I want to express my profound appreciation to the organizers of this workshop, the Nigerian Press Council (NPC), for the opportunity extended to me to participate in this programme. This workshop could not have come at a better time when the whole world is going through covid-19, one of the worst epidemics in human history. The disease which assumed the status of a pandemic, forced a global lockdown between March and June 2020, leading many countries to go into economic recession. Even as this workshop is taking place, many countries in Europe and across the globe are going into another round of lockdown as a result of the resurgence of a second wave of the pandemic. It is important that the NPC has put this programme together with a view to evaluating the role of the media in effectively checking the spread of the pandemic. The management of the Council deserves accolades for providing this forum which is to enable us exchange ideas on the role of the media in effectively stemming the scourge.
For a fuller grasp of this paper, there is the need for us to understand and appreciate what covid-19 actually means and represents. Covid-19 simply means corona virus disease which was discovered in 2019 by scientists. It is a communicable respiratory disease that causes illness in humans. The disease was first reported in the Wuhan Province of China in Asia in January 2020.
Scientists are still learning about the disease, and think that the virus began in animals. At some point, one or more humans acquired the infection from an animal, and those infected humans began transmitting infection to other humans. The disease spreads from person to person through infected air droplets that are projected during sneezing or coughing. It can also be transmitted when humans have contact with hands or surfaces that contain the virus and touch their eyes, nose, or mouth with the contaminated hands. This disease which was first reported in China, has become a global pandemic, spreading to every part of the world.
Until recently, there was no certified vaccine or treatment for covid-19. But the World Health Organization (WHO) has enunciated some protocols that must be followed to avoid contacting and reducing the spread of the disease. They include the washing of hands regularly with soap, applying of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, maintaining social and physical distancing, temperature checks and wearing of face masks to cover the nose and mouth.
As at the end of December 2020, a total cases of 85.1 million covid-19 cases and 1.84 million related deaths have been reported from 217 countries and territories with 47.8 million recoveries. The United States of America tops the list with 20.7 million cases and 352, 000 deaths. She is followed by India with 10.3 million cases and 150, 000 fatalities.
Within this period, a total of 1, 518, 662 covid-19 cases and 36, 921 deaths have been reported in 55 African Union (AU) Member State Countries. This is 4 percent of all cases reported globally.
Coming down to Nigeria, the total cases as at December 2020 hovered around 90, 080 with 1, 311 related deaths. Total recoveries were put at 75, 044. Lagos State and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja lead the rest of the States in Nigeria in terms of infections and fatalities. Lagos alone boasts 22, 562 cases and 220 fatalities. However, there were 21, 119 recoveries. The FCT, on the other hand, has recorded 6, 385 cases with 82 deaths and 5, 934 recoveries. The pandemic is real. And all stakeholders including the media have a responsibility to ensure that preventive measures are taken to check the spread of the disease, especially as the pandemic enters its second wave across the globe.
Global Health Threat:
There is absolutely no doubt that the covid-19 pandemic poses a global health threat to humanity. The rapidity of the spread of the disease throughout the world shortly after the outbreak in China clearly shows that humanity is at risk and nobody is safe if adequate preventive measures are not taken to check the pandemic. Until recently, there was no curative medication or vaccine for the cure of the disease. The trial drugs that were being used on covid-19 patients before the new vaccines that have been certified by the WHO were merely for palliative purposes. It is important to stress that in spite of whatever successes that may have attended the treatment of the disease in some climes, it is not yet Uhuru. This is why emphasis is on preventive protocols.
The Good News on Preventive Vaccines:
In the midst of the on-going health crisis, the good news is that some global medical research bodies have come up with curative vaccines which have been certified by the WHO. They include AstraZeneca developed by Oxford University for use in the United Kingdom. The vaccine which was approved on December 30, 2020 is said to be up to 90 percent effective.
The biggest research break-through however came with Pfizer-BioNtech in the United States when it published its results in November 2020. The results showed that the Pfizer vaccine is up to 95 percent effective. The heartwarming news about the Pfizer vaccine is that a bonafide Nigerian in the person of Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, was the leader of the research team that developed this efficacious vaccine.
There are however research efforts in other parts of the world including China and Russia to also produce curative vaccines for the covid-19 pandemic. At the moment, many countries in the world including the US, UK, China, India and Russia have begun the vaccination of their various populations with the vaccines which have been certified by the WHO. It is hoped that in the shortest possible time the vaccines would arrive the shores of Africa.
The Media: General Definition and Clarifications:
The media is one of the key institutions of any organized society or modern State. It is because of its importance that it is regarded as the fourth estate of the realm, after the other three arms of government, namely the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. No modern State or organization can be successfully run without the media.
There are three major functions of the media, namely:
1. To inform.
2. To educate, and
3. To entertain.
In the process of informing the society, the media exposes corruption, wastages and lapses in governance.
The media under its educational role enlightens the citizenry on their rights, duties and obligations under the laws of the land.
One of the fundamental human rights as captured by the American Constitution is the “right to the pursuit of happiness”. Through its entertainment role, the media seeks to uphold the right of the society to the pursuit of happiness.
Apart from these traditional roles, the media also performs other critical functions which include:
1. Social mobilization.
2. Interpretation of social reality.
3. Public sensitization.
4. Public enlightenment.
5. Exchanging of ideas.
6. Watch dog.
Within the context of this paper, however, the term “media” is defined as the institution through which any society communicates among itself and with others and also reflects social realities.
The media is broadly categorized into two:
i. Traditional media
ii. New media
The traditional media consists mainly of the Print Press including Newspapers and Magazines; and Broadcast or Electronic media like Radio and Television.
The New media, otherwise known as Social media comprises such variants as Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp etc. These are online platforms through which messages are sent and received by users. These online platforms promote citizen journalism and ensure that peoples` voices are heard all over the world. They have the advantage of immediacy and mass appeal, especially among the youths. The main disadvantage, however, is lack of regulation. This is unlike the traditional media which operate under strict professional ethics.
Expected Role of the Media in Combating the Covid-19 Pandemic:
Given the complex nature of the problem that we are dealing with in covid-19, there is no doubt whatsoever that the media has a major role to play in stopping the spread of this pandemic. By virtue of its traditional functions, the media more than any agency is better positioned to help in preventing the spread of the pandemic through the following:
a) Awareness creation
b) Information Dissemination
c) Advocacy campaign
d) Public enlightenment
e) Holding Government accountable
f) Research undertaking
It is the duty of the media, in keeping with its social responsibility role, to create awareness among the populace on the existence of the pandemic and the necessary steps that should be taken to check its spread. Creating awareness will help to defuse ignorance and put the concerned public in the clear picture of true situation of things regarding the disease.
One of the cardinal duties of the media as noted earlier is to inform. Given the high risk nature of the covid-19, one of the effective approaches of mitigating the disease is by ensuring that members of the public are availed with the requisite information on how to protect themselves from contracting the disease. It is also the responsibility of the media to inform the public on the symptoms of the disease, and what should be done once anyone begins to experience those symptoms. According to WHO the covid-19 shows symptoms that resemble malaria. There is often the tendency for people showing such symptoms to go for self-medication. It is the responsibility of the media to provide the people with the necessary information that they need so as to help them guide against the danger of self-medication.
It is the duty of the media to carry out advocacy campaign with a view to sensitizing the populace on the existence and dangers posed by the pandemic to public health. Such deliberate advocacy campaign would help to prepare the public to brace up for the challenges posed by the covid-19 pandemic.
In keeping with its educational role, it is the responsibility of the media to engage in vigorous enlightenment exercise with a view to educating members of the public on all the issues involved in the pandemic and how to stay safe. It is also the duty of the media to enlighten the public on how to observe all the preventive protocols Government has put in place to control the spread of the pandemic.
Holding Government Accountable:
One of the critical functions of the media all over the world is to hold Government accountable to the people. In Nigeria, Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) empowers the Nigerian Media to similarly hold Government and all its agencies accountable to the public. It states specifically as follows:
“The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people”.
In the context of our paper, the media has a bounden constitutional duty to hold Health authorities accountable on their responsibilities and obligations to the Nigerian people with regard to an effective response to the remediation of the threats posed by the pandemic. It is also through the media that the public is being kept abreast on the measures that the Government is putting in place to tackle the disease. Holding Government to account also involves the media mounting surveillance on officials of the State to ensure the right things are being done.
One of the unstated roles of the media anywhere is research undertaking. This is not among the traditional functions of the media. It is, however, very important. Engaging in research ensures that the media gets into the depths of any issue in contention and is availed with concrete facts which it puts at the disposal of the public to enable the people take meaningful decisions. In the context of our paper, the research functions help the media to know the best practices elsewhere with regard to the management and containment of the covid-19 pandemic.
Media and Code of Conduct:
In seeking to fulfill these roles, the media must always be guided by professional code of conduct. Writing on this, an American author, Melvin Mencher, in his classical work, Basic News Writing, noted as follows:
“The journalist is expected to be truthful, to do his or her own work, to avoid pursuing any activity that would raise questions about his or her integrity”.
Mencher went ahead to identify six categories of code of conduct adopted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. They include the following:
The task of the journalist is to serve the general welfare by informing people so that they can make judgments about the issues confronting them. Journalists should not abuse their power for selfish or unworthy purposes.
2. Freedom of the Press
Freedom belongs to the people, and journalists must make sure public business is conducted in public. They must be vigilant against those who exploit the press for their purposes.
Journalists must avoid conflicts of interests. They should accept nothing from sources nor engage in any activity that compromises or might seem to compromise their integrity.
4. Truth and Accuracy
The journalist must seek to keep the good faith of readers by assuring them that the news is accurate, free from bias, and that all sides are presented fairly.
News reports and opinion should be clearly distinct. Opinion articles should be clearly identified as such.
6. Fair Play
Journalists should respect the rights of people in the news and be accountable to the public for the fairness and accuracy of their reports. Persons accused in the news should be allowed to respond.
I invite all of us to reflect deeply on this code as it will go a long way in repositioning us for the effective handling of the challenges that confront us in the course of our work, especially as we report on the covid-19 pandemic.
To What Extent Has the Media Risen to its Roles?
It is perhaps apposite to ask the question: To what extent has the Nigerian media played its roles in mitigating the covid-19 pandemic? There is no doubt that so much is expected of the media in sensitizing the public and ensuring that they are kept abreast with all measures the Government has put in place to combat the disease and check its spread.
It must be admitted without any sense of exaggeration whatsoever, that the media in Nigeria has done very well in the way and manner it has reported on the Covid-19 disease from the index case involving an Italian national in Lagos State. The Italian who works in Nigeria had returned from Milan, Italy to Lagos on 25th February, 2020 and was confirmed by the Virology Laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. Ever since, the media has not looked back either in terms of advocacy, awareness creation, sensitization or public enlightenment on how to keep the people safe from the pandemic.
The media has demonstrated enough patriotism in this regard. Many of the media houses, as part of their social responsibility, have allotted free airtime and space where dedicated messages on the covid-19 pandemic are run as social service. The messages are packaged to educate the public on all aspects of the disease, including the symptoms, how it can be contracted, the preventive protocols as enunciated by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), and the designated hospitals and isolation centres to seek help.
To underscore the importance of information dissemination in the fight against the disease, the media was factored into the work plan of the Federal Government Task Force on Covid-19 coordinated by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). It was the responsibility of the media to report the daily briefings and updates on Government`s efforts at tackling the covid-19 pandemic. It is through the media that the people receive information on the true state of affairs concerning the disease in the country and elsewhere in the world.
From the outbreak of the disease in the country to date, the media has continued to suffuse public space with relevant information to help Nigerians take the necessary precautions. As the spread of the disease is expected to enter a second phase worldwide, I call on the media to step up their advocacy efforts to ensure that anticipated increase in infections is minimized.
Challenges Facing the Media:
In spite of the commendable efforts the media has made in checking the spread of the pandemic through public advocacy, it has, however, had to face some challenges. These challenges have tended to affect the effectiveness of the media in the coverage of the pandemic.
i. Getting Information from the Right Source
ii. Authenticity of Information
iii. Fake news
v. Cultural factors
Getting Information from the Right Source:
One of the problems the media has faced during this covid-19 period is the challenge of getting information from verified sources. There are reports that have been carried on the disease which had been refuted by the CDC. For example, there have been claims of local curative medicines carried by the media but which were dismissed as false by the Health authorities. Another example was also the media report on chloroquine, an old drug for malaria that was no longer on the shelves, as a curative medicine for covid-19. This misleading report forced many Nigerians to storm available pharmaceutical shops and medicine stores for the drug. The CDC has since come out to dismiss the claim as unfounded.
Authenticity of Information:
We live in an information age in which through the internet the whole world has been reduced to one huge village. The ongoing digital revolution has ensured that we have information explosion. This comes with its own challenge which is basically the authenticity of information that is freely available to the media. The use of unverified information has in many instances caused the media embarrassment.
Another major challenge the media has had to contend with is the phenomenon of fake news. It has indeed assumed the dimension of a scourge. Many false stories and reports have continued to find their way into the media. These reports have centred on statistics relating to number of infections, recoveries, fatalities and Government expenditures on the control of the pandemic. The point being made is that the media reportage in the country with regard to the covid-19 disease has come with a lot of false stories that have tended to undermine public confidence in the media.
Related to the issue of fake news is the question of misinformation on the part of the media. When information or reports are gotten from unreliable sources, the tendency is that such information, when it is pushed out to the public is capable of misinforming the people. It is restating the obvious to note that the public has often been misinformed through misleading media reports. A clear example was the report on local concoctions involving such items as ginger, lemons, and some herbs as possessing therapeutic cure for disease. The media was involved and indeed was the channel through which these claims were peddled to the public.
The media also faces cultural factors which tend to pose as a hindrance in the coverage of the covid-19 pandemic. The cultural practices in the country are such that seem to put emphasis on stigmatization. Except in the cases in which some public figures like serving Governors broke the news of contracting the disease by themselves through the media to the public, the media in exercise of what it deems as good judgment often refrains from giving details on affected persons for fear of stigmatization.
Media practitioners are supposed to go for training from time to time to update their knowledge and sharpen their skills. But in reality, most media houses in the country hardly afford such training, whether local or foreign. And the implication is quite clear. In the absence of training and capacity building, ignorance takes over and rules the media space. This comes with regrettable consequences which manifest in the promotion of falsehood as truth.
It is undoubtable that the media has done fairly well in rising to the challenge of effective coverage of the covid-19 since its outbreak in the country. Its performance has been very pronounced in several areas including in enlightening and sensitizing the people about the pandemic and the dangers it poses to our collective existence. It has also been in the forefront of all efforts at mobilizing human and material resources to checkmate and control the spread of the disease. With adequate investments in the media by way of capacity building and financial empowerment, the Nigerian media will do much more through meaningful reportage to ensure that the spread of covid-19 pandemic is effectively controlled.
On this note, I wish to, once again, express my profound appreciation to the Nigerian Press Council for the opportunity it has provided for me to share my thoughts with you. Thank you for listening and God bless.
Emeka Nwosu (PhD) is a Media expert.