Sensationalised reporting can get the readers’ attention but also consequently gives misinformation and disinformation attention to thrive in a pandemic.
“It’s really about striking a balance between what's newsworthy but also being careful not to get into an uproar or to adopt an approach where our news is always about scaring people and shocking people because that could also lead people to just act in ways that could be detrimental to them and to the people that they come into contact with,” said Jama Jack, head of communications at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Jack spoke alongside Mail and Guardian Africa editor and co-founder of The Continent Simon Allison and Health-e News reporter Nelisiwe Msomi during the first MMX Listening Experience called ‘African Media in a Global Crisis’ which was hosted by the Children’s Radio Foundation on July 29.
“How you report about [the coronavirus] is important because it also affects the mental health of your readers. So what you want to do is make sure that how you report about COVID-19 does not make people panic but leaves them informed,” Msomi said.
In early April, unfounded rumours about a COVID-19 vaccine trial in Africa flooded social media. This was fueled by widespread claims of two French doctors Camille Locht and Jean-Paul Mira supporting the idea in a televised debate.
The MRC, that runs a rumour tracker, received requests from the public to verify the legitimacy of the vaccine claims.
“So around that time we got submissions from people talking about how for example the MRC in The Gambia is running the vaccine trial and one of the communities here and two children have died.
“So we found out eventually that it was actually a message that came from Nigeria. It was a message that was already circulating in Nigeria and found its way to Gambia and people changed the locations and changed a bit of the details,” Jack said.
Misinformation and disinformation spread like wildfire on social media. Allison said he hopes The Continent, a free weekly WhatsApp newspaper on African news, will counter that.
“We are trying to see if we can create a digital product but one that looks and feels and reads like a traditional newspaper. At the same time, we want to take advantage of those sort of viral information-sharing networks that are so powerful on WhatsApp and other similar social media platforms which then form the basis of how fake news spreads. But, we wanted to use those same networks to spread real news,” Allison said.
Allison said using the PDF newspaper model for The Continent “would be a really interesting experiment” as it shares and reads easily on WhatsApp.
“A family has got that one auntie who forwards everything and doesn't check whether it's real or fake and floods her WhatsApp groups with this inaccurate information. Now that person is doing that because she wants to inform her friends and family. She wants to perform this public service of giving information to more and more people,” said Allison.
“That's an incredible thing. We shouldn't be telling her to stop forwarding information. What we should be doing is giving her information in a format that works that she can forward to absolutely anyone she wants to,” Allison said.
African media play a vital role in disseminating information to the public. In the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting false coronavirus information with good reporting not only brings truth to the fore but potentially saves lives.