The role of the Journalists cannot be over-emphasised. Aside from the duties of getting the informative, educative and entertaining sides of every story, the journalist goes as far as analysing and setting the agenda for public debates, using hardcore facts and human angle stories. This is done at a great risk to life and family , especially in times of war, conflict, natural disasters, political and social insurrection and pandemics, among others.
The world is currently faced with an overwhelming crisis called the Corona Virus or COVID-19. With about 577,621 contacts and 26,448 deaths and still counting (according to www.worldometers.info), the virus has left a devastating effect on human interactions, the global stock markets, social gatherings, work activities, general health conditions and a host of others. These effects, as a result, called for a restraining order of schools, offices, business outlets, markets, places of worship and other meeting points, to remain closed until further notice. In short, the society is on lockdown remedy.
In light of this, there are some people or occupations that are exempted from the shutdown due to the nature of the jobs. These jobs are called “essential services or jobs”. When a job is classified as an essential service, it simply means that the job, by the jurisdiction of the law of the state concerned, has the mandate to operate its services because of how important it is for daily living. In other words, these jobs are very necessary for citizens; without them or an alternative, daily living will be very difficult. Such services are in the areas of media and communications, water supply, waste management, power and energy supply, food services, healthcare, logistics, paramilitary (road safety officers, banking, fire service, the police, etc), and so on.
Being one of the essential services, the media constantly keeps the public updated with local and global trends, including public opinions. Nigeria is among the countries hit by the virus. Currently, the nation has recorded over 100 cases and still counting with a death thus far. Since the outbreak of the virus, many offices, businesses and venues for social gatherings have been shut down following the order from the Federal Government yet media organisations, like the radio, newspaper and television stations, as well as, new media stations, are presently open, even till this very moment.
Despite the ravaging spread of paranoia and despair attributed to the pandemic, journalists are on the go to keep us abreast on the Corona Virus. Hmm…m, how far with the Nigerian journalist? According to Twitter’s Global Lead for Legal, Policy, Trust and Safety, Vijaya Gadde, she reasoned that: “Right now, every journalist is a COVID-19 journalist. From the stories of healthcare workers on the frontlines to the analyses of the real human and economic cost of the pandemic, reporters around the world are still writing, still exposing themselves to harm, still giving us the facts”.
As part of the courageous individuals waged on the fight against this deadly disease, it is required that a journalist follows these two steps, prevention and action. The questions to be asked are: To what lengths are journalists taking to avoid the infection, more specifically, while in the line of duty? Should you be allowed to carry out your duties at this time if pregnant or ill? These questions handle the ‘prevention step’. Meanwhile, in disseminating stories (that is, the action step) relating to the pandemic, what do you write? Are they factual, balanced and objective, or stories full of sensationalised and exaggerated contents to make your papers sell like hot Okpa (Bambara seed pudding) in the morning? When should the journalist be humane in his or her reportage? Should journalistic ethics come to play here?
Preventive standards must be applied as a journalist before, during and even after a field report. What are these measures? wash your hands regularly with soap and water for about 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based sanitiser in the absence of soap and water. Use a face mask if you are ill. Maintain the “no-touch” forms of greetings from now on; you can wave, bow, genuflect, do the namaste, the “elbow shake” but don’t give handshakes, hugs or kisses. Also, maintain at least two metres (five feet) physical distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing (and for the love of all things sanitary, don’t interview such a person). Reporters should try to avoid crowded areas while on field reporting. Furthermore, reporters are to stay at home if down with symptoms like fever, cough and difficulty in breathing. Have the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC)’s 24/7 emergency numbers and do not self-medicate (Please! Abeg! Biko! Edakun! Don Allah!). It will be advisable for media houses to let their pregnant employees stay at home for the time being. Media houses, also, should provide face masks and sanitisers for staff in the office or on the field. Routine cleaning of high contact areas such as toilets, door handles, telephones, elevators, etc., in media offices, must be of optimum level. So, the use of bleaches, wipes and disinfectants will perpetually become a daily affair.
Some organisations have taken it a notch higher to check that journalists are cared for during this perilous time, via cash donations. Recently, social networking and microblogging company, Twitter, gave out the sum of $1million evenly to two NGOs, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), that are concerned about journalists’ welfares. According to the company, the donation was done to appreciate journalists “that are working tirelessly to uphold the fundamental values of a free press during this pandemic”. Gestures such as this will go a long way in protecting our journalists and reassuring them that we acknowledge the sacrifices they make.
But more importantly, the major concern is the manner of reportage since the wake of the virus and the pandemonia following suit. As earlier said, a reporter must deviate from writing exaggerated, outlandish stories and using sensationalised headlines. It is necessary to find a balance as a reporter. Although a journalist may want to pacify the readers, it is equally required not to write anything (though factual) that will instil or aggravate fear among the public. Remember that the spread occurs by the minute in some areas. Therefore, it is always important that the figures of casualties are accurate and updated; also, places, names of spokespersons and other information should be correct. Explain scenarios, figures and its implication in the simplest of terms; this way, people from all educational backgrounds will understand. In addition, racial remarks must be avoided. For example, although the virus began late last year in the Wuhan province of China, some news, tweets and other forms of reports have called it, “the Chinese virus” plus other aspersions which may put Chinese citizens to ridicule, hate and discrimination from other nationals. In writing a report in connection to Covid-19 and the impacts on people, it is imperative to get inputs from every side: from the government to health personnel, students, private and public sector workers, entrepreneurs, taxi drivers, hawkers, those in self-isolation, the rich, the poor…virtually, everyone, to get a thorough, fair opinion of the public about the virus and how everyone is affected. Furthermore, a journalist should always refer to authoritative sources such as WHO, NCDC and Ministry of Health, for verifiable and authentic information. Finally, reporters should guard their mental and emotional health. Although bravery is needed in this gallant profession, cases such as the pandemic, the pitiable plights of infected persons have a way of showing just how vulnerable we can be in such happenings; thus, arousing the human side of the journalist, which may take a negative toll on them, mentally and emotionally.
Leaving with a concluding remark from Vijaya Gadde: “COVID-19 has been with us for months but the power of the virus is now being felt on all corners of the globe. We’re witnessing real-time public conversation on an issue that connects us all on a core human level and our purpose has never been stronger. We will continue to work with our partners as the crisis evolves and are grateful for their journalistic leadership and commitment to the power of the pen”.
Once again for emphasis, the “Essential Journalist” both at home and in the diaspora, is not immune to the pandemic. Therefore, there is need for life insurance for Journalists involved in the day to day coverage of this pandemic while government at all levels must spare some thoughts for the essential journalist, who goes the whole nine yards to feed you and me with up-to-date information as the global lockdown persists due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gabriel O. Odu and Deborah T. Anaelechi
Media, Public Relations and Protocols Unit,
30th March 2020.