Now that COVID-19 Has Turned Every Journalist into a Health Reporter

Justina Asishana FASLN

A lot of journalists did not have experience covering health issues before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic but these days, over 80 percent of news stories, reports, features, and analysis is all about the COVID-19 pandemic which borders mainly on health.


For Alao Abiodun who writes for The Nation newspaper, before the coming of COVID-19, he covered politics and society news and he seldom covers the health beat except for special stories or content but the advent of COVID-19 has made him realize that seeking more knowledge on health reporting would be a plus.


Abiodun said that reporting on COVID-19 pandemic has been good for him so far especially with the regular statistics provided by the relevant agency, "the regular statistics from the relevant agency along with the briefings by the taskforce has aided reporting and provided journalists with more information on the situation at hand.


"It has given me the opportunity to research more about the infection and get more information on it. For now, there is no basic challenge but seeking more knowledge on health reporting would be a plus.


Isaac Omiji, a Reporter for Power FM, Bida is a general assignment reporter and although he is not on a permanent health beat, he had done little reporting on health before the advent of COVID-19 but with the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic, his attention has been shifted to it.


"Since the COVID-19 has been the other of the day, my coverage attention has also shifted to it. I have reported press briefings on the virus, donations by individuals, government and organizations and carried out special focus reports on how people are complying with preventive measures. For the experience, it has been normal for me except for the harassment by some overzealous security officers during the restriction of movement periods."


Just Like Abiodun and Isaac, virtually every journalist across the world is now a health journalist, we all have to cover this pandemic even if we were covering other aspects of journalism before. These days, you see entertainment, sports, crime, business, political reporters reporting on COVID-19.


Thomas Abraham, a Journalist who covered the SARS epidemic and an Associate Professor in the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and media centre, in a Webinar by the International Center for Journalist, said that journalists across the world have been giving their best to report on the coronavirus despite it seems overwhelming and for some journalists, it has been an entirely new field and ball game altogether.


"So many people have been thrust into this reportage and this is one of the biggest stories that some people may have to report about throughout their careers. The COVID-19 pandemic is an event that is unprecedented and people, even journalists, were not prepared for."


Some Journalists are already overwhelmed with the inflow of information and the reportage of COVID-19 stories, the various angles to take, the terms to comprehend and how to structure their stories. However, Abraham, who covered the SARS epidemic which began in 2002 and affected 26 countries, said that when the event seems overwhelming, it is important to step back a little in order to re-orientate ourselves.


"We, most often, need to step back a little and ask ourselves what this story really is about. This is an event that has three basic elements, it is a three-part play. Actor one is the virus which is crossing the world at an incredible speed. The second actor is what happens when the virus gets into humans, how it replicates and it's the effect on the people while the third actor is the response of people to the virus.


"So, when you step back and analyze these actors, you will be able to make a story from one of these actors and even be able to link the actors together. It is very important to step back frequently and ask what is this all about. What is the big picture?."


For first comers to the health beat, who have been trusted into reporting COVID-19, Abraham further stated that it would be important for these journalists to go back and read some of the reports written during the SARS epidemic by Journalists while stressing on collaborations with other journalists, especially journalists who have been in the health beat.

The Role of Journalists in Combating Misinformation and Disinformation

Because most journalists have been thrown into covering this pandemic, it becomes very useful to check and cross-check what they are being told, even by experts. This is to ensure that they are not the ones who end up peddling mis-and disinformation.


The role of combating the spread of misinformation and disinformation has become pertinent because one misinformation can lead to chaos and possibly the death of individuals. As Journalists, whether we cover health or not, we have a crucial role in combating misinformation and disinformation as well as correcting things that are false.


Thomas Abraham, in the webinar, said that a lot of the misinformation or conspiracy theories does not occur in the mainstream media. Instead, they circulate on social media.


"During this period, we need to serve the public in whatever way we can and if there is wrong information out there that the public is consuming, it is our responsibility, as Journalists, to do the little we can to correct the wrong information. I think we are duty-bound to do that in terms of combating this misinformation, we need to put out stories that what is being spread is not true."


Resources

As a lot of journalists are being plunged into this field of reportage, there is a need for them to build up their knowledge in order to report the pandemic effectively, without adequate knowledge, mistakes may occur during reportage.


Abraham explained how he got by in reporting the SARS epidemic and proffer it as a solution to all Journalists, both those who have been covering health beat and those who are currently coercing it because of the pandemic.


According to him, Journalists can equip themselves with basic microbiology textbooks To Help them differentiate and understand the various scientific terms which would be used and how to simplify these words for their audience.


"Basically, talking to people, it was hard to understand what they said, so you had to get basic microbiology books to help them differentiate and learn a lot of these scientific terms.


"As a Journalist, you need to make all these terms, if not, a lot of what people are telling you will make little or no sense. Also, in terms of technical resources, the WHO website is very good, it has got a lot of background materials which is open for use.


"Lastly, link up with other people working on this, those who have had so much experience and Journalistic networks and Twitter are also good resources.


"You cannot learn everything at once, even those who have been on the health beat are becoming overwhelmed, so listen more and speak to people because the more you listen and speak to people is the more you learn."


"Experience is the best teacher and regarding reporting about the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to learn as we go."


Challenges

For journalists, especially those in Nigeria, one of the challenges is the provision of protective kits. According to Isaac Omiji, who said that reporting this pandemic can be made easier if there is provision for protective kits to protect ourselves.


"Reporting can be made easier with the provision of protective kits. Apart from personally acquired sanitizer and face masks, working tools in this period are poor."


Protective kits are important to keep safe this period, especially for those rendering essential services, under which Journalists fall into. Some Journalists have so far died from COVID-19 and the fear of becoming infected while on the job has made a lot of Journalists not to embark on some reports which should normally have been done.


The solution for this falls on the media organization, the government and various taskforce set up to manage the epidemic in the states across Nigeria.


Justina Asishana is a fellow of the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN)

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