Reporting on Covid-19, a challenge even to seasoned journalists

By Mbauwo Chavula

Delegates at the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2020 (AIJC2020) learned that Covid-19 was a game-changer that compelled journalists and editors to become health journalists overnight. This was shared during a panel discussion titled Journalism in the times of Covid, on Tuesday, October 13 – the sixth day of the virtual conference.

Speakers unpacked the many challenges faced by journalists who found themselves reporting on science, research results and health policies, subjects that were foreign to them as the pandemic spread rapidly, resulting in a demand for credible information.

Facilitating the panel discussion that featured three seasoned editors and an epidemiologist, Mia Malan, editor-in-chief and executive director of Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism in South Africa, said she wondered how much the overnight adaptation of journalists to reporting on a health pandemic inadvertently led to the spread of misinformation as most journalists grappled with this unfamiliar territory.

Panelist, Ferial Haffajee, associate editor of the Daily Maverick in South Africa, confessed that she had previously believed health reporting to be a “soft beat”, but that Covid-19 changed her outlook and that even she – with extensive media experience that includes editing two weekly newspapers – required ‘extensive tutoring from a pulmonologist’.

“I learned that health reporting is probably the most vital of beats, it’s a matter of life and death. It touches every single part of our reporting life. Unlike conventional investigative reporting, health reporting, and investigative health reporting, is more systemic and process driven rather than event driven. I realised early on that you cannot apply the same tactics or styles to it (health reporting) because screaming headlines and breaking news do not really work,” explained Haffajee.

Another issue she touched on was that Covid-19 exposed the impact of corruption on health systems. She also acknowledged that the pandemic has completely changed how she goes about her work, adding that she was planning to report more on health.

For her part, Kenyan investigative journalist and CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year in 2016, Asha Mwilu, said her life has totally changed since the onset of Covid. When the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Kenya, Mwilu was preparing to leave her employment to launch Debunk Media, but had to suspend her resignation from the newsroom to tackle the pandemic.

She said reporting on Covid-19 took her back to basics, far away from her comfort zone and that it was tough even for someone like her who was used to reporting from the frontline, including covering the Al Shabaab in Somalia.

“I’m not your typical health journalist, this was completely out of my comfort zone. Covid took me back to the basics. I had to re-learn a lot of things, put my editor’s cap aside and be a field reporter. I started going to the market to talk to people and see how the Coronavirus was affecting lives and livelihoods. It ended up being one of the toughest stories I had covered”, said Mwilu.

As a strategy, she revealed, she spoke to doctors who had been involved in the fight against the Ebola virus, to get an understanding of how to deal with pandemics, which helped. She added that the Corona virus also put data at the front line of reporting.

Professor Taryn Young, an epidemiologist from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, stressed the importance of good research and for reporting to be accurate. She cautioned journalists against giving false information, citing an example of a negligible study said heavy smokers were at lesser risk of contracting Covid-19, and was quoted by some journalists as a factual.

Young further urged journalists to be more critical of the information they receive and always ensure that it is accurate. She emphasised the importance of availing courses to journalists to learn more about epidemiology because of the critical role they play in informing the public.

And Ida Jooste, media trainer and global health media adviser at Internews, described Covid-19 as humbling even for health journalists, especially as most journalists had not reported on a pandemic before. She said health journalists have had to deal with slow moving health challenges and that Covid-19 was an entirely new experience.

“Health journalist typically have to deal with much more slow moving science, whereas  Covid-19 is like 35 years of HIV crammed up in eight months. The Covid-19 pandemic brings into so many other areas of life. Its brought mathematics and statistics and dealing with numbers right to our faces. It had not been common practice for journalists to deal with numbers, explained Jooste.

She emphasized the importance of fact-checking and reality checks when reporting on the pandemic.

The virtual conference runs until 30th October with daily sessions that are packed with information meant to empower investigative journalists from across Africa.

About the author:

Mbauwo Chavula is a TV and radio journalist from Malawi . She has been a journalist since 1998 and belongs to the Women in News Network. She is an AIJC2020 Fellow.