Health Journalism: How the Reporting of Covid-19 Has Transformed the Jobs of African Journalists

Nigeria's Health Minister, Dr. Osagie Ehinare

By Wole Elegbede

Health journalists in Africa have been given fecund avenue to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on their works at the 16th edition of the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC2020) hosted by the Journalism Programme of the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

This year’s conference (October 6-30) holds virtually for the first time because of coronavirus concerns, and boasts of being the African continent’s biggest gathering of journalists. The conference deals with varied topics where the journalists shared experiences and learn new skills, techniques and tools to enhance their work.

On 13th October 2020, there was a session on the topic “Journalism in the time of Covid” which dwelt on those issues and provided solutions on how journalists can navigate the complexities of reporting the virus. The session’s panel was moderated by Mia Malan, Editor-in-chief/Executive Director of Bhekisica Centre for Health Journalism in Johannesburg, South Africa, who opened up on the core issue of how the pandemic forced journalists to become emergency health reporters to “report on science research results and health policies that they were previously unfamiliar with”. She then posed thought-provoking questions like “Is this kind of situation good for health journalism or does it lead to misinformation, and how have business, investigative and political journalists cope with the situation?”

Ferial Haffajee, influential South African journalist well-known for business, investigative and political reporting before the outbreak of the virus and who has never reported on a pandemic before now, said after her dive into reporting Covid-19 pandemic, she discovered the stereotype about the health beat as “soft” was wrong, adding that it is “probably the most vital of the beats; it’s literally a matter of life and death”.

Hafajee has been able to overcome the challenges by her sheer resoluteness, and the epidemiological course she undertook in July this year in India together with other journalists from across the world. Journalists from 18 African countries participated in the training and a third of the total number of participants are non-health journalists.

“For me, that (epidemiological course) is the way to go because it used every single technology, and then together with people like Dr. Taryn Young (an epidemiologist), it taught us how to ensure that we knew about vaccine trials, how to ensure that we understood the signs and that has been completely invaluable to me”, she opined.

While on coronavirus beat, Haffajee learned that reporting the virus could lend itself to the methods of conventional investigation because of the fall outs of the disease such as Covid-19 corruption, police brutality, human rights abuses and unscientific vaccine claims.

She said the reporting of Covid-19 “did become more conventionally investigative”, adding “that’s when we learned that all the billions of Rand (South Africa’s currency) that were being invested into the response in South Africa, but I know it’s also happening in the rest of Africa, was as usual being corrupted. We have to get at the top and watch how the money is planned and then how It’s spent, and for me, that’s where health reporting should go, in the next couple of years, to catch corruption before it happens”.

Asha Mwilu, a Kenyan traditional television journalist and CNN African journalist of year 2016, disclosed that coronavirus changed her life and that she had to put aside her role as an editor to go to the field to report on the virus.

“I started going to the markets and talking to people and seeing how coronavirus was affecting lives and livelihoods, and I just had to go back to the basics of reporting, and then I had to re-learn a lot of things”, she remarked.

After Mwilu resigned from her post as Editor, Special Projects, Citizen Television, Kenya, she launched Debunk Media on July 1, 2020, where she currently serves as Founder/Editor-at-large. The platform came in the midst of Covid-19 and this development changed its orientation.

“The plan was to launch Debunk in April, but we had to put it on hold”, she explains. “First and foremost, the content that we had created could not even resonate with the audience because everyone was talking about coronavirus. We had created content around issues like legalization of marijuana, feel good content around music but using data to drive those stories. What coronavirus did for us is to really center us into what Debunk Media wanted to do, and is now doing, which is putting data at the center of storytelling “.

At a time that fatigue was setting in the coverage of the pandemic, her team decided to look for areas that had not been reported on, and learned how to scrape data from the web to give new dimensions to reporting the disease.

Professor Taryn Young, an epidemiologist and Director of the Centre for Evidence-based Healthcare at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, who has collaborated effectively with journalists, said health reporters need basic knowledge of science and research assessment to be able to write critically on health, and to prevent misinformation.

“Yes, I have seen misinformation and flawed research being reported in the media”, she disclosed. “An example is linked to the big difference between association and causation. For instance, there have been reports linked to smoking, that if you smoke more, you are less likely to become inflicted with Covid-19 but these studies are reported without critically about how big was the study. Was the result big enough to give a robust answer?”
Speaking on the epidemiological course in which she was one of the hosts, Young said on a certain day at the event “there were more than 60 people online all joining to learn more about epidemiology, to learn more about different types of research designs, different types of bias, and talking about error, and also covering tips on how to critically appraise medical research”.

Journalists and medical researchers need to work together to enhance the reporting of research findings, she suggests.

In her own contribution, Ida Jooste, who works for the International Media Development Organization called Internews, said Covid-19 had brought many other areas of life into storytelling and cited the instance of mathematics and statistics.

“It’s brought mathematics and statistics and dealing with numbers right into our faces every single day”, adding that this is something that journalists should learn to add to their understanding of Covid-19 reporting.

The author:
Elegbede is a Multimedia journalist and Project Director of Press Attack Monitor, a platform that exposes press freedom violations in Nigeria. He was chosen by the Journalism Program (Wits Journalism) of the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, as a fellow of the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2020 hosted by Wits Journalism.