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Challenges Nigerian media organisations face in covering the pandemic and resultant disinformation

Stefan Heunis/AFP via gettyimages 13 mins read

It has been about a year and half since the first case of COVID-19 was announced. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 “can be characterised as a pandemic”. At the time, WHO said there were more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people were known to have lost their lives to the virus. 

This unfortunate situation, like most pestilences that occurred throughout history, struck with new demands, not just for scientists who were trying hard to understand  the nature of the virus and provide solutions but for almost everyone on the planet. The pandemic commanded urgent attention that gave no room for nonchalance.  

However, with all the challenges encountered due to COVID-19,  a great amount of knowledge around the virus has been uncovered compared to when it first emerged;  its clinical progression, the at-risk demographics, its spread, mitigations, the discovery of vaccines and even its dispensation were knowledge far imagine at the early times of the pandemic. 

The novel COVID-19 Pandemic: A journalistic game-changer

Subsequently, the regular barrage of new information, the mutation around the virus, rising number of cases, and the whole drama around the pandemic became overwhelming to keep up with. Especially for journalists around the world, who many depend on for reports on something they (journalists) barely know much about. 

Richaldo Hariandja, freelance writer and editor, Indonesia, described the dilemma Journalist and News organisation had to go through when the virus first emerged:

“A news piece you read one day could be entirely out-of-date by the next morning, and this has meant there have been many questions from the public surrounding the outbreak and the virus. This reality means more work for news organisations; high expectations on journalists and new demands from the public for journalists to meet up with, who are themselves, affected by the plague the pandemic has brought with it.” 

Yet in a webinar hosted by representatives from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Geneva, Switzerland), BBC Media Action (London, UK), Internews (CA, USA) and the WHO it was concluded that journalists and media organizations should do their utmost to keep up to date with the outbreak using reliable information from respective health departments and the WHO. This reality meant that Journalists would do both fact- and reality-check of all COVID-19 related information in order to remain a trusted source.

This development ushered a new dawn for journalists and news organizations to join a war they are least prepared for, yet are dependent upon to bring in victory.  Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, the Director-General, World health Organization puts it well:

“Although the numbers are of interest to the public, it’s also important to communicate the story behind the numbers, what countries are doing to respond to the disease and what individuals can do too, ensuring stories have practical and actionable information. These, amongst other things, media organizations will contribute to the fight against the pandemic.”

As expected, the pandemic came with serious changes for media operations in Nigeria; working from home was a conscious choice most media organisations had to take to protect their journalists from the pandemic. For others, the decision was not in their confines, because of the lockdown, curfews and reduced freedom of movement. However, in order to do and also keep their jobs, some journalists still had to go out to cover, report and encounter first hand what they know very little about. 

Abba Adamu, a multimedia Journalist with Daily Trusts Nigeria, outline his early challenge with covering the pandemic:

“In the initial days, one dilemma was how safe was it for us or for the communities for [journalists] to engage in on-the-ground reportage. Reporters also struggled in the field with transportation and PPE kits. Another challenge was working on data stories around COVID-19. It was difficult to go about doing in-depth analysis without adequate training. I did a few courses online to get a grip around the issues. However, formal training was missing. Newspaper journalist.” 

Hannah Storm, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network also pointed out during the earlier stages of the pandemic: “News organisations had to reinvent decades of working practices in day”. Nonetheless, these changes were not without its toll on the general media operations. 

In the second quarter of 2020,  the BBC wrote about how “COVID-19 is ravaging India’s newsrooms”, citing the example of a Mumbai news network where 15 staff out of 120 had tested positive for the virus. Other reports suggested 35 journalists were infected in Chennai, and 19 employees of the Punjab Kesari media group in the city of Ludhiana. This report highlights the risk journalists confront in their work covering the pandemic and the little media houses can do to protect themselves. 

COVID-19 Mis/Disinformation: a War on two fronts for media organizations  

Not just the novelty and the health threats journalists have had to endure, COVID-19, brought with it an unprecedented era of information disorder. From conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the coronavirus to several unfounded and unverified myths regarding treatment options and preventive practices. 

The world witnessed an enormous flood of misinformation, making it impossible for many to understand what is real and what is not. This situation further expanded the horizon of the war against the virus for the journalists, forcing them to fight on two fronts; as traditional journalists and at the same time fact checkers. 

