Basic health journalism skills for reporting Covid-19 in Nigeria

A novel strain of coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – is ravaging the science community and the entire world with evolving facts which make it difficult to fully understand the pandemic. The virus was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan, a city in China’s Hubei province with a population of 11 million, after an outbreak of pneumonia without an obvious cause. The virus has now spread to over 200 countries and territories across the globe, and was characterised as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March 2020.

As of 12 May 2020, there were 4,088,848 laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection globally, with 283,153 reported deaths. The number of cases and deaths outside of China overtook those within the country on 16 March 2020.

In Nigeria, as at 13th of May 2020, a total of 4971 cases had been confirmed, 1070 patients had recovered and had been discharged and 164 deaths had been recorded in 34 states and the Federal Capital Territory.

Journalists are among frontline workers by virtue of their crucial role in providing very essential reports on the Covid-19 pandemic. This is why it is essential to understand the basics of health reporting in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. There are basic steps for covering health issues such as the coronavirus pandemic which journalists should know and apply in the field in order to effectively play the watchdog role even in the face this ravaging pandemic.

Reporting the covid-19 pandemic has been a major challenge to journalists due to the strange nature of this disease. The constant barrage of new information, new cases and new advice has been challenging to keep up with. This makes it difficult for journalists to keep up with the story as the facts keep evolving. This also makes it confusing for audience members trying to follow the story. A news piece you read one day could be entirely out-of-date by the next morning, and this has meant there have been many questions from the public surrounding the outbreak and the virus. In addition, as more information has emerged over the past weeks, experts and public health officials have revised their opinions, advice and recommendations in line with this, and it has been suggested that these updates have made it hard to build trust. This calls for greater alertness, doggedness and the need for journalists to go the extra mile in reporting the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reporting on Coronavirus is one of the numerous areas of health reporting that requires skills and knowledge of story environment. There are basic questions that should guide you while reporting on Coronavirus, just like in every other health reporting engagement. These questions are relevant whether you are reporting on health, environment, education or any other specialized area. It was put forward by Nelson (1995) suggested.

1. Have I made the story “local” so that people can relate to it?

The story should reflect the environment of the audience. If you are reporting on Coronavirus outbreak in Nigeria or even across the world, you need to step down the story to let people know how it affects them. You can even use local examples to buttress your point.

2. Have I added new sources to my list this week?

Sources enrich stories and news sources bring fresh angles to an investigation.

3. Are the most important aspects emphasized and the trivial discarded?

This ensures that only relevant portions of the story are presented in the report.

4. Is my presentation clear and concise?

A poor presentation could damage the ‘beauty’ of a story investigated story. Ensure that the story is clearly written and straight to the point. The basic essence of every kind of reporting is to communicate. A poorly written story will definitely “murder” a thoroughly investigated environmental story. Every reporter should learn the basic writing skills, including how to write simple, easy to understand sentences, and how to ensure good sentence and paragraph transition.

5. Have I made people “feel” the story and conveyed its significance?

The appropriate choice of words could be used to get people to feel a story. Their emotions could be stirred using appropriate words and sentences. The basic facts in the story and its significance should be conveyed through the report.

6. Do the descriptions and analogies explain the numbers?

This means the story should be meaningful and realistic. Make show the facts in the story have a slight link and they make sense too.

7. Are the technical terms defined?

Your basic objective should be for the audience to understand your message, not to play to the gallery. If you use jargons or technical terms in your story do well to explain them for audience understanding. If you use technical terms used in explaining coronavirus disease or its effect find a way to break them down for the audience to understand.

8. Am I asking and answering enough questions?

Asking the right questions will lead to more relevant findings that make your story very rich. Make sure you ask enough questions on critical issues about the Covid-19 investigation. The ability to ask probing questions is an invaluable skill in health reporting. Stories are enriched with facts acquired through effective interview.

9. Have I been fair to my sources and the subject?

You have a duty to protect your sources and ensure they are correctly quoted. Check whether you made the correct attributions; make sure what you wrote was what they told you. Also ensure that the report has thrown enough light on the subject of investigation.

10. What would make a good follow-up story to this topic?

There may be need to get ready with story ideas for your next investigation on Covid-19. You check what your present story covered and write out the areas that require further investigations. This will guide you in knowing what aspect of the story to follow up.

These basic questions could guide you on how to follow up facts and present them meaningfully.

In addition to the above critical questions, the following tips provide a goal-oriented guide for effective health reporting, especially on Covid-19 incidents (Nelson, 1995; Nwabueze, 2009). These strategies are relevant in heath reporting in developing nations and other parts of the world.

  • Mind for Adventure: Often times, health stories yield interesting facts when reporters probe beyond the surface. The need to probe further requires reporters to be ready to get to any length to thoroughly investigate a story. Mind for adventure takes you to the root of the Covid-19 incident, for instance finding out remote cause of the outbreak.

