hold a newspaper from the earlier pandemic in your hands, you would find it hard to find what was being written about it as it occurred. Even at the peak of its spread, the news about the disease or its consequences for other dimensions of life only rarely made headline news. In 2020, by contrast, over the past few months it has been hard to come across an article that does not, at the very least, make reference to coronavirus. There are few spheres of our lives – personal, political and economic – that the current pandemic has not touched. The scope of its impact on our individual and community day-to-day business has been reflected in newspapers’ reporting.
Articles during the post-1918 influenza pandemic, appearing across all of the above newspapers, are characterised by their subdued tone and understated approach to the outbreak. An important motif is keeping spirits high. In an article from 11th October 1918 in the Telegraph, it was reported that: “Happily, there are at present no signs of a general spread of the influenza epidemic throughout London”, yet later in the same article was the comment from a medical officer, “No doubt influenza is rife, but to what extent it is difficult to estimate.” Around four weeks later, on 9th November 1918, an article entitled “Influenza decline” informed readers that, “The influenza epidemic seems to have spent its course, and since the commencement of the week there has been a marked change in the position.” The predominant tone is decidedly against raising alarm and panic amongst the public.
In October 1920 in the Telegraph, we find direct praise of efforts to raise morale: “It is an excellent sign of the times that we have now a responsible authority [Ministry of Health] that takes upon itself the task of maintaining national health by keeping up national spirits.”
The articles in the newspaper archives are informative in tone and in content about the state of affairs: they record the number of those ill, deaths, employee illnesses and absences, how to avoid catching the virus and spreading it, how to self-treat symptoms. This kind of information is still reported and available during the present crisis, but alongside streams of further analyses and opinion pieces about the impacts on political, economic, societal and everyday life.
In the Financial Times archives employee illnesses, absences and deaths were reported mainly in the context of the ensuing hit to specific companies and industries. And there is one industry, given the concentration of reports on its topic, that the newspaper is particularly interested in – gold mining in the British colonies. Most of the reports come from South Africa, but also the West African region and India, and focus on conveying the consequences of the pandemic for gold mining: effects on mining operations, number of miners falling ill, being unable to work or dying, recruitment of miners, gold mines being shut, and gold yields and profits being adversely affected. At the source of this particular concern was most likely the fact that at the time of the influenza pandemic, the Gold Standard was the principal monetary system, with many countries fixing the value of their currency in terms of gold. Despite the general lower-key reporting then, the economic consequences of the health crisis were not completely overlooked. The economic journalism, nonetheless, by no means resembles the scale and scope of its coronavirus equivalent, which has been evaluating the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis not only in terms of GDP growth, the prevailing metric by which we measure how well the economy is doing, but also jobs, productivity, lost skills especially among the youth, and transition to online teaching for pupils and students.
The journalism of 1918 did not engage in this kind of analysis and commentary. Recent articles in today’s newspapers reflect a turn in public thought to ideas or predictions of substantial changes in lifestyles and modes of working in a post-covid19 setting. Economic forecasts are widespread, albeit with more questions than answers being floated about on post-covid19 policies ranging from health to education to immigration. Journalists point to the pandemic’s consequences for levels of inequality, the future of globalisation trends and potential shifts in wealth distribution, both inter-generational and across societal factions. On this basis, economic analyses have, moreover, sought opportunities to approach policy dilemmas from a broader perspective merging the exceptional circumstances of the covid-19 crisis with other longer-standing economic policy challenges. For example, the Financial Times especially has recounted prospects for sustainable and inclusive investment.
A century on, the way newspapers are reporting the current pandemic is strikingly different in two ways. One is the extent and tone of the coverage, with the priority then being public morale and avoiding panic. Reflecting in part, perhaps, the fresh and painful shadow of the First World War, great caution was attached to journalistic influence on public spirits. The second is the greater scope of current reporting, and its representation of the pandemic as an event with pervasive effects on the economy and society. Whether today’s broader speculations prove to be right, and what kind of impact the less restrained reporting now has on health and societal outcomes, will, of course, be questions for researchers looking at the archives over the next century from now. There may be lessons for us in the more cautious reporting of the past.
 The Daily Telegraph, (1918), “Spread of Influenza”, Friday 11th October, 1918, p.4.
 The Daily Telegraph, (1918), “Influenza Decline”, Saturday 9th November, 1918, p.9.
 The Daily Telegraph, (1920), “Influenza Scare”, Friday 1st October, 1920, p.10.