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Deepening the media’s coverage of COVID-19: Challenges and prospects

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By Lanre Idowu

LIKE the rest of us, the media world is grappling with the grave challenges the COVID-19 pandemic poses to the social, economic, political, and spiritual wellbeing of the world. Communities across nations are shut down.

People are dropping dead within days of showing traits of ill health; healthcare facilities are stretched; global trade has plummeted. The price of oil has hit record lows, offices and places of worship are shut and evolved into virtual offices and churches. Social interaction is zilch as people are huddled behind doors in the name of self-isolation and social distancing, unable to relate to even neighbours as conventional wisdom had taught over the years.

The last time the world witnessed any such threat was a century ago when the influenza flu of 1918-1919 wiped out about 50 million lives. Rapidly, the world is changing before our eyes as we grapple to understand and deal with it. Since reporting is the factual account of significant activities of people, the interpretation of the course of events, developments, occurrences, and issues affecting our communities, COVID-19 represents big news to the media. Its newness, scope and disruptive consequences to life and living demand the media’s robust attention.

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How well can the media respond to this need given that the reality of the pandemic itself challenges such vigorous attention? How can the media help in untangling the labyrinth woven around the subject of this disease that seems to bring distress at every turn?

Challenges of reporting

Reporters by training need a clear understanding of whatever issue they are investigating, reporting, or interpreting before they can minister creditably to their audiences. With COVID-19, the first challenge facing the media is that of understanding the nature of the pandemic.

Understanding the nature of the disease

So far, COVID-19 is seen as a viral disease caused by the most recently rediscovered coronavirus in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The World Health Organisation says, “The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.” Its symptoms are persistent dry cough, fever, and breathlessness even as some people may also experience aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, and diarrhea. These symptoms take between six and fourteen days to manifest.

Zoonotic in origin, there is no cure for it yet, but its protocols of management, so far, include isolation, quarantine, social distancing, and global lockdown. Its closeness to other flu, the fact that victims are sometimes asymptomatic, its discriminatory choice of targets (the elderly in China and the middle aged in the US) in different climes, and its deadly strike on the lungs, heart, kidney and the nervous system make it a devious foe.

Understanding and internalising the advisories: Accompanying the media’s difficulty in understanding the pandemic’s nature is the challenge of comprehending the advisories on how to avoid the disease. A combination of personal hygiene, preventive, and management steps are recommended.

These range from physical or social distancing, which enjoins keeping a minimum of one metre from the next person, to regular hand-washing with soap and water, to using alcohol-based hand sanitiser where water is not readily available. The advisories include avoiding touching the face to prevent the virus being easily transferred, use of a facial mask to cover nose and mouth in public.

Also included is isolation, which entails separating people who are ill from others to keep the disease from spreading. This could be at home (self) or in a hospital facility. Testing is carried out on people who have shown noticeable symptoms. Where its result is positive, an elaborate effort at contact tracing follows to contain further exposure, whilst the infected people are isolated. Quarantine involves separating and limiting the movement of people who may have been exposed to the disease to see if they become ill. Add to these the conspiracy theories of its origin and a giddy cocktail of confusion is served.

Western medicine v alternate medicine

Dictatorship of the puritans? Another challenge facing the media is the contending and conflicting voices on research of the path medical care should take. Daily, there are competing claims between the time-tested orthodox western approach and the attractive offers of alternate medicine. Whereas popular posts claim increased water consumption and tropical climate are shields against COVID-19, the WHO informs the public that useful as these may be, they, in no way, contain COVID-19.

The eagerness for solution in the face of the slow, frustrating scientific way of verification is not helped by the proclamations of the likes of Donald Trump on the efficacy of hydro chloroquine, or the recommendations of others to use similar medications that treated Ebola for COVID-19.

All these are reflected in the Nigerian media and add to the confusion of how to frame the narrative of COVID-19. The distrust for such herbal potion as garlic, ginger, and turmeric as no more than a general advisory on good living is, however, undergoing a review in the wake of the Madagascar example of COVID-19 Organics, which offers a glimpse of hope in managing the disease. Will that prove that we have been facing the dictatorship of the puritans? These contending voices continue to challenge the staying power of the reporter on what leads to follow or abandon.

Burden of reporting

The concomitant result of these struggles for understanding in the media is the burden our current reporting bears. The confounding surfeit of information, the reign of misinformation, the trivialization of subject matter, and the tabloidization of fear-inducing stats on the rising number of cases especially on the social media, make a robust engagement of COVID-19 truly challenging.

Prospects for improved reporting

To change the narrative so far and deepen our reporting, the Nigerian media must embrace four virtues: Do away with scaremongering or trivialisation of the subject matter. Whilst COVID-19 is not necessarily a death sentence, it is not a laughing matter either. Refocus our reporting into solution-seeking stories that break down the phenomenon of COVID-19 into pieces of utilitarian news to which the audience can connect. Humanise reports in a way that provokes social change through understanding borne out of knowledge and compassion.
Emphasise factuality, fairness, raise hope, and overcome pecuniary considerations.

