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Deepening the media’s coverage of COVID-19

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Like the rest of us, the media world is grappling with the grave challenges the COVID-19 pandemic poses to the social, economic, political, and spiritual wellbeing of the world. Communities across nations are shut down. People are dropping dead within days of showing traits of ill health; healthcare facilities are stretched; global trade has plummeted. The price of oil has hit record lows, offices and places of worship are shut and evolved into virtual offices and churches.

Social interaction is zilch as people are huddled behind doors in the name of self-isolation and social distancing, unable to relate to even neighbours as conventional wisdom had taught over the years. The last time the world witnessed any such threat was a century ago when the influenza flu of 1918-1919 wiped out about 50 million lives.

Rapidly, the world is changing before our eyes as we grapple to understand and deal with it. Since reporting is the factual account of significant activities of people, the interpretation of the course of events, developments, occurrences, and issues affecting our communities, COVID-19 represents big news to the media. Its newness, scope, and disruptive consequences to life and living demand the media’s robust attention. How well can the media respond to this need given that the reality of the pandemic, itself, challenges such vigorous attention? How can the media help in untangling the labyrinth woven around the subject of this disease that seems to bring distress at every turn?

Challenges of Reporting
Reporters by training need a clear understanding of whatever issue they are investigating, reporting, or interpreting before they can minister creditably to their audiences. With COVID-19, the first challenge facing the media is that of understanding the nature of the pandemic.

Understanding the nature of the Disease
So far, COVID-19 is seen as a viral disease caused by the most recently rediscovered coronavirus in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The World Health Organisation says, “The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.” Its symptoms are persistent dry cough, fever, and breathlessness even as some people may also experience aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, and diarrhea.

These symptoms take between six and fourteen days to manifest. Zoonotic in origin, there is no cure for it yet, but its protocols of management, so far, include isolation, quarantine, social distancing, and global lockdown. Its closeness to other flu, the fact that victims are sometimes asymptomatic, its discriminatory choice of targets (the elderly in China and the middle aged in the US) in different climes, and its deadly strike on the lungs, heart, kidney and the nervous system make it a devious foe.

Understanding and Internalising the Advisories
Accompanying the media’s difficulty in understanding the pandemic’s nature is the challenge of comprehending the advisories on how to avoid the disease. A combination of personal hygiene, preventive, and management steps are recommended. These range from physical or social distancing, which enjoins keeping a minimum of one metre from the next person, to regular hand-washing with soap and water, to using alcohol-based hand sanitizer where water is not readily available. The advisories include avoiding touching the face to prevent the virus being easily transferred, use of a facial mask to cover nose and mouth in public. Also included is isolation, which entails separating people who are ill from others to keep the disease from spreading. This could be at home (self) or in a hospital facility. Testing is carried out on people who have shown noticeable symptoms. Where its result is positive, an elaborate effort at contact tracing follows to contain further exposure, whilst the infected people are isolated. Quarantine involves separating and limiting the movement of people who may have been exposed to the disease to see if they become ill. Add to these the conspiracy theories of its origin and a giddy cocktail of confusion is served.

Western Medicine vAlternate Medicine: Dictatorship of the Puritans?
Another challenge facing the media is the contending and conflicting voices on research of the path medical care should take. Daily, there are competing claims between the time-tested orthodox western approach and the attractive offers of alternate medicine. Whereas popular posts claim increased water consumption and tropical climate are shields against COVID-19, the WHO informs the public that useful as these may be, they, in no way, contain COVID-19.  The eagerness for solution in the face of the slow, frustrating scientific way of verification is not helped by the proclamations of the likes of Donald Trump on the efficacy of hydro chloroquine, or the recommendations of others to use similar medications that treated Ebola for COVID-19. All these are reflected in the Nigerian media and add to the confusion of how to frame the narrative of COVID-19.

The distrust for such herbal potion as garlic, ginger, and turmeric as no more than a general advisory on good living is, however, undergoing a review in the wake of the Madagascar example of COVID-19 Organics, which offers a glimpse of hope in managing the disease. Will that prove that we have been facing the dictatorship of the puritans? These contending voices continue to challenge the staying power of the reporter on what leads to follow or abandon.

 
Burden of Reporting
The concomitant result of these struggles for understanding in the media is the burden our current reporting bears. The confounding surfeit of information, the reign of misinformation, the trivialization of subject matter, and the tabloidization of fear-inducing stats on the rising number of cases especially on the social media, make a robust engagement of COVID-19 truly challenging.  
 
Prospects for Improved Reporting
To change the narrative so far and deepen our reporting, the Nigerian media must embrace four virtues:
1.Do away with scaremongering or trivialization of the subject matter. Whilst COVID-19 is not necessarily a death sentence, it is not a laughing matter either.
2.Refocus our reporting into solution-seeking stories that breakdown the phenomenon of COVID-19 into pieces of utilitarian news to which the audience can connect.
3.Humanise reports in a way that provokes social change through understanding borne out of knowledge and compassion.
4.Emphasise factuality, fairness, raise hope, and overcome pecuniary considerations.
Guided by this mind-set, the media must strive for the following:
To be continued tomorrow.
Idowu, supervising trustee of the Diamond Awards for Media Excellence, presented this paper at a recent webinar.


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