Journalism at the time of the pandemic

Patricia Mukhim

Being a journalist at the time of a pandemic requires a different level of acuity. How much to report; what to report and what not to and how much information is in public good are issues that weigh heavily in the newsroom. Alas! The advent of the digital news media with its breathless form of journalism and with the overarching mandate of having to be the first to break the news, makes it difficult even for the best in the business to get things right. On March 25, The Quint a leading digital news portal carried a news item with screeching headlines that read, “India maybe in Stage 3: COVID-19 Hospital Task Force Convenor.”  The reporter quoted Dr Girdhar Gyani extensively. Gyani an electrical engineer by profession had done his PhD in Quality Management and heads an NGO – the Association of Healthcare Providers and also advises the government with policy making on health issues. On March 28, The Times of India (ToI) after a fact check comes up with the headlines – FAKE ALERT: Leading digital news portal falsely claims India in Stage 3 of Covid-19. By the time the ToI news was up the Quint news clip had been forwarded over WhatsApp several thousand times over. It created a fear psychosis and perhaps made it harder for the central and state governments which are dealing with the different outcomes of the pandemic to tackle this new information.

This is where transparency and a regular flow of information from official sources are important. Of late the Chief Minister has been tweeting on latest developments in the fight against Covid-19. This is much better than journalists scouting for news from here, there and everywhere, trying to call up officials who are busy with their work and will not take calls and then leaving the scribes to speculate and second guess much of what they need to write. This was on display on April 15 when certain news agencies reported that the cremation of (Late) Dr Sailo was already completed at the Seng Khasi Cemetery, at Jaiaw that same evening. Many on social media heaved a sigh of relief when they saw the news (erroneously or should one say prematurely) reported by a news channel. Later that news was pulled down but the damage was done. The news had gone viral because of its controversial nature. Actually Dr John Sailo was only buried the next day (April 16) at the Lawmali Presbyterian cemetery through the goodwill of the Riatsamthiah congregation of the Church.

This brings to the fore certain lapses on the part of the hospital authorities too. There was no public relations officer (PRO) from Bethany Hospital that the media could speak to. The family members were already distraught and not in a position to pick up calls from us pesky journalists. We were told that we had to respect the privacy of the family and we understand that completely. But this was the first Covid-19 death in Meghalaya and much as the family would want it to be a private affair, it is a matter of public interest because the funeral/cremation becomes the business of the state, requiring as it does optimum care and protection such as wearing personal protection equipment (PPE) for those carrying out the last rites. There was no news at all from Government sources that entire evening since there was so much to be dealt with vis-à-vis the two unfortunate incidents at Jhalupara and Nongpoh.

This is where clear channels of communication become imperative. Covid19 is a public health issue hence public health communication strategists (if at all we have them) should have been at the forefront of communicating the developments of the day to the media; of clarifying doubts and setting the record straight. This way the digital news media which have to constantly update their websites to service their customer base are not left frustrated and second guessing the news. Let’s face some facts. The more controversial the story, the greater the need to keep the readers/listeners informed. The bureaucracy handling the Health Department then need not be hassled at having to brief the media constantly. At a time of health emergency, a dedicated communication channel by experienced public health professionals is integral.

From the time when the State first set out to make contingency plans to address the pandemic, a clear and strategic plan for interacting with news media should have been put in place because this is no ordinary communication we are looking at; it is specialized communication to be delivered in a professional manner about every aspect of the Government’s action plans. Much of that was shared in the first few days and there was regular information flow. In fact, the manner in which the State Government handled very efficiently certain grave issues that happened at about the same time that Meghalaya went into lockdown, such as the suicide of Aldrin Lyngdoh at Agra and the harassment of a young lady working in a beauty parlour in Hyderabad and without much fanfare. It was not easy to bring the dead body of Aldrin from Agra for burial at the Christian cemetery at Delhi. But the State Chief Secretary managed it seamlessly through his official contacts. There are perhaps many other issues that are being handled at the official level that we in the media are not aware of. And we can’t be if we are not informed.

The only reason why the media is important is because it serves as a vital link in providing up-to-date information and helping to deliver key messages to the public. In times such as these when people are sitting at home and in anxiety, their propensity for consuming news grows exponentially. The government is communicating to the public through the media because that is the best way to reach the last mile. If the media is asking certain hard questions it’s because we owe it to the people who actually have the right to know what government is doing, planning and executing during this crucial juncture. While we in the media should not be conducting an inquisition, those in government too should not be unduly perturbed by our questions. We are not sitting in judgment over government as idle spectators. Because we are foot-soldiers reaching to where government most often does not reach, we know what ails the citizenry especially those who feel they don’t have the agency of voice to reach those in government. The media amplifies every question from the bottom up. Spoke-persons of the government should be able to answer challenging questions in plain language.

People in this city are complaining about the public announcement systems of the Directorate of Information & Public Relations (DIPR) that go around the city to inform them on curfew timings and other critical announcements. No one, repeat no one is able to figure out what the announcers are saying because the echo blurs the speech. So this becomes a pointless exercise. Either the PA systems are of poor quality or the announcer is untrained or both. People have to strain their ears and finally don’t even get the message. This is the time when every department of the government will be tested to the limits. If any of them are found wanting, there will be uncomfortable questions asked and the government cannot run for cover all the time. So the respective heads of the departments had better gear themselves up to meet this present challenge.

The society is already volunteering in various ways and will continue to step forward in their areas of strength. People are aware that the government is working under pressure. And here one must differentiate between the political executives and the administration. We are yet to see the entire ministerial team work in cohesion. Some ministers have in fact been silent observers only. If every minister leads from the front and is professionally geared to take on the challenge of Covid19 even by taking steps to create mass awareness, using different communication strategies it would have made a world of difference at ground zero.

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