COVID-19: Raising the Stakes of Reporting Amidst Daunting Challenges – A Nigerian Editors’ Score Card

COVID-19: Raising the Stakes of Reporting Amidst Daunting Challenges – A Nigerian Editors’ Score Card

…Laud Encouraging Reporting but Worry about Clinging to Freebie and Hostage to Official Data …Lament Absence of Necessary Kits Hamper Independent Reporting …Observe Low Monitoring of Relief Materials Supplies to the Vulnerable …Want Security Agencies Properly Briefed on Media’s Role Despite numerous challenges, Editors in Nigeria reckon that the media is giving commendable focus to

…Laud Encouraging Reporting but Worry about Clinging to Freebie and Hostage to Official Data
…Lament Absence of Necessary Kits Hamper Independent Reporting
…Observe Low Monitoring of Relief Materials Supplies to the Vulnerable
…Want Security Agencies Properly Briefed on Media’s Role

Despite numerous challenges, Editors in Nigeria reckon that the media is giving commendable focus to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the follow-up lockdowns and the attendant effects on social and economic life and activities.

They however contend that the bar of reporting could be higher with more independent investigations, better access to information, enabling resources and less curtailment of freedom of the press.

A cross section of the editors observed that the media’s over reliance on data churned out by government agencies is hampering its adequate reportage of the Corona virus pandemic which has killed over 60,000 persons globally, six of them in Nigeria as at Wednesday April 8, 2020, according to figures released by the Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC).

Some, however, attribute this to the absence of the necessary kits to assist journalists to conduct independent verification of the data while others say the media’s desire for responsible journalism has made it to be hamstrung and cautious not to create fear and panic in the populace.

Despite the dearth of resources, some of the editors say the media should strive not to become hostage to the “freebie of official statistics” released both by the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 and the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC), just like the international media was accused of largely aping the briefs of the American generals during its coverage of the Gulf War 1 and 11.

The Editors who sent responses to a questionnaire by the International Press Centre (IPC) and its news portal and media resource – Nigerian Democratic Report – on the State of Media’s Coverage of COVID-19 applauded the media’s role in getting the citizenry informed about the virus, but say the media must go beyond press conferences and the reporting of official data and do more behind the scene stories.

Calling on the media to rev up its monitoring of relief supplies to the vulnerable, they also counsel that the security agencies need to be properly briefed about the vital role of the media, in order to avert the persistent attacks against journalists across the country.

Unlike Europe and America where the impact of the virus has been particularly devastating after its outing in Wuhan, China, topping the over one million cases across the world, the cases in Nigeria have only climbed to 276, leading to six deaths. The cheering news is also that 44 patients have been discharged.

The Limitations and challenges
Publisher, Premium Times, Mr Dapo Olorunyomi says, “Attention has been given more to case count than more substantive issues,” contending that the media cannot embark on any rigorous reporting “by simply showing up at press conferences and listening to official narratives of the Covid-19 progression!” He wants the media which he says, “Has practically not made any substantive demands” and clings on “the freebie from government,” to rise above this by putting the real issues on the grill.

Speaking in the same vein, Editor of Daily Trust, Mr. Hamza Idris decried what he perceived as the absence of independent reporting: “You rarely see independent reportage. Most media houses rely on NCDC and figures given by federal and state ministries of health.” He identified as another limitation the fact that “some media houses are fighting for survival and therefore unable to give support to their reporters to report well or carry out in depth analysis through investigations”.

Agreeing with Idris, Editor of New Age Online newspaper, Amos Esele, opined that the media is still slow in getting behind the news “particularly in helping to track hundreds of cases that ‘vanished’ because of either fear of stigmatisation or sheer ignorance. Esele also noted that some of those who are given space on Radio and TV “know next to nothing about the virus, arguing that the media should give more opportunity to specialists like Virologists, Doctors, Pharmacists, Veterinarians, etc, when it comes to issues of drugs and treatment.

For the Editor of Blue Print, Mr. Abdulrahman Abdulrauf, the alleged attempt by government “to cover up some cases particularly where the person involved is of a high profile”, constitutes limitation to media efforts.

The Applause
Within the context of its operations, some of the editors commend media efforts at reporting the pandemic.General Manager of Raypower 106.5FM, Lagos, Yetunde Iwuoha is upbeat that “The media is up to the task in Nigeria as most newspapers and electronic media have devoted extra space for thorough/comprehensive reportage of COVID-19, dishing out per second information for the awareness of the public.

“For instance in my organisation, “COVID-19 WATCH” was created on Raypower and AIT to help our listening public and viewers to keep abreast of the virus. This programme runs for about four times daily, giving updates intermittently. We are also running PSAs (public service announcements) in English, Pidgin, Hausa and Yoruba to educate Nigerians on protection against the virus,” she reveals.