Even more complicated, was the fact that this information disorder was being spread by people across various demographics, from world leaders, to religious leaders, traditional leaders, key government functionaries, and  private citizens, further escalating the hard reality of the already overwhelmed journalists. Recognising this problem,  the World Health Organisation (WHO) described the situation as an infodemic, (an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find what is actually true.) and launched a war against it, calling for all sectors including tech companies to contribute their quota. 

This new challenge is obviously universal, most newsrooms around the world have faced enormous  challenges due to the pandemic, yet these issues, though drastic, come in different forms and patterns for media organizations in different countries. This phenomenon emphasizes the need to understand the nature of the problem as experienced by newsrooms and journalists across not just across Nigeria but the world at large. 

COVID-19 Pandemic and the new challenge for media Organizations and Journalists in Nigeria

In Nigeria, the pandemic affected various sectors, transitioning to become far more than health and science reporting, therefore exceeding the confines of health and science journalists. Its effect on different sectors also expanded areas of reportage around the virus. Travel restrictions being imposed by different countries have turned it into a story about tourism and travel; the economic impact of fear on the stock market and the impact of people not attending work because of the lockdown turned it into a finance and business story; and the cancellation of Sports activities, also made it a sports story.

This reality posed a new challenge, as so many journalists have to cover and learn about the COVID-19, and not just journalists but largely media organizations who had to deal with the poor economic conditions and putting in place new structures to contain the new reality. 

To best understand the challenges journalists and media organizations in Nigeria faced while covering the pandemic and the surrounding misinformation, the framework outlined by Damian Radcliffe, a Professor of Practice, and Associate of the Center for Science Communication Research (SCR), at the University of Oregon, is borrowed into this context.  In his book “The impact of COVID-19 on journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South” he underlined some of the  practical challenges both journalists and media organizations face in covering the pandemic.  

Professor Radcliffe, classified the challenges media organizations and journalists face in dealing with the pandemic into four main categories, which best explained the Nigerian situation: 

Challenge 1: Reporting from the frontline: the structural impact on newsrooms. 

The challenges faced by newsrooms and journalists in emerging economies, including Nigeria, was making sense of the fast changing landscape. The Lockdown and restrictions brought about by the pandemic led to distributed newsrooms and made socially-distant reporting difficult. This meant that a good number of media organisations had to enforce working from home on their journalists. Tom Trewinnard Co-founder and head of Digital Consultancy Fathm  stated that “the Coronavirus crisis will soon end, but the distributed newsroom is here to stay”. His projected prophecy may seem exaggerated but the current reality seems to back it up. 

This reality pushed several newsrooms to depend on technology since working from home was the option. The novelty of the virus and the constant barrage of complicated new information around it left most newsrooms confused on what to do next.  The most obvious example of this, perhaps, was seen in early advice about the efficacy of mask-wearing. Professor radcliffe puts here that:  

“Many journalists have also been stymied by obfuscation, reduced access and concerns about the politicisation of government data. This has meant that in some countries we have seen disquiet about COVID cases going underreported, while in other nations there have been claims that the crisis has been purposefully exaggerated.”

While a regional newspaper correspondent in Nigeria puts that “In my region many journalists were a public relations service for politicians.”  Elizabeth Ekale, a reporter with one of Nigeria’s wide spread newspapers outlined that:

You could see the pressure mounting on everyone’s face in the newsroom but no one wants to plainly show it. The pandemic took away our mental health and left us confused as to what to do next. The challenge exposed our inadequacies, especially when we had to depend on different technologies for almost everything while working from home and for some of us we only heard of these for the first time. We had to learn, and make it a part of out organization.” 

Challenge 2 – Combating fake news and the Infodemic

The COVID-19 pandemic came with it a barrage of misinformation, disinformation and several false claims. As the virus spread, so was the false information about it. Data released by  UNESCO shows that in April 2020 alone, Facebook has flagged over 50million pieces of content related to COVID-19, While twitter has challenged over 1.5 million users, and google has blocked over 18 million scam emails on Gmail all related to Covid-19. Though these facts have  raised concerns over the impact of journalism in combating the peril of fake news and misinformation, it has also ushered in a herculean era for media organizations and their working journalists.  

In Nigeria, multiple theories around the pandemic were designed to suit the biases of the populace. Typical examples were claims that suggested the virus was engineered in a lab as a bioterrorism agent, or that the symptoms are actually caused by the 5G mobile network. In addition, fake COVID-19 cures that were reported, and multiple false rated claims around the efficacy of the uncovered vaccine left journalists overwhelmed with finding facts to report the accurate truth.

