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Impact of Covid-19 on journalism

Impact of Covid-19 on journalism

THE journalism industry is, now more than ever, a public service that citizens rely on for information.

In the Covid-19 pandemic, journalists and media organisations have been tasked with providing information about public health orders, new restrictions and updates on a global scale.

With such a colossal world event, the journalism industry has had to navigate potential challenges. Dr Bunty Avieson, Australian journalist and Senior Journalism and Media Lecturer at the University of Sydney, indicates the importance of steering away from false news surrounding Covid-19, in what has been dubbed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the ‘infodemic’.

““There is such an awareness and public discourse around fake news and the way that social media is spreading false news related to the pandemic,” says Dr Avieson.

Of course, with the 24/7 nature of the news cycle, avoiding misconceptions and false facts can be difficult in such pressing times.

“There’s always a payoff between getting published, being first, getting it out there while it’s newsy, before anyone else, that competitive speed, compared to slow fact-checking...well, not slow, but fact-checking", Dr Avieson said.

“There’s a tension.” Communications student, Monique Tarabey has also noticed the strain of the pandemic on the media industry and the journalists within it.

A third-year student from the University of Notre Dame, Tarabey expresses that the objectivity of stories can be undermined by political agendas or simply in the way that facts are presented.

“I think there’s been a lot of social governing in the way journalists report on the pandemic, stressing certain beliefs over others to pressure communities to act a specific way,” Tarabey said.

“Journalism is about being objective, but if your advertisers and readers all have one idea, it becomes quite difficult to keep objective doesn’t it?” Dr Avieson commented on similar concerns, in which she notes that the media can sometimes present news according to a particular message they wish to carry.

“I'm not sure that the pandemic sits outside other reporting...it can come with a political agenda, or more of a populist clickbait agenda”.

Despite the challenges that reporting in the pandemic has brought, Dr Avieson remains impressed with the way that Australian media organisations and journalists have kept the public informed.

“I have been enormously impressed... with how they blog... [how] all of the news organisations have”. All around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a considerable toll on the media industry.

While most countries face different realities, journalists everywhere experience common challenges provoked by the pandemic. Many journalists are exposed to great sanitary risks when reporting on the health crisis and only a few ones receive safety guidelines or protective gear.

For Fady Elhassany, a 36-year old freelance investigative journalist from Palestine, the risks linked to Covid-19 came to complicate pre-existing safety issues, such as the lack of safety equipment when covering conflicts or protests for his online platform Last Story.

He noted a general absence of a culture of health safety when journalists went to the streets during periods of complete confinement, regardless of the risks, and failed to adhere to safety guidelines on how to protect themselves and their interviewees.

“Journalists in the Palestinian Territories are accustomed to dealing with security rules while reporting in places of conflict, but they have never dealt with any regulations that guarantee their health safety while covering affected areas,” says Elhassany.

Prior to participating in a series of trainings organized by UNESCO on the safety of journalists and risk management, Mr Elhassany had lacked knowledge about Covid-19 safety protocols. Since then, he has gained the ability to pre-emptively determine risk factors and create contingency plans. He now feels confident he will be able to protect both himself and his team.

As a member of a Palestinian-based Safety Officers Network, set up with the support of UNESCO in 2019, Mr Elhassany shared his knowledge and educated his colleagues.

In South Sudan, journalists likewise often lack guidance on how to report within the context of the pandemic.

According to Michael Duku, Executive Director at the Association for Media Development in South Sudan (AMDISS), this “climate of fear” prevented many journalists from reporting on Covid-19 from the field and resulted in limited coverage of news about the virus.

At the outset of the spread of Covid-19 in South Sudan, AMDISS joined forces with UNESCO and the South Sudanese Ministry of Health in order to equip local journalists with the skills to continue reporting, without compromising their health, through the development of safety guidelines and toolkits.

Another aspect of the safety of journalists, which is too often overlooked, but which has become particularly relevant in times the pandemic, is the risk associated with mental health. I

n Myanmar, journalists learned about the wide implications to their psychosocial wellbeing of the tremendous pressure they face within the context of the pandemic.

A series of trainings organized in 2020 in cooperation with the Myanmar Press Council supported 49 journalists covering the pandemic, many without access to professional psychological support and unaware of the impact of mental health risks to their work.

Aung Aung Htoo has worked for three years as a journalist at Radio Free Asia’s Rakhine Programme and has faced many challenging situations in the field, ranging from verbal assault to physical safety risks due to the highly conflictive situation in Rakhine State.

The overwhelming flows of information and disinformation about Covid-19 put journalists under unprecedented pressure forcing them to constantly verify the news they receive, to demystify myths, lies and false “remedies”, which mostly spread online.

This debunking work is time-consuming, and many journalists lack expertise in the topic and the knowledge about fact-checking resources, among other obstacles.

But they are organizing themselves, sometimes via online groups and other networks, to support each other in their verification activities.

Amal Saqr is an investigative journalist from Iraq, specialized in political, cultural, economic and corruption issues. She is one of the 300 participants who joined UNESCO’s training on the safety of journalists and disinformation in times of COVID-19.

She mostly appreciated the knowledge she gained about countering disinformation related to the coronavirus, which could allow her to save thousands of lives.

The training also prompted journalists to organize themselves to dissipate false information circulating about the pandemic.

Similarly, journalists in Yemen, a country experiencing one of the worlds’ worst humanitarian crisis, are particularly at risk, whether from contracting the virus, or by contributing to the spread of disinformation, which, in turn, can intensify the conflict.

That is why, UNESCO, in partnership with Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalists (ARIJ), organized training for local journalists on safety and ethics during the pandemic.

It aimed at supporting scientific journalism and training journalists on how to acquire the scientific knowledge to best inform the public and fight falsehoods, while equipping them with the adequate skills to protect themselves.

Radio Sarabela is a community radio based in the northern district of Gaibandha in Bangladesh. Since the onset of the pandemic, its 10 staff members and 70 volunteers have been working continuously to raise awareness among local populations about how to protect themselves from contracting the virus.

The station has provided regular updates on the pandemic situation at national and international levels, and even started a new segment called “Hello Doctor”, during which specialized doctors responded to the concerns of the community members.

Thanks to Radio Sarabela’s coverage of the health crisis, people in the area are well informed and many have adopted appropriate safety measures, like Sumi Kathun, a frequent Radio Sarabela listener from the town of Balua.

According to her, people in her community learnt about the virus from Radio Sarabela and became much more careful, following the health guidelines.

Beyond informing local communities about health risks, community radios in Bangladesh have also played a role in ensuring that students and schoolchildren do not fall behind.

At a time when many schools and colleges have temporarily closed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, community radio station Radio Padma has been airing classes for primary and secondary school students in Rajshahi.

The classes are developed based on the needs and demands of the students in an easy-to-follow format, and with guidance from governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Thanks to this initiative, thousands of students have been able to continue their studies and to find a relief from their frustration to remain indoors.

This has been the case of K.M. Talha, a primary school student who has been following Radio Padma’s classes in Bangla, English, Mathematics and Religion, among other subjects. These educational programmes are also highly appreciated by the parents.

● Brianna Raymond is a Communications and Media student at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. Additional information by courtesy of UNESCO.

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