First, let me commend the Ugandan journalists who have gone to great lengths, sometimes at great risk to their own safety and lives, to tell the Covid-19 story. Recently a senior Ministry of Health official told us journalists are a high risk group, and 50 had contracted Covid-19. So, I salute you and celebrate you!
I also commend the media for continuing to shine the torch on Covid-19. The sheer volume of stories on the pandemic has been unprecedented.
During such trying times as when the world is battling a pandemic, the media’s role of providing accurate information becomes more critical.
The public needs accurate information to evaluate the risks and understand the necessary protective and safety measures or precautions. Leaders and health experts also need accurate information to shape their response. Providing accurate information includes debunking misinformation and disinformation.
The media also provide a platform for debate of the different policy options in response to the epidemic, its effects, and so on.
The media also have a responsibility to hold officialdom accountable. This includes both those in charge of the government and the health experts in charge of the response.
The media owe it to the public to share but also question official narratives. They should be called out or unmasked when what they say doesn’t seem to make sense. The media should always provide context to help explain new pronouncements or illuminate new developments.
Access to information, especially in such times, is a fundamental right that touches on all other rights. And increasing and improving the flow of information is too important to be left to journalists or the media alone.
So, let me share some recommendations on what the different players can do to improve the capacity of the media to cover pandemics.
- Share information transparently
- Educate the journalists
- Make officials accessible to journalists
Health Experts, Academics
- Make research and new or even old knowledge about the pandemic accessible. Break down the jargon for the journalists and ultimately the ordinary person.
- Participate more in ‘sober’ radio and TV talk shows.
- Write accessible expert opinions/commentaries, backgrounders and explainers for publication by the media or your organisation’s websites and online platforms of media support organizations such as ACME.
- Educate the journalists
- Improve their own media literacy; undertake training on media relations
- Share research on the response to the pandemic
- Share experiences of the communities where they work
- Write accessible opinions/commentaries
- Work towards promoting and protecting press freedom and freedom of expression.
Media Support Organisations
- Provide specialised training on health, epidemics
- Provide resources that can support coverage e.g. story ideas, relevant research, backgrounders, explainers, datasets
- Provide reporting grants to support in-depth or investigative reporting
- Monitor media coverage of the epidemic to provide feedback to the journalists. What are they doing well? Where do they need to improve? What more can they do?
- Provide commentary on media performance
- Recognise excellence in reporting
- Promote an environment that supports the free flow of information.
- Protect the right to free expression
- Let’s not use ills such as disinformation to justify undue controls on the media. By all means we all have to fight misinformation and disinformation, but let’s not throw away the child with the bathwater.
- Invest more in impactful in-depth reporting and investigative journalism
- Invest in the safety of their journalists
- Provide more space and time for information that is of use to the public
- Develop internal policies and guidelines for covering epidemics
- Establish or maintain health reporting desks manned by journalists with clear interest in the field
- Invest in training and mentoring of health reporters
- Invest more in research desks, including verification and fact-checking functions.
- Invest in your own professional growth
- Seek knowledge and deepen your understanding of public health and epidemics; exercise intellectual curiosity.
- Expand your network of sources; your interaction with experts need not always be about a story; sometimes it should be about improving your understanding of what is going on.
- Cut through the scientific jargon; keep it simple, but always provide context. Answer the So what? What next? And such other contextual questions.
- Protect your integrity
- Protect yourself and your loved ones
- Improve their media literacy and be critical consumers of news
- In particular, learn or understand how to navigate the infodemic.
- Support efforts to promote and protect press freedom and freedom of expression.
- Speak out and hold our leaders accountable.
Notes by Dr Peter G. Mwesige at a public dialogue on the role of the media in the fight against COVID-19. The dialogue was organised by Makerere University School of Public Health. Dr Mwesige is the Co-founder and Executive Director, African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME)