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‘The toughest story I’ve covered’: How COVID-19 changed journalism

November 9, 2020
Three journalists and a scientist unpack how the coronavirus pandemic changed their jobs and the news landscape. Watch the discussion here.

Resource details:

Publication title: Journalism in the time of COVID 
Author(s): African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC) 2020
Publication date: 13 October 2020

Watch the discussion:

What the discussion was about:

The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded at a rapid pace, forcing many reporters to adapt. Breaking news journalists, political and business investigators alike have all been forced to walk a new beat — health. This panel, moderated by Mia Malan, shares the challenges and lessons of covering an unfamiliar subject accurately and critically. The session forms part of the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Investigative Journalism Conference, hosted virtually this year. Seasoned media professionals Ferial Haffajee, associate editor at Daily Maverick, Asha Mwilu from Debunked, a Kenyan media startup, and Ida Jooste from the United States media development organisation Internews share their experiences while epidemiologist Taryn Young reflects on how scientists and journalists can support each other in science communication. Young is from Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Evidence-based Healthcare. 

Key take-aways from the panel:

What COVID taught non-health reporters about the beat

  • A health story needn’t only be about science. The stories can cut across many aspects of society, allowing reporters to weave together various issues such as policy, climate and politics, Mwilu says. The reports of police brutality during the pandemic in South Africa and Nigeria were used as examples.
  • In some newsrooms, health and development stories are often labelled as “soft beats” with those reports being assigned to feature writers. But COVID-19 busted that myth, Haffajee and Mwilu say. “What I’ve learnt this year is that health reporting is probably the most important of the beats. It’s literally a matter of life and death. And it touches every single part of our reporting life,” Haffajee says. 
  • Investigative health reporting is different from traditional investigations, Haffajee says.  Health reporting focuses on systemic issues while investigations are more about a single event. These unique features of health reporting require different reporting tactics and styles than those used in investigative reporting “because screaming headlines, and breaking news don’t really work”. 
  • Health reporting requires an understanding of the nuance of wicked problems, which don’t offer clear-cut solutions, Jooste says. The fixes they provide, instead, offer shortcomings of their own. Just as lockdown allowed for South Africa’s health system to prepare itself for an increase in COVID-19 infections, however the country’s economy suffered blows Jooste explained. “When you embrace the idea of what a wicked problem is, you realise that it was never either-or.” 
  • Another key aspect of health reporting – empathy, Mwilu says. “For me, it ended up being one of the toughest stories I’ve covered. The level of emotional intelligence that I needed as a journalist to navigate this ever-evolving story. And one that I didn’t even have resources for it. I had never covered a pandemic before.”

Building capacity

  • Haffajee credits Bhekisisa’s “Epidemiology 101” lecture series with helping her gain the confidence to approach and better understand the science informing the headlines. “That has been completely invaluable to me. [It taught me] that you actually need to be inducted into the beat. The course was produced in partnership with The McGill International TB Centre, Chatham House and Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture. It was presented to Africa-based journalists to cement their understanding of epidemiology fundamentals, and improve the quality of reporting on the continent. Did you miss the course? Watch it here

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  • Collaboration between researchers and journalists are key.  Evidence-informed decision making requires collective action from both professions, Young says. “For good health information to reach the public, you need good science, and you need research to have been done well. Journalists need to be able to pick up the findings of that research and report about it critically to the public.”  Young says the lack of this knowledge resulted in misinformation in the media. 
  • Haffajee shared an example of how her reporting benefited from the expertise of a pulmonologist explaining how lungs worked.
  • Mwilu called on the unique knowledge of doctors who had worked in regions affected by the Ebola epidemic to shed light on how a country copes with a health crisis of these proportions.

Fact checks and reality checks

  • The unprecedented pace of the pandemic has meant research outputs have been fast-tracked. The peer review process has been sped up and this could result in increased incidents of misinformation, Young pointed out. Fact checking information in a situation like this is crucial. Reporters should be more critical when using research outputs. 
  • Reality checks are important, too, Jooste says.  Reporters need to understand that misinformation is also rooted in people’s previously held beliefs. “It’s as important to have to sort of do this reality check of what it is that people believe and why they don’t actually necessarily sort of cling on to what is factual and evidence based. So journalists have that double role. They need to know the facts. They need to know the science”. 

You can find a recording of the panel here.