In all its meanings, journalism is ultimately about public interest. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a special call to duty for all journalists and especially the public health beat reporter. Journalists are expected to lead the frontlines in providing the news, information and education that the public need.
As a journalist, the extent to which you will be successful in discharging this special duty will depend on: (a) your fitness to serve; and (b) your quality of service.
As a journalist, the following five tips offer some guidance on how you can ensure that your reporting is not only professionally disciplined and ethically responsible, but that it also ultimately contributes to curtailing the incidence, stemming the spread, and limiting the impact of the Covid-19 disease on the public whose best interest you are called to serve.
- Prioritise expert sources: Research shows that during times of crises – such as when an outbreak assumes pandemic, or even epidemic proportions – public interest and attention to news and information are at a particularly captive height. This presents a unique opportunity for top-of-mind attention to the scientific evidence and advice on the Covid-19 pandemic. As a journalist, you must lead the news frontline in providing information and education. Your primary focus must be on reporting, rather than analyses. The effective journalist should cede, rather than seize, the stage in the coronavirus news and information theatre. You can do this by allowing your audiences to directly hear the voices and views of independent experts and practitioners. This will confer credibility on your report, reduce rumour and unfounded fear, and enable the public make responsible health choices based on reliable information.
- Simplify technical terms: Related to the above point, infectious disease outbreaks, and public health issues generally, tend to be described in complex medical terms (e.g., ‘respiratory droplets’, ‘community transmission’, ‘asymptomatic carriers’), or using cryptic language (e.g., ‘Covid-19’, ‘social distance’, ‘infodemic’). While you, as a reporter may be familiar with the scientific jargon, the public rely on you in order to understand and relate to such technical terms better. Make it a rule of thumb to always ask on behalf of your audiences, the questions that are necessary for your resource persons to simplify and clarify the technical terms they use. And if you are writing the story from the available information, ensure to define or describe all such terms whenever they are first used in each new story. Usually, local metaphors or familiar illnesses can be useful for explaining some technical terms. For example: Coronavirus is a form of flu or fever; but it is estimated to be between 10 and 35 times more fatal than the common flu.
- Fight fake news: According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 has spawned “a massive infodemic” of conspiracy theories and sham treatment recommendations “that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” As a reporter you have a particular and bounden duty to help separate fact from fiction. You do this when you act as guardian of the truth; ready to fact-check and debunk, rather than repeat the slew of misinformation and fake news about the outbreak. Best practice recommends a three-steps process: (a) call it out up front – preferably in the heading and lead; (b) demonstrate why it is false – citing expert explanations and empirical evidence; (c) replace the falsehood with factual information of functional value – on causes and consequences; prevention and treatment.
- Humanise your stories: The COVID-19 pandemic provides the ideal subculture for the perfect news brew: it has disrupted social routines and engendered heightened public curiosity about what is going on and how to respond to what is going on. And while others – including non-journalists – may be preoccupied with speculation, sleaze and sensation – about who prophesied current or coming events, whether the virus was manufactured in a Chinese or American laboratory, how many government appointees have coronavirus but are hiding the fact – you must draw attention to implications on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people. You must exercise due sensitivity to individual sensibilities and prevailing cultural norms; and you must avoid and condemn social class stereotypes and ethnocentric tropes.
- Uphold professional ethics: What all of the above boils down to is a call on journalists to report on COVID-19 in a way that is nimble, ethical and effective; in a way that distinguishes fact from alternative fact and fiction; and in a way that builds professional guardrails against the pandemic of rumours and false remedies circulating especially within the online news space. Doing these simply entails adhering to and applying the principles of professional news reporting. It means that you must make extra efforts to ensure that you have not left unanswered, any of the basic journalistic questions (5Ws + 1H) that are important to story accuracy, clarity and completeness. It requires a particular focus on the code of ethics or canons of professional practice notably the injunctions pertaining to the public interest: reporting factually, avoiding bias, minimising harm, maintaining transparency and correcting errors.