In a crisis, the media are vital in contributing effectively to the discussion over how to behave and respond. Whether the crisis is born of armed conflict, natural disaster or global pandemic, media are tasked with ensuring that the communities they reach have access to vital information.
It is at this critical time, with the world facing the new coronavirus (COVID-19), when we need Zimbabwean newspapers to behave professionally. We, however, seem to be out of luck, as some in the media have chosen stigmatisation, sensationalism, and outright demonisation.
One of the more glaring failures was the Sunday Mail’s bizarre article claiming that a local “prophet” had foreseen the coronavirus outbreak. It dedicated prime real estate to declaring that predictions made by the alleged clairvoyant had “shaken the faith world in the wake of an outbreak of the pandemic.”
The resulting furore forced the newspaper’s editor to deny being on the supposed soothsayer’s media committee — whatever that is — while confirming that she was indeed a member of his congregation. The piece attracted her a reprimand from the Ministry of Information, if the Twitter statements of public servants are to be believed.
Media reporting should be balanced and contextualised, sharing evidence-based information and helping to combat rumour and misinformation. Even the most technically accurate article can send the wrong message if accompanied by a carelessly chosen headline, photo or graphic. Such failures include newspapers running inflammatory stories under headlines calling people “suspects” (NewsDay) or purporting to trace “contact webs” (The Herald), with scant regard for the consequences of stigmatising either people who may have COVID-19 or those they may have come into contact with.
UNICEF’s social stigma guide advises that using criminalising or dehumanising terminology creates the impression that those with the disease have somehow done something wrong or are less human, feeding stigma, undermining empathy, and potentially fuelling a wider reluctance to seek treatment or attend screening, testing and quarantine.
Given that COVID-19 is a new disease, it is understandable that its emergence and spread can cause confusion, anxiety and fear among the general public. What it shouldn’t do is cause the media to lose any shred of objectivity. “Words matter,” according to UNICEF. “When talking about coronavirus disease, certain words like suspect case and isolation may have a negative meaning for people and fuel stigmatising attitudes, create widespread fear, or dehumanise those who have the disease.”
When Stan Grant, Chair of Indigenous Affairs at Charles Sturt University, criticised Australian media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, he said: “Now more than ever, the media should inform, not inflame. Less crisis and more context. Resist the worst instincts. The public needs no reminding this is serious. People are afraid and not just of the virus: businesses will be lost, relationships broken, and mental health will suffer. Psychologists already warn of the potential for increased suicide. We don’t need media-generated anxiety.”
Bulawayo-based The Chronicle certainly couldn’t resist their worst instincts when they caused widespread fear with their ‘Beware of this patient!’ headline. Apparently throwing all caution — and ethics — to the wind, the paper accused an unnamed health worker of “gallivanting around town” and roaming the city “exposing residents to the deadly pandemic” after misleading, then evading, the Rapid Response Team. It may also have casually violated the person’s privacy by publishing potentially identifying information like their gender, occupation and movements; so far, the fallout includes a pained rebuttal from the story’s subject.
Feminist giant Everjoice Win has noted the similarities between the coverage she is witnessing now, and similar experiences in the early days of the HIV pandemic. She worries that stigma and discrimination based on denial is the silent killer among us — deadlier than the coronavirus itself. She tells me that the one country which should already know the impact of stigma and discrimination, both in the early days and during the life of a pandemic, is Zimbabwe.
“It’s the same thing that we did in the nineties, we’re back there again. It is completely unacceptable,” she says of the Chronicle’s story and how the subject was portrayed roaming the city spreading coronavirus. “It harks back to the old says of sex workers, of unmarried women being seen as the ones who were gallivanting around the country spreading [HIV] willy-nilly, and willingly and willfully violating the rights of others and infecting others.”
A veteran journalist in her own right, Win feels strongly that the media is failing the people of Zimbabwe by not giving accurate information or emulating how some foreign media are reporting COVID-19 – with empathy and compassion, while still protecting human rights.
“We can do better,” she insists, “because many of us, particularly media practitioners, at least of a certain age, we’ve had that [HIV pandemic] experience … we can do better!”
She is right. Reporting on COVID-19 presents multiple challenges for media not just in Zimbabwe but across the world. Reporters have the responsibility to provide audiences with up-to-date information in a tone and manner that neither terrifies people nor downplays the severity of the situation. While amplifying misinformation is a massive concern, so is amplifying fear.
It is not too much to ask for Zimbabwean media houses to institute a common set of guidelines on how the COVID-19 pandemic should be reported. The bare minimum would be for our media, whether through the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) or via Misa-Zimbabwe, to come together and craft a set of guidelines on how to cover the stories. De-stigmatising coronavirus is a vital step in diminishing public anxiety, possibly giving additional time and space for authorities to institute a proper response.
We know that language matters. The people of Zimbabwe deserve media that don’t operate like blunt instruments — dumb hammers which see every problem as a nail. We need more nuance, more education, and a lot less panic.
We have to do better — lives depend on it.
This piece first appeared on Medium – see the original here.