This also has to do with the need for a reporter to have investigative instinct. This means a reporter should already be ready to follow leads. This is because leads open doors to exciting and information investigative reports.

  • Eye for the unusual: When you look beyond the surface, you see the unusual. For instance, an entire nation may be applauding the government for establishing an estate in a particular state which created shelter for workers. But an eye for the unusual provides details of health risks posed by poor hygiene situations in the estate which could breed rats that cause Covid-19.
  • Understanding Covid-19 Issues, concepts and Jargons: You need to understand the meaning of Covid-19, causes, prevention, and other facts about the disease. This could help you in knowing what to look out for while investigating Coronavirus incidents on doing a feature piece on the disease. You need to do some research on issues and concepts relating to Covid-19 disease.

 

  • Learn Effective Interview Skills: The ability to ask probing questions is an invaluable skill in environmental reporting. Stories are enriched with facts acquired through effective interview. The time a reporter has with news sources could be very short. There is every need to make good use of that time by asking the right questions in the right manner. Experts on the health, Covid-19 outbreak victims, including government officials could provide revealing information through effective interviewing.
  • Good writing skills: Good stories make no impact when told the wrong way. The basic essence of every kind of reporting is to communicate. A poorly written story will definitely “murder” a thoroughly investigated environmental story. Every reporter should learn the basic writing skills, including how to write simple, easy to understand sentences, and how to ensure good sentence and paragraph transition. The appropriate writing style should be adopted to pass a message across.
  • Consider the target audience: One of the distinguishing qualities associated with good reporting is ability to write with the audience in mind. You are reporting to the general public, not to health experts or scientists who understand puzzling jargons and concept associated with Covid-19. This is why adoption of the simple style is essential in Covid-19 reporting. So the journalist needs to first understand health concepts and jargons associated with Covid-19 so as to explain an issue to the audience in simple terms.
  • Cautiously Report health Claims, Statistics and Observations: You don’t report every claim in the field of science, especially associated with health disasters and outbreak, as fact. You don’t pounce on claims without at least making efforts to confirm them from relevant sources. This applies to claims such as local cure for Covid-19 disease and statistics too. Madagascar claimed to have found a herbal remedy for the coronavirus disease and some African countries, including Nigeria asked for the remedy to be sent to them for trial. Don’t base your report on what Madagascar said. Find out what health experts are saying so you don’t use your report to peddle false claims. Recall that the World Health Organization (WHO) said the claim by Madagascar was unfounded. Balnce your reporting on such claims do that the public with get the truth based on facts you present. Again, If figures being quoted on the number of deaths due to Covid-19 outbreak in a community and such figures seem unrealistic to you, seek further clarifications from other sources. If for instance, a specific source says 500 thousand people are at risk of Covid-19 outbreak in a community when it seems people who live in the community may not be up to that figure, you need further confirmation from other credible sources.
  • Sources are Vital: The sensitive nature of certain facts in health stories requires that sources should be credible and should be mentioned in stories. A story on Coronavirus disease could make far-reaching impact on the audience basically because of the source of the report. This is why it essential for you to always make reference to reports from Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) on the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. Warnings on impending outbreaks or possible second spike of the disease could be heeded particularly because of the source of such warnings. This means the health reporter also has to have good and credible sources that provide rich facts on Covid-19 reports. Find a way of meaning mutually beneficially relationship with story-rich sources. They can provide cutting-edge leads even on seemingly dry days.
  • Knowledge of the Basic of New Reporting: This entails an understanding of the news values, elements and leads including various approaches to news presentation and forms of mass media writing. You may know what to investigate but what matters is to ensure that the event or issue is newsworthy. This is different from possession of good writing skills. An understanding of the news values will facilitate the application of other points or tips raised so far in this section. Basic journalism skills also entail balancing reports, adhering to professional ethics and other tenets of professionalism.
  • Stay on the story: This calls for follow-ups. Don’t just report an incident as a one-off story. Follow-up the story by providing reports on emerging facts on the same story. When for instance, strange deaths were reported in some parts of the north especially Kano, Yobe and Bauchi states, you don’t just conclude that they were as a result of the virus, based on stories you saw on social media. Do the extra mile to confirm the cause of deaths. After Covid-19 cases have been report, continue with coverage on for instance, how the victims are faring, what measures the survivors are taking to prevent future occurrence, the medical attention given to victims, among others. Follow-ups could prove more interesting than the initial incident.

 

A reporter who makes use of this guide will do well in the area of reporting Covid-19 and other aspects of health reporting. Good reporting is very essential in checking the spread of fake news on the Covid-19 pandemic, almost making the fear and panic created by such unprofessional stories worse than even the disease itself. Just make sure you don’t cause further panic with your reports. Responsible reporting is required in covering the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

 

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *