COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus: Journalists discuss the challenges of reporting during pandemics

COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus: Journalists discuss the challenges of reporting during pandemics

Nairobi, 29 May 2020 - About 120 participants joined the ninth COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus session to exchange on challenges of reporting during the pandemic. Organized by the World Urban Campaign, in partnership with Smartly and First and Main Films, the webinar hosted journalists, reporters and film makers from different regions in a lively exchange and debate.

Zoe Tabary, Property Rights Editor at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, initiated the session by outlining the challenges that journalists and reporters face in the new pandemic, starting with the constraints of the lockdown in many countries and the international travel restrictions. The context is imposing huge limitations to properly verify information and getting people’s trust to obtain feedback as it was done more easily in person through face to face before. They face safety limitations to meet vulnerable groups such as the homeless, migrant workers and LGBT communities, as they need to ensure that people are not put at risk through physical contact or in identifying them and giving them anonymity. Showing behind the scenes content, and sharing what life is like during lockdowns has become increasingly difficult.

Theresa Williamson, Executive Director at Catalytic Communities, Brazil, emphasized the need to rely on community reporting. Reporting the complex reality of COVID-19 simply and clearly is increasing challenging. In many countries, it has become impossible to obtain reliable information on the number of COVID-19 cases. Those are often biased by changing and unclear methodologies. The narratives from public officials are also sometimes difficult to decrypt. Given the unreliable data and the inability to conduct direct interviews, journalists are chasing alternative data from trust-based networks able to depict a different reality on the ground. Theresa Williamson gave the example of RioOnWatch, a favela ‘local to global’ news source that reports on what is happening on the ground in the city’s favelas in real time, in both Portuguese and English. The reporting aims to support local organizers who are trying to improve their neighbourhoods. Such project is clearly needed and should grow in many parts of the world in order to better reflect the reality of populations conditions and events.

Elijah Kanyi, Reporter and Founder of Sauti TV, a community channel based in Mathare, one of the largest slums of Nairobi, explained how their programmes have exclusively focused on promoting positive stories depicting how people in communities have helped each others during the pandemic.

In the current crisis, community medias such as Sauti TV lack capacity and depend on the mainstream medias to air stories directly affecting the communities such as those on evictions and police violence. However, they play an important role by reaching out to large population groups, in particular the youth living in slum areas in order to explain safety issues, promote positive actions as people in poverty face the additional challenges imposed by the pandemic.

Alexander Hecht, Journalist of the Asia Foreign News Desk at ORF Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, explained how he has been facing the specific challenges of the pandemic. It is often difficult to obtain details and understand decisions made by government officials while following the analysis and data produced by medical experts, he said. However, for journalists, it is important to stand their grounds given their responsibility to relay messages from the authorities to the public regarding measures against the coronavirus while keeping a critical mind. Their role is to adapt and translate the language used by medical experts into a language that the audience and most people can understand. It is also crucial to maintain a balance between local perspectives and global issues, covering both urban and rural contexts during a global pandemic.

Ashley Womble, writer and mental health advocate, Director of Communication of Crisis Text Line, explained how her organization helps support people in crisis through counselling using a secure online platform based on text messages. Trained crisis counselors receive texts and respond to individuals affected by anxiety, depression, etc. With more than 142 million text messages since 2013, Crisis Text Line has collected one of the largest real-time health data sets in the world that cut across various genders, ages, races, and ethnicities. Quarantines and isolations during Covid-19 have increased texts on depression, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and racism. The organization shares data on trends during the crisis via the website. The raw numbers are critical for analysis, provide strong evidence and help tell valuable stories.

John Paget and Chris Elisara, Co-founders of First and Main Films, produce visual documentary-style narratives and films on select subjects. While we need to consider the world of fast news with the mainstream and social media, as well as the medium cycle news of the print, TV and radio, it is important to also rely of the ‘slow’ medias to produce documentaries and films that explore and investigate issues and reflect on the future. It is also crucial to organize events for the large audiences to reflect on key issues such as the Better Cities Film Festival, an urban-focused film event organized in conjunction with the World Urban Forum, the biennial UN-Habitat global conference o cities. Given the complexity and challenges faced by the medias to report in real time during the pandemic, filmmakers are meant to play a vital role in producing stories with emotional power. Connection and collaboration with reporters is essential to build a network of allies in the longer term. Filmmakers can amplify and add additional context to the stories heard in the 24-hour cycle reporting.

Participants concluded that in order to build resilience into journalism as we face pandemics, it is essential to promote an inclusive news ecosystem that help reach different levels from global to local, representing varied groups and viewpoints in a wide range of contexts and communities, addressing and reaching wider audiences. For that, it is crucial to develop networks of freelancers and local journalists on the ground. Networking is key to help facts checking, interpreting data and numbers and getting local contexts and insights for global effects. It is also crucial to build the capacity of journalists to carry out their work during a pandemic through safety protocols during reporting, ways to gathering information and conducting interviews , verifying facts in situations of information “overload”, interrogating scientific information and data surrounding the pandemics, drawing on expert science and health reporters, making use of appropriate terminologies in order to avoid stigmatisation and discrimination, providing information on public health risks without causing panic. While it is essential for journalists to inform people about necessary protective measures and behaviours they need to maintain their watchdog function to highlight key trends and remain credible.

Article by Christine Auclair
Photo Credits: Pexels (CC)