This piece is an extract from "The Impact of Covid-19 on Journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South," a report by professor Damian Radcliffe, published by Thomson Reuters Foundation. It is republished here with permission. You can find the full report here
This report has primarily focused on the core challenges being faced by journalists reporting on the coronavirus. Through their work, the news media has attempted to hold governments to account and translate public health information into a format that audiences can make sense of and apply to their daily lives.
As the second wave of the pandemic takes hold around much of the world, this presents an opportunity to take stock of earlier reporting and showcase some of the fresh approaches newsrooms have used in covering covid-19.
New products and approaches
Many news media outlets saw record levels of traffic and engagement in the early stages of the outbreak. Large audiences were hungry for information about this rapidly-changing situation.
As the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) has shown, various media outlets launched new products such as coronavirus-themed podcasts, alerts and newsletters designed to cater for this demand.
Image for a covid-19 podcast from the South China Morning Post. Courtesy TRF
Some news providers also dropped their paywalls for covid-19 content, removing a potential barrier to accessing important, potentially life-saving, information. Other players looked to develop new methods of storytelling and distribution, enabling audiences to receive important public health messages in a variety of formats.
In this vein, explainer videos and infographics proved highly popular, with their production going beyond just traditional newsrooms.
The WHO, Stanford University’s School of Medicine, Canada-based YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE, and the Indian medic Dr G Bhanu Prakash are among those successfully using explainer videos and animation to communicate key health messages.
Image: from "The Coronavirus Explained & What You Should Do"
by ‘Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell’ on YouTube. Courtesy TRF
Other approaches and delivery mechanisms have also been used to engage audiences and communicate covid news to audiences.
These efforts reflect the ability of journalists to creatively communicate vital public health messages and meet audiences where they are. They also stress the importance of traditional media, in particular radio, as a means to reach large audiences in parts of the Global South.
Some of the examples that caught our eye include:
A Facebook Live interview in the Philippines, with human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, on the rule of law in a pandemic. The video has been viewed nearly a quarter of a million times. It was hosted by the online news website Rappler.
To support Rohingya communities in Bangladesh, BBC Media Action produced short audio episodes (five minutes or less) called Soiyi Hota ('correct information') designed for dissemination via loudspeakers.
Jakarta-based Kantor Berita Radio (KBR), described by Internews as "the first independent national radio news agency in Indonesia", is using a range of multimedia platforms to discuss how climate change and covid-19 intersect.
Radio stations across Africa pivoted their programming to address the pandemic. Eagle FM in the Namibian capital of Windhoek countered fears that "5G had caused coronavirus, or that it was man-made or that Chinese people were intentionally bringing the virus into our country".
Meduza, a Russian and English-language news provider based in Latvia, created an online game in the form of a ‘true or false’ quiz, with questions about the coronavirus.
Given the speed and complexity of the infodemic, it is imperative that stakeholders work together to maximise their efforts. Partnership working can be hard, however, we have already seen a broad spectrum of different collaborations emerge.
These efforts can cover a broad spectrum of activity, including:
Investigative journalism: Centinela Covid-19 is a collaborative cross-border project examining the response to covid-19 in Latin America. The venture features organisations from 12 Latin American countries, as well as Univision Notícias in the USA. It is coordinated by the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP) and supported through funding from Oxfam and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Content sharing: Habertürk, one of Turkey’s three biggest news channels, is broadcasting one-minute explainer videos produced by journalists working for Teyit, an independent verification platform based in Turkey. According to the European Journalism Center, "the short clips debunk the most widely-circulated myths about the outbreak and highlight practical fact-checking tips." The partnership enables this content to reach a wider audience than through Teyit’s digital channels alone.
Data sharing: with support from Internews, three newsrooms in the Kyrgyz Republic – 24.kg, Kaktus Media and kloop – are working together to consolidate information about covid-19 in the country, working with the School of Data Kyrgyzstan to create a national dashboard and open data portal on covid-19 in the Republic.
Creative Commons: Meduza, a Riga-based online newspaper and news aggregator operating in Russian and English, has also made their coronavirus coverage freely available, subject to attribution, under a Creative Commons licence, allowing stories (but not photos) to be used for free without the need for prior approval.
Research: the Journalism and the Pandemic Project is a research partnership between the International Center For Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Blending experienced journalists and academic researchers, their work aims to understand the scale of the crisis for journalism.
Alongside these journalistic efforts, we are also seeing partnerships between journalism outlets and tech companies, such as:
Facebook: the social network’s Fact-Checking Programme includes more than 60 independent fact-checking organisations, working in more than 50 languages.
