UNESCO, WHO, KCJ partner to improve coverage of COVID-19 pandemic
With COVID-19 becoming an essential disrupter of daily living , global communication scholars have stressed the need for effective training and development of the capacity of journalists to provide accurate reportage of the pandemic.
At a webinar on how to improve COVID-19 coverage by journalists organised by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), World Health Organisation (WHO) and Knight Centre for Journalism (KCJ), participants said spreading misinformation/disinformation about the pandemic is disastrous.
They also spoke on the role of government in driving misinformation and disinformation. With the theme, Variants, vaccines and medications: What journalists need to know to improve COVID-19 coverage, Founder/ Director Knight Centre, United States, Rosental Alves, in his remarks, said few days after WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in 2020, “we started conversation with WHO, UNESCO and UNDP on how to help journalists who need to cover the pandemic. We offered a few online courses to help journalists and we reached 9,000 people in 162 countries in different languages. Since then, we have reached thousands of journalists in different languages.”
In partnership with UNESCO and funding from European Union (EU), “we are upgrading our websites and the redesign would be opening vey soon,” he disclosed.
Similarly, Chief of the section of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists at UNESCO, Guilherme Canela, also raised the need for journalists and fact checkers community to engage and provide accurate information in this wave of misinformation and disinformation that have been experienced in the last two years.
According to him, “we realised that journalists are important to save lives, and indeed, lives were saved.” He said Maria Ressa’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Peace last year is just another sign of the global relevance of accurate information for peace, addressing big issues of climate change, migration and sustaining democracy. He said UNESCO is delighted to partner with WHO and Knight Centre in the US.
Director of Global Communication, WHO, Gabriella Stern, said, “journalists must ask questions such as, ‘Is the story worth publishing as soon as possible or I am just pursuing the copy to get byelines? Have journalists put hard work in to get behind the scenes information? Do journalists understand government structures, legal authorities, constraints and institutions they are covering? Are journalists aware and have respect for power of sources, organisations and the people they are covering? Are you moving too fast? Are you digging deep enough? Are you keeping your mind and heart open? These are questions I asked myself after decades of covering politicians, CEOs, corporations and government agencies.”
Deborah Blum of Knight Science Journalism at MIT, United States moderated the panel session, which had Mandi Smallhorne, science journalist from South Africa; Davey Alba, who covers disinformation for New York Times; Jane Qiu, science journalist from China and Federico Kukso, science journalist from Argentina.
They unanimously agreed that the importance of journalists in the coverage of COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t be over emphasised.
In her speech, Alba said, “over the years, there has been misinformation about the pandemic,” stressing, “it is a serious problem journalists must proffer solution to.”
She said, “it is incumbent on all of us to think of it as a project to ensure that everyone we are in contact with knows how to source good information for themselves and be aware of what is flying around. There are many conspiracy theories without evidence. These lies spread very fast, especially on social media with thousands of likes and shares and millions of views.”
With specific reference to South Africa, Smallhorne said the reason there is misinformation about Omicron is that “we don’t have vaccination figures.”
To her, the US is epicentre of disinformation. She argued that disinformation from the US is colliding with existing problems from Africa.
She noted, “Africa’s population, over the years, has been used for drug trials without necessary safeguards and that has led to a whole lot of stories down the years.”
Smallhorne advised journalists to start storytelling of not just the facts, but also the feelings. That is, “why are people so afraid? Why are people so willing to believe ridiculous nonsense about the vaccines for instance?”
Sharing experiences from China, Qiu, while speaking on the roles of government in the emergence of COVID-19, said two theories emerged: Natural Origins and the lLab Theory. She said important drivers in these misinformation are the US and Chinese governments.
According to her, “it’s like watching two kids in a shouting match trying to out compete each other. Chinese Foreign Ministry, for instance, insinuated that the virus leaked from a military lab near Maryland and US Centre said the virus was from Wuhan lab. People tend to confuse speculation with evidence. It’s a big problem.”
She advised journalists to be objective and balance their articles. According to her, “we need to ask if sources have axe to grind. Journalists must be careful about bias sources and assertions we get from them. The golden rule is that for the fact that somebody tells us a fact, does not mean we should not do critical assessment, especially covering stories with geo-political angles.”
She added that in China, the situation is different. “We don’t have Twitter or Face book but we have our own social media platforms. China has strong machines that censor anything that goes viral.”
On his part, Kukso said newspaper proprietors should make it a duty to hire science and specialised journalists that have experience dealing with pandemic, insisting that they must make science part of their big agenda.
“What I also observed during the pandemic is the hype on how information is disseminated in terms of drug, treatment and the vaccines. Information is sometimes exaggerated. Journalists must be moderate concerning the information they give. They must not exaggerate things. They must take into account that behind every press release, are big companies.”
Kukso said words journalists use are also important. “What I have seen in Latin America is that when a political or sports journalists interview a scientist, we have systemic trespassing. We must be critical regarding science. We have to rely on the evidence, not in the voice of the scientists.”