OP-ED on #COVID-19: Community journalists are crucial to informing the public

Citizen journalists understand their community's needs and global issues (Health-e)

The Covid-19 pandemic has put health journalism in the spotlight and forced many newsrooms to pivot to reporting on what used to be a niched beat. But with the dearth of health journalists in the country – there are a handful of specialised health or science reporters in South Africa – reporting on COVID-19, vaccines and equitable access has been challenging for numerous media outlets including community media.

Health journalism is particularly important in a country such as South Africa because of the country’s burden of disease and overworked public health system. Studies have also shown that there is a “chronic shortage of medical personnel in the public health sector in South Africa.” These factors, coupled with the country’s poverty and massive inequality, are indicative of the important role the media places in informing the public. Scholars have argued that health journalism is a primary source of informing the public about personal and public health care. This means that journalists are tasked with reading and understanding scientific research and reporting it in a simple yet scientifically accurate manner. But, niche reporting, like health journalism, is also costly and time-consuming.

Dwindling resources

As the global media industry continues to face critical economic challenges and the traditional business model is no longer profitable, South Africa is also not immune to the impact of this global media climate. While journalism frantically searches for a sustainable model that will bring financial stability to the industry and the economic impact of the pandemic continue to unravel, it is community media that has felt the brunt of dwindling profits in the sector. This is disastrous, particularly during a time where marginalised communities need a media fraternity that can disseminate information in ways that are accessible to those communities — whether it is from the perspective of language or location.

While the pandemic has dominated headlines and the news cycle, media organisations have dedicated almost all their resources to reporting on the latest development. South Africa has seen mainstream media outlets dominate in this regard, as community media lags behind.

Unlike mainstream journalists, community journalists are embedded in the communities they report on and report to. According to the International Programme for the Development of Communication, community-based media enables media pluralism, diversity in content, and the representation of a society’s different groups and interests. It also encourages open dialogue and transparency of administration at the local level, but there are constraints that make it hard for community journalists to meet these objectives.

Our impact

Health-e News Service is but one example of an organisation that has been exclusively delivering accurate and engaging health news since its formation in 1999. Health-e’s donor-funded OurHealth programme began in 2012 and has been actively recruiting and training citizen journalists located in all nine provinces. OurHealth has helped Health-e News deliver award-winning stories of national and local importance by citizen journalists and our citizen journalists have gone on to become full-time employed journalist elsewhere.

Overall, community journalists clearly showed they were open to reporting and learning more national and global issues like the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, intellectual property and equitable access and distilling it to what it means for their communities.  Yet, the lack of resources remains a barrier, while community journalists struggle to be taken seriously by provincial and national government communication officers and independent experts.

Additionally, community journalists also shared why they find it difficult to write on COVID-19 vaccine and equitable access. Issues such as reluctant editors not knowing enough about intellectual property laws were the keys challenges that were raised. The general trust deficit between media and government also makes it difficult for journalists, in general, to get information out of government. But community journalists are particularly disadvantaged.

A community journalist based in Western Cape said: “The reason our own government doesn’t trust us as the media and its own citizens is that they know that they are busy lazing around and doing all the wrong things.”

Health-e News’ citizen journalists have been consistently and fearlessly reporting on COVID-19, for example:

Distilling global issues

Although journalists know what are the barriers to reporting on issues like intellectual property rights and equitable access in the context of COVID-19, it’s also important that they responsibly amplify the issue and use their influence in the newsroom to generate interesting ways to cover the pandemic.

“Our responsibility as journalists is to provide facts not misleading information. Because this is a sensitive topic because people are dying each and every day,” another community journalist said.

It’s important the public stays informed during these uncertain times, particularly as the complexities of COVID-19 vaccine science and the legal framework of access takes centre stage. Newsrooms have no choice to make the pandemic coverage a priority and because of the positioning of community media, they must also be at the forefront of disseminating information to societies.

To have an informed public, we need journalists that intimately understand their communities, their concerns and the challenges that are specific to their communities. As we create an independent, empowered and informed society, we cannot afford to leave community media behind.—Health-e News

The African Alliance, The Vaccine Advocacy Resource Group with support from Norwegian Peoples AID and in partnership with the Health Justice Initiative and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) South Africa recently convened a two-day training to help community journalists deepen their understanding of Intellectual Property as it relates to equitable access of COVID-19 Vaccines.


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