Kamal Ibrahim, Managing Editor, Franchise Post described what it was like for his newsroom: 

 “The fake news and false information around the COVID-19  pandemic increased our workload. It was not just reporting as usual but we also had to come up with new strategies on how to deal with the rising fake information as well as cover the actual stories around. It was like working into a new room, in the dark trying to find the door out.”

Understanding the nature of the problem was entirely new to most newsrooms as very little or no journalist in most news organisations had ideas about fact checking. 

Abba Musa, reporter with Daily Trust, described the situation: 

 “Social media was also very fast in dispersing information. Multiple false stories capitalizing on myths, legends and beliefs made it very difficult for us to fight back the misinformation, people easily fell for it and you become a bad buy if you try to say otherwise.”

Political office holders, religious leaders, and traditional leaders were also not helping the situation for journalists. While some of them generate false information, some propagate it. Lateef Sanni,  Fact-checker  with Dubawa described the overbearing situation:

 “While most were trying hard to convince people on the potency and the need to take the COVID-19 vaccine, some leaders with wide followership came with contrary opinions. Yahaya Bello, the Governor of Kogi state, claimed the vaccines were harmful and a means to depopulate africans. His views were also held by former senator Dino Malaye, former Aviation Minister, Femi-Fani Kayode and reinforced by Bishop David Oyedope.”

Ultimately, in addition to reporting the story, most newsrooms had to re-train their journalists on how to  offer practical information to audiences or useful news about the pandemic. These smaller, practical steps from trusted and up-to-date sources could help inform the public on the advice coming from broader governing bodies that they may otherwise not hear. This was in essence key in fighting the menace of misinformation but overwhelming new tasks for the journalists. 

Challenge 3 – Encroachments on media freedom

There are concerns that the COVID crisis is being used to curb media freedoms around the world. This is taking numerous forms, including limiting access to information, attacks on journalists, government closures of news media and new laws that limit press freedom. 

Amnesty (and others) have commented on this new  limits to media freedom mainly due to the pandemic. New laws for journalists to abide by, restriction even for journalists, which led  to dependence on government based data, which is sometimes not reliable. 

When the Lockdown began in Nigeria, Journalists were among the privileged essential workers who had government authorization for movement due to the importance of their job amidst the pandemic. However, even with this privilege, journalists have reported cases of harassment perpetuated by Security Men. For example, on May 19, 2020 several journalists along with other essential workers were reported to have been arrested or denied access to some places by some of the Nigerian policemen in Lagos state. A reporter with the Daily Independence complained that:

“I was on a despatch bike but on getting to Apagbon, Lagos Island bridge, the driver (a despatch rider from another newspaper house I met at my bus stop) was forcefully stopped and the police refused us access despite tendering our identity cards. I had to find my way down to my assignment venue at CMS.”

Amnesty International has accused the Nigerian Authorities of maltreating journalists on charges of defamation for exposing corruption, on-air personality harassment, the accusation of journalists for cybercrime, stigmatization for investigative journalism, arrest for social media posts amongst others.  Similarly, in a joint statement issued by the Article 19: 

“The African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC) and Human Environment Development Agenda Resource Centre (HEDA) urge the Government of Nigeria to immediately investigate the allegations of unlawful killings of at least 21 persons, other acts of violence and intimidation of journalists which has occurred in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown since 29 March 2020.”

This spotlights on some of the issues journalists in Nigeria go through in covering the COVID-19 pandemic. As it is not new or peculiar to Nigeria alone, in March, the Supreme Committee for dealing with COVID-19 in Oman issued a decision to

“Stop the printing of newspapers, magazines and publications of all kinds and prevent their circulation, and prevent the sale and circulation of newspapers, magazines and publications issued outside the Sultanate.”

So as in  Jordan, Morocco and Yemen. While this is drastically different to the Nigerian context, it only highlights the prevalent but peculiar challenges journalists face worldwide due to the pandemic. 

Challenge 4 – Journalism’s financial free fall

The impact of the pandemic came with a financial blow for most media organizations. The non-profit International Media Support (IMS), explains

“It’s a paradox that, as more and more people realise they need high-quality factual information to navigate the crisis, the business models that sustain that information are collapsing. The global economic shutdown has severely reduced the advertising revenues that many media outlets depend on. Worldwide, countless independent news providers are being forced to scale down, lay off reporters or close altogether. This financial backdrop is just one factor shaping the response of news organisations and journalists to the pandemic.”

