Journalists should practice what they preach — for their own safety

Journalists should use the very tips which they give out to the public about the novel coronavirus to protect themselves from acquiring it when reporting in places where there is a risk of infection.

This is according to Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism’s editor-in-chief Mia Malan.

“There’s little sense in distributing information which you don’t follow yourself,” she said.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads throughout the world, the World Health Organisation has been heightening safety awareness to combat the pandemic.

“The most effective way to protect yourself is to wash your hands — but the World Health Organisation says you need to do this for at least 20 seconds for it to be effective. Most of us don’t wash our hands that long.

“It’s important to explain why we need to do if for longer. We’ve made a video at Bhekisisa on how to do this and how to greet each other without touching hands. A video format works well for this because it’s easy to understand,” Malan said.

The science behind the novel coronavirus is complex and relatively unknown. Spotlight editor Marcus Low said journalists need to take time to understand the science of the new coronavirus.

“The most important thing is getting the information and understanding the risks and understanding transmission. Reading journal articles to understand the technical details is important,” Low said.

While journalists should be vigilant against acquiring the virus, misinformation remains a lurking disease which they can spread to their audiences.

“Because so little research has been done on the new coronavirus, there is an effort to fast-track the publication of studies. This means that the traditional peer-reviewed process, which can take many months, is often skipped, and research is published online as soon as it becomes available,” Malan explained.

Malan added that while this fast-tracks the availability of information, accuracy is compromised because the studies would not have been checked by other scientists.

An example Malan quoted was of a “top health department official” who apparently told her team that the viral spread of the new coronavirus would be slower in South Africa because of the summer season and that the heat would be too high for the virus to survive.

After looking at peer-reviewed studies on the impact of heat on the virus, Malan said they did not find any conclusive evidence indicating that the heat slows down the new coronavirus’ spread.

However it does thrive in low temperature environments and South Africa is heading into its winter period.

Cases confirmed

South Africa’s health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize confirmed South Africa’s first coronavirus case on March 5 and within ten days, that number accelerated to over sixty cases.

South Africa has the highest number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in sub-Saharan Africa to date as reflected on the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering interactive map.

“When a journalist reports on those studies, it is therefore really important to get independent opinions from other researchers on the outcomes of the studies. There have been many instances on social media of results that were later found to be inaccurate, being distributed, resulting in misinformation and spreading unnecessary panic,” Malan said.

As a result, South African Editors’ Forum executive director Kate Skinner said there is a “strong” need for accurate journalism that will not need to be retracted.

“The last thing you want to do is write false information that impacts people’s health and lives,” Skinner said.

Global warning

As the global confirmed coronavirus cases near 200 000, governments are enforcing strict measures that limit travel and the interaction of large groups of people to promote social distancing that may slow the viral spread.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta encouraged employers to allow workers to work from home in a March 15 press briefing that addressed two new novel coronavirus cases in Kenya.

“We are now in an age where large conferences are being held virtually for the sake of safety. Journalists may very well, eventually, access their sources in the same way,” Malan said.

Malan added that human elements of a story can be added through the phone. The Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism team made contact with quarantined South African students in Wuhan, China for their #QuarantineChronicles series via WhatsApp calls and texts.

South Africans living in Wuhan have since been repatriated and are quarantined in Polokwane for three weeks.

“You don’t necessarily need to talk to someone in person, particularly not if it would expose you to infection. In South Africa, [wouldn’t] an interesting human angle involve talking to the parents of the [returned Wuhan students about] how they feel while their children are in quarantine?”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has a comprehensive safety guide that journalists can use. Find it here.

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