Also threading on this line are the Editor of Nigerian Tribune, Mr Debo Abdulai and Amos Esele, Editor of THISAGE. Abdullahi says the media has done extremely well in the reporting of COVID-19.

According to Abdulai, “before the index case was recorded in the country, the Nigerian media had been reporting on the situations around the world, sensitizing the populace and government to the need to prevent the spread of the disease to Nigeria. Many of these reports formed the basis of motions on the floors of both the House of Representatives and the Senate”.

He says further: “Since the arrival of the index case and up till now, the media continue to – through direct reporting and advertorial- create the awareness. On daily basis, we publish a sort of awareness/enlightenment advertorial on COVID-19 sponsored and generated by us.

Explaining further, Abdulai says, “So far, there has been synergy, as the Presidential Task Force Team on COVID-19 has been carrying the media along in its daily briefing”.

Esele enthuses that the media has focused reasonable attention on reporting the pandemic. His words: “I would say 70 percent of news reports, interviews, conversations, features and even opinions are on Covid-19 to create public awareness in the country”.

For Mr. Niyi Adesina, Editor, The Nation, it’s also thumb up for the media: “The media have done a great work disseminating the information on the virus. This has created awareness about it. In my estimation, they have discharged the job creditably. Indeed there is no other thing to report. That has made it imperative to think of so many angles while covering the pandemic”

“This virus is novel, a once in a lifetime situation. There is no reference to copy from or look back at. However, the print media need improved technology that will make it possible, in a situation of a lockdown, to produce a newspaper completely with the reporters, sub editors and editors all working from home,” he also says.

Editor of Daily Sun, Ihenacho Nwosu also argues that considering the limitation of the media, “it has made efforts to inform and educate the public on index cases, deaths, isolation facilities, donations and activities of the government regarding the pandemic”.

Abdulrauf concurs that the media has created some level of awareness “on the novel Covid-19”. “Some media organisations including the Blue Print have freely provided some spaces for proper education”.

But offering a divergent view, Head of News, Inspiration 100.5FM, Ibadan, Mrs Jadesola Ajibola scores the media low. “I do not think that the Nigerian media has created enough public awareness on the issue.” She says, “There should be dedicated programs to educate and enlighten the public on COVID 19 pandemic. By percentage 50%, many untold stories are behind the scene and many journalists are not allowed to have access.”

Another Editor of a high profile newspaper who prefers not to be mentioned though says, “The media have done well considering the circumstances under which they are working.” But he complains that “Lack of infrastructure has made better reportage almost impossible”. I think government at all level should do more to help journalists in terms of providing access. For instance journalists have not been given access to any of the isolation centres.”

The need for caution
Mr. Bolaji Adebiyi, Editor of ThisDay newspaper contends that the media has been cautious and discreet in its reporting by relying on official data in order not to create fear and panic amongst the populace. “I would like to see more individual investigations. The media has been more cautious, sticking to information provided by the relevant agencies of government. This is perhaps in order to downplay fears and panic in the populace. The media has been cautious in the circumstances,” he says.

Mr Remmy Nweke, Editor, ITRealms Online also shares this view. He says, “Quoting NCDC is the right thing except for a few non-trained journalists who thrive in creating fears and alarmist experts.”

Nwosu links the imperative of caution to the need to curb the spread of false information. According to him, “The media must be more circumspect in the reportage of developments about the pandemic. This will help to address the current challenge of fake claims/reports about deaths and or infected individuals”.

Exclusivity and fact checking
Editor in Chief, The Cable Online, Mr. Simon Kolawole for whom media reporting of the pandemic has been a mixed grill, says, “The media should take it upon itself to educate the populace by doing fact checks on misleading information being circulated on social media. It should see this as a responsibility. The media should also avoid reporting speculations so as not to create fear and panic or distract those who are on the frontline.”

“Some sections of the media have done a very good job of that. The traditional media needs to step up its game though as the online media appears to be the major source of informative reporting these days. There are still some sections of the media reporting speculations as exclusive stories but they are in a tiny minority.

“Initially, things were hazy. However, with Nigeria reporting cases, the government and its agencies have been quite accessible and the daily briefings have been very helpful,” Kolawole says.

