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COVID-19 secrecy: Nigerian media, health privacy and public safety – Part 5

By Marcel Mbamalu
26 June 2020   |   3:04 am
Media expert, Tonnie Iredia, recently made reference to the secrecy surrounding an infectious disease bill lying before the National Assembly. He said

Continued from yesterday

Media expert, Tonnie Iredia, recently made reference to the secrecy surrounding an infectious disease bill lying before the National Assembly. He said:

“Happiness about likely future vaccines for the pandemic has been marred by reports that House of Representatives members were at the verge of turning out severe legal sanctions for those who might refuse to be vaccinated, notwithstanding that the vaccines are still inchoate. Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila who explained that the rush to pass the law was informed by the obvious emergency, forgot to tell us why the legislators did not accordingly meet daily for the speedy passage of the bill. Instead, they had a one day sitting where 70 percent of the work was done even before the members saw the content they were hurriedly passing. This failure of our legislators to pretend for once, to be essential workers did not help public perception of their bill. Besides, we know that the enormous powers the bill purports to confer on the Director-General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control NCDC, would, as usual, be usurped by a minister who by convention, would have omnibus power to control the NCDC team.”

Buttressing Iredia’s views, another media analyst, Reuben Abati draws contrasts between Nigeria and the UK:
“Only a healthy country can be a productive country. We can learn a lesson from the transparent leadership demonstrated by UK PM Boris Johnson. Why for example was the identity of the Lagos private Hospital where Malam Kyari was treated shrouded in mystery for so long? And why was a large gathering allowed at the internment of the late Chief of Staff? ”

Unfortunately, the media that should answer some of these questions is facing dire resource-related problems, which seriously challenge its right to active information gatekeeping. The implication is that reporting in Nigeria, generally, has become cash-and-carry. Once ‘rivers of gold,’ according to Robert Murdoch, owner of Wall Street Journal, newspapers are today in a transformation crisis and ‘Digital Darwinism’ (Solis, 2015; Akesson, 2009; Alexander et al, 2004). Since new media technologies disrupted newspapers’ pre-existing business model based on advertising and circulation, newspapers have struggled to reinvent themselves (Okorom, 2018). Internet advertising is growing, but according to Pew Research Project for Excellence in Journalism (2015), any dollar gained in online advertising means the loss of $22 of print advertising. The media are therefore not prepared for emergency reporting.

Profit ranks above any other consideration, and the business model seems to be ‘follow the money.’ In Nigeria, the money is in politics, and this is why any topic that has no connection to politics and money will need the highest levels of an oddity to warrant a mention. COVID-19 has made the point very clear. With reporters complaining about transport fares, money to buy data to have internet access and call credits to have interviews, then nothing other than money-making makes sense. Brown envelop syndrome (a type of gratification for news) has for years bedevilled Nigerian journalism such that it is abnormal to ask journalists to spend money to fetch information in Nigeria when politicians are looking for ways to ‘encourage’ them (reporters) to report their (politicians’) own news (Ukonu et al., 2017; Gever et.al., 2019). But journalists must be delivered from editorial imprisonment caused by a delicate mix of public service and profit interest. But how?

Reporting infectious disease outbreaks can be undertaken in consideration of corporate social responsibility as an ethical model or theory (CSR). This is an understanding that nothing should supersede public safety at the time of health emergencies, even profit interest ((Kotler& Lee, 2005). It should be said immediately that the sense in which ‘corporate’ is here used transcends a single corporate entity such as a newspaper firm.

It is polling of corporate establishments such as the firms in the media, private and public health agencies, and government institutions. At times, leaders of an industry such as the print media discuss society’s roles and responsibilities among industry professionals and other public officials in a joint bid towards the common good. This usually involves discussions on behavioural dispositions of parties “with respect to the fulfilment and achievement of social roles and relationships” (Basu and Palazzo, 2008 p. 124). Professional media associations can set up bodies within their institutions with identified journalists to link up with the government and the health institutions. This can in fact, become a media body entirely under the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ). It can be called ‘communication emergency response team because it can be used in any other social emergency such as an environmental disaster.

Some writers have discouraged CSR as an ethical business strategy due to how much it can task company profit (Freeman &Liedtka, 1991; Agle et al, 1999). Yet, even as normal business strategy, CSR has been demonstrated empirically to work in favour of company profits (Sen, et al., 2006; Rochlin et al., 2005; Cornwell &Coote, 2005). The social capital that the New York Times has received from its reporting, which has surely translated to financial resources, is instructive.

Using CSR and symmetrical information models
Using CSR in reporting will imply a partnership that will serve the purposes of all the parties: journalists, health institutions and government. Controversies in the news often rest on the assumption by journalists that public officials are bent on hiding something. Public officials, in return, see journalists as always bent on exposing the dark sides of the government and causing embarrassment.
With the partnership, however, a journalist can promptly reach out to relevant sources to clarify issues of controversy, challenge or constraint or even complaints.

In return, public officials, operating from a position of trust, will volunteer information. Journalists can still preserve their news values of an oddity by reporting controversies, but compulsorily show how the controversies have been resolved or are being resolved. This though may negate the use of sensational headlines. This can also make it possible for journalists, with the trust of government, to each health institutions directly without government intrusion. CSR will, therefore, preserve the essential gatekeeping role of the media as the professional institution of society best equipped to handle health information.

2. Symmetrical Model of Reporting
Another implication of the partnership is that emergency reporting can make use of the two-way asymmetrical and symmetrical models of public relations, instead of press agentry and public information (Grunig and Hunt, 1984). Press agentry uses half-truths and misinformation to sell the news. Pubic information emphasizes full information and truth in a one-way continuum that essentially reflects only the news medium.

The two-way asymmetrical model involves the use of ‘scientific persuasion’ to determine audience information needs [in times of emergency] and using the findings to package appropriate messages. Although the public is engaged at this point, the two-way model still principally reflects the efforts of the communication firm. In the symmetrical model, every stakeholder is involved –the communication firm and relevant stakeholders such as government the healthcare workers and community experts (Grunig& Hunt, 1984).

The official quarantine of health data is the direct cause of the said COVID-19 reporting without ‘human face’. The link is nourished by media incapacity and unwillingness to spend own resources to dig deeper than press releases and media briefings. This has made the government the main frontier for health information. The media also appear not to be ready for reporting emergencies given the way they talked about travel restrictions and finance as constraints. This is why the CSR approach can help to cultivate such readiness.

By scheduling stories to track possible social emergencies before they occur, the media can help to boost government emergency readiness, and in effect lessen secrecy. The media should track emergencies by keeping schedules for updates about former disease outbreaks. HIV/AIDs, Lassa fever, Ebola, bird flu and the like should not wait for UN dedicated days to be reported. The ministry of information and other relevant ministries such as health, emergency agencies and internal affairs should launch research funds.

Journalists and media people should be encouraged to write proposals for research into health emergencies. This way, the media can partner with the government by developing blueprints to forestall or to confront emergencies. Climate change, resource conflicts, internal migration, insurgency, and disease outbreaks should be topics to be tracked from time to time. Government’s secrecy most times is a result of the effort to cover lack of readiness. But if lack of readiness is forestalled, the government may feel rather proud to say what they have done. For instance, WHO (2020) reported that Nigeria quickly fell back on structures used to fight polio, by using already established community health workers and contact tracing systems at the outset of COVID-19. If such systems are nourished, then no one would have to start from scratch when trouble calls.


Dr Mbamalu is the News Editor of The Guardian.