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COVID-19 confidentiality considerations key for ethical journalism



Confidentiality - when to name and when not to name persons infected with COVID-19 - is a critical issue for media managers to consider when practicing ethical journalism during the coronavirus pandemic.


Speakers and participants at a fraycollege webinar on “Managing for Ethical Journalism” tackled a range of newsroom issues facing journalists and managers covering the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion was moderated by fraycollege CEO Paula Fray with South African press ombud Pippa Green and West African publisher and editor-in-chief of the Premium Times in Nigeria Dapo Olorunyomi.



The webinar explored ethical challenges that might arise in covering the COVID-19 pandemic and how managers can work towards building a culture of ethical journalism.


“These are really trying time for journalists for the media in general but particularly for journalists who are working under unprecedented challenges,” said Paula Fray.


Green said one of the major issues facing journalists in the COVID-19 pandemic was whether or not to name people who had been infected or have died of COVID-19. This was particularly critical given South Africa’s history of HIV/AIDS and the stigma that was associated with those who tested positive.


“And I just checked in the press code again under the privacy section which basically says that people have got a right to privacy and dignity and raises that the public interest outweighs that,” said Green. “And my thoughts were that unless it is really in the public interest and the person is a public figure, then we there should be respectful of confidentiality.”


She said the Public Advocate was currently dealing with two complaints.


Olorunyomi said a problem the media has to deal with when reporting on COVID-19 is the cultural implications and “the question of stigma and shame among the populace”.


“So you'll find that a whole lot of people who are just dropping dead. And people are afraid to go out and access facilities until it's very late,” Olorunyomi said.


Olorunyomi said the issue of integrity of information was critical in the pandemic.


“The media has been called upon to play its public education role more than any other time. So the competition for information becomes really more of a pressure cooker situation,” said Olorunyomi.


“There's no other time I think in the recent history of our country that we've really had such a very big and massive challenge with misinformation in particular,” he added.


Olorunyomi said the media needed to respond to the challenge of tackling misinformation and disinformation despite having limited resources. He highlighted that fact-checking organisations such as Africa Check were doing well to rise to the challenge.


Both speakers acknowledged that the media sector was currently under severe financial stress which impacted their ability to serve their mandate.


Green noted that a major challenge was the lack of coverage from marginalised areas.


“What worries me is that we don't get enough information about what's happening in rural areas,” she said, noting that she was also advocating that journalists rely on the science for epidemiological information.


Responding to questions on the responsibility of journalists to ensure they did not infect sources, Green said many had urged particularly broadcast journalists to use appropriate equipment - such as boom mics - in order to practice social distancing.


She did note, however, that sometimes camera angles gave the impression that people were closer than what they physically were.


“And as we've seen the reporters themselves have been a vulnerable group particularly broadcast reporters and camera people,” she said.


Olorunyomi said it was imperative for journalists to do their jobs well by holding governments to account and fact-checking information going to the public.


“This is a time that we can also renew our newsrooms by insisting on how to really verify the kinds of information we are pushing out to people,” he said.


In agreement, Green said: “I think it's really critical that journalists still hold Government to account. I mean what we've seen here for instance is food parcels going missing in several provinces… we know the kind of money being unaccounted for that's supposed to go to the very poor… so if that kind of thing happens, it's really important to hold governments accountable.”


You can find the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media here.



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