The COVID-19 pandemic has become our everyday story—statistics on deaths, new infections, and vaccine developments have become daily and weekly headlines. The virus has caused social anxieties that keep the public glued to any form of media for more information. Depending on where one lives, news media is the first place to find the latest COVID-19 developments. For many South Africans who live in rural areas and townships — and outside of the large urban cities in general — community media is their first, and sometimes the only, source to that information.
A recent survey by the Wits Journalism Department, published in the 2020 State of the Newsroom report, shows that although there is an increase in community media in South Africa, their long history of funding and resource challenges still pose a significant threat to their role as a source of news information for marginalised communities.
The challenges of covering the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic news story is fast-moving. It presents many challenges as reporters balance interpreting scientific data while telling the human story. It also calls for investigations into policymakers and service providers to ensure the health and economic responses are appropriately managed and implemented.
For journalists in community media, this can be particularly difficult. While they are deeply immersed in their communities, these journalists do not have the technical skill required of such complex stories. These citizen journalists often struggle to cut through the jargon on research papers, journals, and press releases. They also struggle to access high-level policymakers or experts.
The pandemic also requires that journalists who do not have a background in health reporting must now learn a new beat. Already, few community editorial staff have received formal education and training, and there is little or no knowledge of health science. This results in a lack of capacity to interpret technical terms and scientific data regarding health reporting. It also becomes more difficult to write or produce these stories in language that marginalised communities will understand.
Interpreting data and statistics
Health journalists usually have access to some form of training on health issues, and they have the background in accessing and interpreting accurate data and information. For instance, health journalists always seek information from peer-reviewed studies and use specific scientific experts on topics. Many community journalists may battle with this academic background and find themselves beholden to basic internet research or government communication. Proper training would mean that they would check and corroborate these sources before publication.
The ever-changing research and data around COVID-19 also bring significant barriers for the community journalists who do not have the privilege to follow the research as rapidly as mainstream journalists. This research is also often published internationally or with statistical models that require training.
For example, the National Centre for Communicable Diseases and various government departments release daily COVID-19 figures. It is unclear if this data reaches these media houses. With the lack of expertise in dissecting statistical information, we are unsure if they can easily break it down for their audience.
Targets for conspiracy theories
In the first months of the pandemic, the public was bombarded with different conspiracy theories. Rumours around the 5G mobile technology as the transmitter of the virus were making rounds as facts in communities. Alternative healers and quack treatments started emerging.
Community journalists can often become easy targets for misinformation and fake news without proper fact-checking skills. This leads to unintentionally poor reporting and allows disinformation and misinformation—the so-called “infodemic” to spread.
Due to their lack of training, they find themselves being manipulated or ignored by a government spokesperson. Their media queries are also often overridden to prioritise mainstream journalists.
Besides, most community media are based in townships and rural areas and often are not close to government officials, health researchers, and health NGOs. This also makes it difficult for these journalists to build relationships and networks with experts who have a history of reliable and scientifically-rigorous work and would be readily available for public comments.
During the pandemic, many press conferences organised by the government and civil society are hosted over zoom or online discussions. These are not often accessible to community journalists, who battle with internet resources or connectivity issues. The National Community Radio Forum has over the years, highlighted the technological challenges faced by community media, which range from internet access and other technological infrastructure needed for producing content.
As a result, the newsrooms do not have proper verification processes and cannot verify health-related claims that could be sent through the newsroom. Unlike, the mainstream journalists that can cover the story through telephone interviews and can easily file reports through their laptops at home, community journalists in the past relied on face-to-face interviews and working at the newsroom or office. Therefore, they are at high risk of being infected with the virus, and due to their socio-economic background can struggle with access to care.
Community media are a key resource
Community media can play a watchdog role and often facilitate dialogue in marginalised communities. It hardly achieves this. They find themselves regurgitating industry or government press releases without critically engaging with content sources or finding voices that can counter the information.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, community media could distil complex information in a language and style that is relevant to the communities they know so well. This, however, requires proper training.
Community media provide essential information to underserved sections of the public who do not serve the interests of big commercial media agendas. But with the existing challenges compounded by the pandemic, they will continue to struggle to achieve this mandate. Community media would find it hard to provide its citizen with accurate information needed when living through a pandemic.—Health-e News
The African Alliance, an advocacy group for vaccine equity, along with the 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.
Health-e News is one of the organisations aimed at strengthening storytelling from under-served communities. We have been producing award-winning print and television health news since 1999. Health-e News’ OurHealth programme trains citizen journalists to report on COVID-19 including on vaccines, providing data or airtime for access to webinars and with trained health journalists in the newsroom to verify and ensure scientific accuracy of content.