Ajibola also says it is important “to have investigative kind of reporting and solution driven journalism to help give accurate information and reduce panic among the populace”

Both Adebiyi and Idris say they would like to see more individual investigations and independent coverage. Echoing similar thought, Nwosu says, “The Media should go beyond reportage of daily updates and delve into investigation of the cause and the handling of the pandemic by the government, medics and other stakeholders”

Exposure and protection
Iwuoha reasons that if the media would go beyond depending on NCDC statistics and updates from the Presidential Task Force, then journalists need to be provided with protection kits to further aid their assignments.
“I would love to see media operatives properly kitted donning protective gears against the daily risk posed by the fast spreading virus. I got a report that some journalists were exposed to the CMD of UCH in an interview, who later turned out to be positive. Lack of protective kits remains an impediment for the media to thoroughly come up with news behind the scene,” she says

Idris is in agreement, saying. “This is because there’s no adequate protection and support for the pressmen to have first hand information. Many journalists are as vulnerable as other Nigerians. They don’t have specialized knowledge on covering pandemics such as the COVID-19.
The editors believe that having protective kits would enable news mediums and their journalists to push for access to isolation centers.

Expanding the Scope of Coverage
Abdulrauf says “a wider space and access should be given the media to information on pandemics such as COVID-19. Also, the live update on television/radio should be done in such a way that journalists outside of those accredited should be able to call in as this would further provide opportunity for accessing wider information.

“Finally, making the website of the appropriate agency saddled with controlling the disease-NCDC- effectively interactive, would also broaden the information base.

Esele stresses that for better access to information “it would be necessary to have centralised information dissemination unit, a sort of coordinating or clearing house comprising officials from the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Federal and State Ministries of Information, Federal and State ministries of Health, National Orientation Agency and the Nigeria Center for Disease Control.

Editor, Real News Online, Ms Maureen Chigbo says she’s a bit wary as to whether there’s enough information flow to the grassroots.
“What is not clear is if the sustained information flow is reaching the grassroots like their counterparts in urban areas. There’s need for more information and sensitisation of the grassroots“

Idris also supports the view that the grassroots is not being adequately covered. “We still have a big gap to fill especially the print media. It is still few Nigerians that have access to the newspapers. And with the lockdown in many states, coupled with the poor economy, access to vital information in respect to COVID-19 is still limited,” he says.

Olorunyomi outlines the tasks before the media to ensure wider scope of coverage as including, “reporting on state preparedness, finding anomalies in patterns and helping to provide insights, transparency of the donations and spending on Covid-19, social network analysis around who is providing facilities and winning procurement bids, great explanatory reporting on what extent should citizens worry, etc,”

Abdulai equally says the media should be in a position “to measure properly the palliative efforts of the government on the poor. This area is a bit cloudy as the measurement and reach are vague”.

Kolawole concedes that the media has been prostrate in this area. “We have not been very effective in this area, partially because of the social distancing that has kept our reporters limited to safe areas,” Olorunyomi who also reveals his organisation has not done “very well yet” on monitoring reliefs for the vulnerable assures, “but we are setting out on that from next week.”

Attack on Journalists
Some journalists have had awry experience with security agents deployed to monitor compliance to the lockdown raising the issue of lack of proper briefs. Olorunyomi says the “typical lack of discretion and general over-reach in mission objective that bothers on abusing the freedom of journalists” has been unhelpful to the media. Neither is Idris happy with what he calls “the usual harassment of not allowing them unfettered access to potential news sources/ outlets.”

Executive Director of the International Press Centre and Editor-In-Chief of this medium, Mr. Lanre Arogundade had recently highlighted such incidents in a statement. He mentioned “the Police raid on the secretariat of the Adamawa State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Yola during which the State Chairman of the Council, Mr. Donald Dedan was molested and others arrested”.

He also recalled “how officials of the Delta State Task Force on Environment also attacked the Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Delta State Council, Mr Michael Ikeogwu, as well as the Correspondent of the Daily Post, Mr. Mathew Omonigho, who reportedly had his Nikon D3100 camera destroyed”

Reflecting on the increasing cases of harassment of journalists and media workers, Ajibola is of the view that, “the education and information that the media provide essential services has not been clear to many of the security agencies except a few”.

But Adebiyi says, none of his reporters has related any unsavoury experiences. “I have personally not been hampered in any way,” he says. “There have been no incidents. The moment they identify themselves, the reporters are allowed to do their jobs,” concurs Kolawole.

Going forward
To improve media reporting of the pandemic some of the editors said that journalists must tap more into the opportunities offered by information communication technologies and multimedia channels. Citing the experience of her organisation, Chigbo says, “We are making use of technology, phones, conference calls, etc, to hold meetings without risking our lives in the quest to do our job”.

For Nweke, the key to better reporting of the pandemic is exposure of journalists to better knowledge on viruses. “We may need to really have to entrench media education on viruses and how it works or emanate and then spread, especially the myths surrounding the ‘Chinese’ Virus-19 cum technological warfare globally”.

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