Covid-19: The media’s role | Sunday Observer

Covid-19: The media’s role

1 November, 2020

There is saturation media coverage on the latest Coronavirus outbreak in the country. This is understandable, given the competitive nature of the media business all over the world. But one can see really alarmist headlines in almost all local newspapers and TV news bulletins such as “Covid passes 9,000 mark, Covid Second Wave begins, Hospitals overflowing with patients” etc which can create more panic among the public. What is often not mentioned in these reports is that the 9,000 includes more than 4,000 fully recovered patients. Instead, we often get the idea that 9,000 patients are roaming around. The number of recoveries must be expressly mentioned in all reportage of Coronavirus cases in Sri Lanka lest the reports create a wrong impression in the public mind.

In fact, very little has been discussed about media reporting on the pandemic and the media’s role in educating the public on the nature of the pandemic. And some media outlets, especially the electronic ones, have been sensationalising the Covid-19 detections and deaths. Disregarding the advice of health authorities, they film how PHIs engage in their quarantining duties and also the funerals of those who succumb to the disease, completely ignoring the distress and sentiments of the relatives and family friends of the victims.

This could also pose a danger to the persons depicted in the videos (both health workers and family members) as there has been some stigma attached to Covid-19 patients and their contacts in society. Moreover, the names of any patients should not be published, even if they themselves agree. These incidents had prompted the Government to issue another warning to these institutions not to engage in such unethical practices. The media must also highlight the fact that any fully recovered patients or those self-quarantining at home do not pose any danger to society as such.

Another phenomenon that we have witnessed, especially in the vernacular media, is completely localising the pandemic. In other words, they show the pandemic as only affecting Sri Lanka, probably with an eye on tarnishing the image of the authorities in the eyes of the public. The reality is that 45 million people around the world have been infected with Covid-19 while 1.1 million have died. The advanced developed countries of the West have fared very badly compared to Sri Lanka and some other developing countries, which have managed to escape the fate of the former. The media must highlight how the Coronavirus has affected the rest of the world.

A couple of weeks ago in these spaces we chided the public over virtually abandoning the Coronavirus health and safety protocols stipulated by the health authorities after Sri Lanka successfully tackled the initial bout of the pandemic. These include simple steps such as wearing a face mask, washing hands frequently with soap and water or sanitiser (if the former is not available or inaccessible) and keeping a distance of at least one metre from the next person, though this may always not be possible in public transport. However, now we feel that part of the blame should also go to all mainstream media outlets, print and electronic.

During the initial outbreak, the media constantly reminded the people of these health practices, devoting whole prime time segments in the electronic media and pages upon pages on the print media. However, with the waning of the disease in Sri Lanka and the passage of time, these also disappeared from the airwaves and the printed pages. This was rather unfortunate. If that tempo was kept up, the people would have been more alert to the looming threat and at least some of the infections could have been prevented. This is a disease that will find its way back in somehow, so the media must be relentless in this anti-Coronavirus messaging.

This brings us to the rather brilliant “Meteren Jeewithe” (Life by a Metre) Public Service Announcement (PSA) now aired by all TV stations. In just three minutes or so, it outlines all health precautions and protocols that one must follow to prevent the spread of Covid-19. We wonder whether the Health Promotion Bureau could do a version of this PSA advertisement for radio and print media as well, not to mention social media. Creative professionals in the media and advertising fields should also be urged to create similar PSAs to drive the point home in a collaborative effort. The media should compete, but now is the time for a bit of collaboration too.

Newspapers themselves have been affected due to certain beliefs in society that the virus can be transmitted via paper. But the truth is that there is very little human contact with the paper in all newspaper publishing houses which are now fully automated. Every process from filing a story to that story appearing in print is electronic and even the loading of newspapers to trucks is either by direct chute from the printing press or forklift. Whoever handles even a single newspaper during the print run wears PPE including gloves.

Therefore, there is no reason to fear newspapers which continue to bring you the news amid the challenges posed by the pandemic, such as having limited staff and curfew restrictions. They should now focus even more on bringing in-depth stories about the Coronavirus here and abroad to educate and inform the readers. In fact, this should be the mission of all media, print and electronic, as well as responsible users and influencers of social media.