In the early phases of the pandemic, the company established a $1m grant programme to support coronavirus fact-checking. Twenty-six projects have been supported in Italy, Spain, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Greece, Turkey, Montenegro, Lithuania, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, India, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States, Australia, France, Indonesia, Canada, Jordan, Kenya, Taiwan and Ukraine.
Google: the search giant is providing $6.5m in funding to fact-checkers and non-profits fighting misinformation. Organisations they have supported include First Draft and LatamChequea, a single hub to highlight the work of 21 fact-checking organisations across 15 countries in the Spanish-speaking world and Latin America.
The company also pledged to train 1,000 journalists across India and Nigeria in spotting health misinformation. Google’s new Question Hub is also being used to address covid concerns. The Hub identifies topics that internet users are looking for, but which do not (yet) yield high-quality answers.
Findings are passed on to partners – such as the information initiative DataLEADS, the fact-checking website BOOM Live in India, and Africa Check in Nigeria – to create content that fills these known gaps.
Impactful and innovative work
Through this broad spectrum of activity, journalists have delivered work that has underlined the demand for accurate news and information, as well as the requirement to tailor it for the needs of given communities.
During a public health crisis, journalism’s fact-checking role is crucial. This is especially true of a new virus, which we are learning more about every day. The core values of journalism – the importance of accuracy, facts, and clarity – are perhaps more important than ever.
Examples of these attributes in practice can be seen throughout this chapter. Here are some further illustrations of these core principles in action:
During a public health crisis, journalism’s fact-checking role is crucial.Damian Radcliffe
Accountability reporting – El Surtidor investigated the cost of ventilators, revealing that "fierce competition for respirators faces smaller countries, such as Paraguay, in a scenario of price manipulation, cargo seizures, excessive costs and possible shortages of this critical input".
Data storytelling: According to Amr Eleraqi, founder of Infotimes.org, the first Arabic website to specialise in data journalism, "covid taught people in this region to love data… They want comparisons about cases and deaths in their own countries and across borders".
Undercover reporting: Two journalists, Ana Poenariu and Andrei Ciurcanu, went undercover to highlight Romania’s trade in black market masks, working with RISE Project Romania and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in the process.
Supporting marginalised communities: Haitian journalist Milo Milfort wrote about the impact of the pandemic and mask wearing on Haiti's deaf population. "The article contributed to starting a public conversation about the fate of a neglected group of people in our society," Milfort told IJNet. "It exposed the weakness and the lack of responsibility shown by the state towards one of many marginalised social groups in Haiti."
In addition to these efforts, journalists and news outlets have continued to creatively explore delivery mechanisms for news and information.
A number of these efforts have harnessed WhatsApp, a service with more than 2 billion users worldwide.
In the Ivory Coast, WhatsApp is being used to distribute daily updates on the pandemic and to address rumours and misinformation. Material is also shared on Facebook and Twitter.
Covid-19 has, correspondingly, encouraged some journalists to launch entirely new ventures.
The Continent is a Pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian (M&G) a South African weekly newspaper. By mid-August it had published 16 editions, disseminated to 8,000 subscribers in 48 African countries.
As South African journalist Pontsho Pilane explains: "The PDF publication features news from across the African continent and is easily shared and read on mobile phone screens. The articles are short, on average about 250 words, and a news edition is distributed mainly on WhatsApp every Saturday."
"WhatsApp was almost always the source of fake news and that's when we realised that we had to start thinking very seriously about how we can get our credible news onto WhatsApp," Simon Allison, M&G’s Africa editor and co-founder of The Continent, said.
Together with their colleague, Sipho Kings, they said they "started asking ourselves what product can we make that can showcase the news that we're doing in a way that works on that particular medium."
Meanwhile, in Brazil, Agência Mural, a non-profit that produces news, data and analysis about the outskirts of the Grande Sao Paulo metropolitan area, has created a daily eight-minute WhatsApp podcast called Em Quarentena (Quarantined).
Another new enterprise, saludconlupa.com (Health with a Magnifying Glass), focuses on collaborative investigative journalism developed and distributed in different formats. ICFJ Knight Fellow Fabiola Torres launched the new digital site – which is dedicated to public health in Latin America – in Spanish and English.
These examples demonstrate that for all the trials journalism faces as a result of covid-19, journalists remain creative creatures seeking to cut through the noise and communicate with audiences. News outlets are continuing to produce important, impactful and inspired stories, offering journalism and news products that offer real value to the communities they serve.