Guided by this mind-set, the media must strive for the following:

Interrogate the advisory terminologies
Social or physical distancing: How realistic is it in our large, high-density neighbourhoods? Rather than mimic what obtains elsewhere, we can direct our reporting on different neighbourhoods to convey the reality of life there, interview the members on their understanding of the concept, analyse the findings in a way to stimulate action from regulatory authorities and relevant NGOs.

Regular hand-washing: How readily available is clean water? Is there an opportunity here for companies to make other meaningful interventions through their Corporate Social Responsibility? Rather than being fixated with donating bags of rice, garri, and beans, is this an opportunity for charities to tailor their donations to areas of long-lasting benefit?
Use of 60 per cent-alcohol-based hand sanitiser: This product provides the media the opportunity to verify, validate, and highlight local initiatives to produce such hand sanitizers that may prove helpful in areas that lack a regular supply of water.

Use of facial mask: This is to shield the nose and mouth in public from exposure to droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The media should promote its proper use and encourage local efforts in producing quality masks.
Self-isolation: How disciplined are our people in this regard? The media should play up more success stories of regular people, not just celebrities, who self-isolated and overcame the menace of COVID-19.

Testing: Since the focus now is on community transmission, the media can begin to examine the rate of testing in the communities by educating our audiences on what the test entails? Where are people tested? Media reports can begin to re-examine the current practice of testing only those who manifest the symptoms? What is responsible for the low no of tests? What should be done to improve it? Do people need to pay to be tested?
Contact tracing, quarantine, and treatment: How cooperative is the public? How can the effort be enhanced? What’s the experience of the health officials? Beyond the statistics of those who died, recovered and were discharged, what’s going on behind the scene the public needs to know? From the survivors, can we get a peep into what a day in their life looked like while in isolation centres? What did they eat? What went on in their minds? These lessons need to be brought out so the general public can connect and understand the severity and reality of the challenge?

Question statistics: Another issue that requires more attention is the use of statistics. Some of us are familiar with Joel Best’s book, Damned Lies and Statistics, which speaks about the dual purpose of the use of statistics to support or weaken an argument. How well do the statistics we enthusiastically publish expand public understanding of the story? When we say Lagos leads in the number of those who have tested positive, what’s the level of testing being done? What’s the population of the states being tested? How widespread is the testing conducted on a local government basis? What’s the ratio of the positive cases relative to the population in major cities like Lagos, Kano, Ibadan, and Enugu?

Explain the role of caregivers: The caregivers are the medical doctors, nurses, laboratory scientists and technicians, paramedics, ambulance drivers, cleaners, etc. How well are we conveying the price being paid by these caregivers? Where are the stories of heroism and diligence? How well are their employers responding to their personal welfare? What is the experience of volunteers? Who can volunteer? How should government and communities respond to the menace of Area boys said to have prevented an ambulance from evacuating a patient because they wanted to be bribed first? What frustrations are they facing? Is there a shortage of tools that is hampering their work that the public needs to know for necessary intervention? Is there a shortage of ambulances, beds that is preventing them from responding promptly to distress calls as illustrated by the story of the Lagos lawyer whose telephone call for help April 26 was not heeded until six hours after?

Examine lockdown as containment strategy: Beyond reading about the threat of invasion by the mythical “one million boys” threatening to invade communities and the resistance efforts, the lockdown offered the media opportunity to examine its impact on individuals and communities. How did it affect usually active people who suddenly became inactive? How are children coping with their inability to be physically present in school? Beyond official pronouncement, how well is the online teaching working in public and private schools?  What reliefs did schools give to parents, if any?

Faced with the closure of worship centres for six weeks, what challenges are posed to believers’ faith? What will be the impact on future mode of worship? Using examples from various sectors, how did the closure also affect business? What was the experience working from home? What does the future portend? On law enforcement, what lessons can be drawn from the exercise? How effective has it been? How can unintended consequences of shooting citizens at checkpoints in the name of enforcement be prevented? What are the stories across borders of uniformed law officials collecting bribes to pass people?

Conclusion: The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic is a call to arms to rescue humanity from an invisible enemy. Serious in scope and deadly in consequence, it is a call to arms to do everything within our spheres of influence to battle it through understanding borne out of knowledge and compassion. We need more nuanced interpreting of the facts. We need to bring the reality of the pandemic home, using symbols to which our audiences can connect. The reporting this time must be public-spirited, solution-focused, evaluative, factual, fair, and hope-inspiring. Our survival as a nation and as an industry deserves no less.

Idowu, the supervising trustee of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence, Lagos, presented this at a recent webinar.


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