By Steven Lang
At least 24 journalists from 16 African countries recently participated in online training aimed at improving coverage of the Covid-19 in their media organisations. International non-profit organisation, Internews set up the session aimed at helping African journalists navigate through fake news, propaganda and changing scenarios linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Clearly the biggest concern of the journalists was about how to check on the truthfulness (or not) of the information they are receiving. Fake news on social media has been almost overwhelming since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of Covid-19 a pandemic.
The power of social media has been undermining the power of journalists and has also dented the credibility of journalism.
One of the facilitators at the training session, Stijn Aelbers, a Senior Humanitarian Advisor at Internews advised journalists on the importance of “checking your gut feeling – but not too much,” he added.
He used an example of a ‘big breaking’ news story that was supported by a photograph of the head of WHO and some text underneath. He said the fact that the fonts in the photo were not consistent raised an eyebrow – but then when he checked out the WHO website and found nothing there about the story, he knew it was fake. He reiterated, “Always check the source”.
Ida Jooste, a South African working for Internews explained how some fake news stories are generated. She referred to a story (fake) about the Queen being tested positive for the virus. She said, “We hear about Prince Charles (true) being positive, the Prime Minister (true) being positive so who is next? It must be the Queen, the most famous person in the world – can she be next?” It is a type of supposition built on speculation that eventually comes out as fake news.
Aelbers spoke about ethical issues that need to be considered when writing about those who have contracted Covid-19. Should we reveal identities of people if there is a risk that their families can be stigmatised? In some cases such naming leads to shaming which can lead to mob justice.
Furthermore, if those who have the virus see how others are treated they are less inclined to come forward and be treated. This reluctance can indirectly lead to more people being infected. He also warned on publishing material that happened to be on WhatsApp because even private groups are porous and information that you thought was confidential can inadvertently be revealed to the world. In other words, “You should not automatically assume that whatever is on WhatsApp is appropriate for publication”.
Aelbers went on to say that rumours can be a double-edged sword because they can contain elements of truth, but they could also be completely false. Journalists like rumours and there is nothing wrong with listening to them, but a we should always consider the risks.
He noted that it can be important to work out whether the creator of fake news is being malicious or whether person is genuinely trying to help others.
A good journalist trying to get expert opinion on COvid-19 should take special care to make sure that the expert is appropriately qualified. Politicians and celebrities sometimes pronounce their opinions on subjects that they know very little about.
The President of the United States, Donald Trump and his counterpart in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, have made irresponsible statements about the virus even though they do not appropriate training. Well known entrepreneur, Elon Musk, has put out Tweets about using an anti-malaria drug to combat Covid-19, but he does not have sufficient knowledge to make such statements. The result was that some people in Nigeria gave themselves incorrect dosages of chloroquine and several had to be hospitalised.
Aelbers stressed, “Politicians are not scientists. They are good at politics, but we need to listen to real scientists when thinking about Covid-19”.
Public figures should only speak out about their domain of expertise. He said, “Stop and listen, because it is very important to listen. Then stop and think”.
Journalists need to fact check and then reality check. They need to see if the facts make sense and they should not always believe what they see. Aelbers advised journalists covering the Covid-19 crisis to check out the context of the material they are looking at. Consider whether images have been photo-shopped and see if any claims have been exaggerated.
Good places to verify Covid-19 stories are on the South African government online Coronavirus portal https://sacoronavirus.co.za/, the CDC Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov), the World Health Organisation (WHO.int) and/or with the BBC (https://www.bbc.com/news). A simple Google search does not guarantee anything.
Finally Aelbers told journalists to ensure their own safety before covering any story. He recalled that when there is an emergency on a plane, people are told to check their own safety first, and then only should they help others.