African News Agency photographer Doctor Ngcobo on assignment during the Covid-19 lockdown. Journalists play a critical role in this pandemic in identifying problems, asking scientists to comment, correcting misinformation and myth-busting, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency
African News Agency photographer Doctor Ngcobo on assignment during the Covid-19 lockdown. Journalists play a critical role in this pandemic in identifying problems, asking scientists to comment, correcting misinformation and myth-busting, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency

Media has a critical role to play in this pandemic

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published May 29, 2020

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My mother sent me an image on WhatsApp this week entitled “How to Kill Covid-19” with a picture of a woman throwing her television out the window. At this point I think many people share that sentiment considering the constant barrage of information on the pandemic that dominates every newscast. 

I think my mother is also sick and tired of me telling her how to disinfect her groceries by wiping the packaging with 70% alcohol sanitizer, or using gloves to decant the contents into fresh Tupperwares or ziploc bags. She says if she has to hear it one more time she will simply stop talking to me, which is a bit of a problem seeing as she lives in Canada. 

But what her frustration says to me is that people are losing their trust in the media and literally switching off. While I also have my moments of only being able to handle just so much Coronavirus coverage, the danger in switching off completely is that without the media we would not receive the meaningful and important updates our government, health officials, and the WHO are trying to convey to us in this time of crisis. 

I truly believe that part of the general frustration is the politicization of the pandemic, and the fact that much of the information emanating from the White House and so called “experts” is incoherent, unreliable, and so confusing that we have decided it simply can’t be trusted.  Information presented on the pandemic is clearly not politically neutral and always appears to be “spun,” and it is oftentimes difficult to determine what the agendas at play are. 

Health officials seem to be constantly revising their opinions, and scientists are not giving us unambiguous guidance. Two months ago we were told that masks made no difference, but now we are not allowed to leave the house without a mask. Personally I would much prefer to know that everyone is keeping as many of their droplets to themselves as possible by virtue of wearing a mask, rather than projecting them in my direction. 

But regardless of the growing disdain with the media, journalists still play a critical role in this pandemic in identifying problems, asking scientists to comment, correcting misinformation and myth-busting. We also need to call out certain politicians who use the pandemic to stoke xenophobia, whether against Chinese people by calling this the “Chinese virus,” or against Africans by associating them unfairly with contagion.

As the media we need to exercise extreme caution regarding who we deem to be authoritative health experts, and this becomes challenging given the lack of public health experts within media houses, and the juniorisation of newsrooms. With so many journalists working from home, it has become difficult for reporters to go out there and make contact with people in marginalized communities. The investigative role of journalists is invaluable in our society, and we need more not less coverage on what is really happening in care homes, prisons, institutions and schools in terms of the spread of the virus. 

We need to go beyond merely reporting numbers, and communicate the story behind the numbers. For example, it is not helpful for the US media to report that the virus is taking a disproportionate toll within the African-American community, without explaining the socio-economic reasons for why this may be so, and how the system has made access to quality and affordable healthcare a virtual impossibility. Similarly, if we are hearing how successfully a country like South Korea has been able to flatten the curve, we need to understand what the government and people have done specifically to achieve that.

Even in our own country there seems to be many gaps in the reporting on the pandemic. For example, why do we not hear more about how migrants in South Africa, many of whom are here illegally, are suffering during this lockdown without being able to receive their wages, and not being able to apply for UIF? We hear more and more stories about children being brought to hospitals in South Africa with malnutrition, but what about the story behind the story in terms of human suffering?  

We also hear very little about what is happening on the ground in Zimbabwe. The official numbers of infected are low, but we also know that there is very little testing going on. We hear anecdotal evidence that basic food supplies cannot be found in many stores in Zimbabwe, and that the prices have increased to the point that food has become unaffordable for many. How will that impact on peoples’ immune systems and the ability to fight Covid-19 if they are infected? 

Without a robust media with investigative capacities we will never know the answers to these questions, and donors and humanitarian organisations will not be sufficiently mobilized to respond to the very dire situation facing many in our country and the region. We cannot afford to throw our televisions out the window just yet, but we do need to insist on more reliable information from the experts, and greater efforts from journalists to probe the stories that really matter. 

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor.

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