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Experts commend media coverage of COVID-19 pandemic

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• Call for demystification of misinformation, disinformation regarding virus

Eleven months after the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) index case was confirmed in Nigeria, stakeholders in the health sector last week gathered at the Goshen City, Nasarawa State to appraise media coverage of the pandemic. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced on February 27, 2020, when an Italian citizen tested positive for the novel Coronavirus in Lagos.

At a two-day workshop organised by the Association of Nigeria Health Journalists (ANHEJ) on COVID-19 reportage, Country Representative, World Health Organisation (WHO) in Nigeria, Dr. Walter Mulombo, commended the Nigerian media for its role in reporting the pandemic, especially during the period of lockdown.

Mulombo said that the media did creditably well in COVID-19 reportage, but needed to do more in the area of infodemics to demystify the misinformation and disinformation regarding the virus.

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The Country Representative, who was represented by the WHO communication specialist, Mrs. Charity Warigon, said, “During the pandemic lockdown, you all made our work easy by passing information to the public promptly.” He observed that the organisation is committed to supporting health journalists and the Nigeria government in an effort to ensure Nigerians remain healthy.

Dissatisfied with the growing complacency among Nigerians, including journalists, who flout the safety guidelines and protocols, Mulombo warned that the pandemic is not over yet and urged the health reporters to live by example and adhere strictly to the protocols on social distancing, wearing of face mask and others.

He said, “These things are crucial to shaping attitude, behaviour and in creating awareness. The media plays a significant role in disseminating information on issues relating to public health and supporting the attainment of the Universal Health Coverage. We need to close that gap and do things more properly.”

Speaking on the topic, “Health Journalism and ethical considerations”, communications specialist at the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), Dr. Geoffrey Njoku, told journalists that without ethical considerations of fairness, all sides of the story and equity, they would be unable to communicate a difficult issue with impact.

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He said, “If you are not development journalist, a social crusader and human rights activist, you can’t tackle difficult issues especially of the pandemic type.”

Njoku noted that the first port of call for impact in any communication especially difficult issues is research, adding that without research to inform your audience of the issue in question, all communication efforts become simply entertainment.

According to him, “Research tells us what to communicate about, how to communicate it, where to communicate it and the channels to use and who to target our communication. If your budget is big and you have the time, you can conduct your own research, otherwise, you do a desk review of existing researches from where you can draw all the materials you need for your communication intervention.”

He noted that strategic communication approach should combine different media and modes to bring about behavioural and social change, while messages must align with the audience.

The socio-ecological model is a fit communication model, encapsulating all of these. Also speaking, veteran broadcaster and the Chief Executive Officer of the International Society for Media in Public Health (ISMPH), Chief Moji Makanjuola, observed that as soon as the index case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Nigeria, health journalists would have taken over the professional domain, tracking COVID-19 stories, their impact, mitigation and an assessment of “what works, what does not work instead of allowing non-professionals to dominate discussions and give out wrong information on the social media .”

She said, “We would have embarked on research to give out genuine, authentic, credible and authoritative news. We would have investigated to report what is being done right and what is done wrong.’’

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Makanjuola urged journalists to do more investigative reports and to have active social media pages where their followers would read and get verified information on COVID-19.

She said these modern times require elements of aggression and proactivity, especially in situations where you have a good story your editor does not like, “you should use your social media handles, provided it is true, verifiable and sound. We should have engaged researchers wherever they are in this our global village: We have enough researchers too; we should have engaged people everywhere to obtain a good story for our publics.”

In his welcome address, the President, Association of Nigeria Health Journalists (ANHEJ), Hassan Zaggi, stated that the media did its best within the circumstance it found itself in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

He observed that covering the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the lockdowns, was very challenging for journalists, adding that though a journalist cannot go out to source for information, we expected to get and report latest developments on the pandemic.

“Journalists became the bridge between policy makers and the public, as they took the concerns of the people to government and related government’s responses back to the people. In the process, journalists, especially, those covering the health sector in Nigeria, were overstretched, some even contracted the virus.”

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