This situation was prevalent in most media organisations in Nigeria, as most of them had to lay off some of their staff or initiate pay cuts. The Punch Newspaper, a renowned Nigerian media organisation with wide readership had to reduce the number of pages in their newspaper publication and lay off over 50 staff in May, 2020. A part of this unusual memo sent to its employees by the Managing Director of the company, Mr Ademola Osinubu read:

“While all the displaced staff would be entitled to one month’s salary in lieu of notice, those who have spent up to ten years and above will have their long service award monetized.”

Mr Ademola Osinubu, eventually explained why this was necessary: 

“Before the pandemic, the company’s broad reengineering plan was well underway. The pace of implementation will increase to complement the recent proactive measures that the company has put in place to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our health and operations. In the days ahead, the company will be exploring additional ways to keep our business afloat and thriving. While we do so, we shall take due cognisance of the interest of staff, the threats to our industry and the tremors within the Nigerian economy. However, one thing is certain: the company will have to adjust all facets of its operations to reflect the realities of these trying times. Such adjustments are imminent and inevitable.”

The Nation Newspaper, also another major media organization in Nigeria had to place many of its staff on three months compulsory leave on twenty per cent salary subject to review after the expiration. While those retained were paid fifty per cent of their salaries and allowances. In the letter issued to affected editorial and non-editorial staff, the company said the decision was taken to ensure it remains afloat. 

Other notable media organizations in Nigeria also underwent the same reality. According to a report shared by Nairametrics the Nation newspaper has sacked 100 out of its about 500 workers across the nation. Multiple other media organizations were also affected,  the news-telegraph, Daily Independence newspaper, AIM group (owners of Nigeria Info., Cool FM, Wazobia, and Arewa) and even entertainment outlets such as  the  Iroko TV were also affected. 

These challenges explicitly show that  for newsrooms, there’s a growing recognition that COVID-19 has impacted journalists by disrupting working practices and pervading their day-to-day operations.

Some news organizations in Nigeria:

  • The challenges  with covering Covid-19

The Managing Editor PRNigeria, Mohammed Lawal, expressed how his organization fared amidst the core times of the pandemic. As regards the restrictions and the lockdown, Mr Mohammed commented that: 

“To be locked down while at home trying to do in-depth reporting as much as possible and going to the field ONLY when absolutely necessary was new and complicated to most of our journalists.”

As regards health and safety of journalist during the height of the pandemic, Mr Mohammed outline that:  

The access to COVID-19 Personal Protection Equipment was not sufficient, even testing kits was not prevalent in the country. The Psychological trauma and fear of possible contraction led in some case led some of our reporters into depression”

Mrs Precilla, News Manager, Nigerian Television Authority NTA,  highlights some of the challenges the media organization faced while covering the pandemic:   

“The Government withholding information and people’s unwillingness to speak on matters that relate to the virus was very tumultuous. While the restriction from covid test centers was also a challenge.”

  • The challenge dealing with COVID-19 mis/disinformation 

Dealing with the overwhelming flood of misinformation as regards the pandemic, Mr Mohammed,  the Managing Editor, PRNigeria lamented that: 

Fighting the misinformation was hard due to uncooperative officials who do not respond to calls or messages when you urgently need it to debunk a claim. Also, the lack of scientifically backed proofs to dispel some myths unless through voices of some experts was tough. It was like everyone was busy finding answers and those with questions had to wait a bit.”

As regards dealing with Misinformation Amidst the pandemic Mrs Priscilla said: 

 “For NTA, the slogan is “when in doubt, leave out”.

Conclusion and recommendations

The report-based research work basically focused on the core challenges being faced by media organizations and journalists covering the coronavirus pandemic and dealing with the misinformation around it.  The commendable work media organizations carried out during the pandemic is outstanding, through their work, journalists have attempted to hold government officials accountable, and transmitted effectively the complex issues around the COVID-19 virus into a much easier and simpler form for the general public to grasp.

Nonetheless, as recommended by Professor Redcliff, NGOs and media funders, leaders across multiple sectors, media organizations and journalists in themselves, must continue to stress the important work being carried out by the press, and strongly push back against moves to undermine it not just in Nigeria but in the world at large. Without this, there is a very real risk that some of the temporary measures outlined in this report may become permanent. 

This could have major consequences for both the immediate information needs of communities, and the long-term picture of media freedom. 

The crises the pandemic has showered on media organizations across Nigeria needs serious cause for study. This is vital and key in ensuring that future unprecedented matters as the pandemic does not crash the media business and leave the fragile Nigerian democracy to political leaders. The call is not just for media organizations, but everyone who knows and values the importance of good Journalism in the society. 

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