How the media frames an issue can and do have priming effects. In other words, the media as it did at the onset of the HIV/Aids pandemic by framing it as the gay plague, as a death sentence once contracted etc, can promote a stigmatising attitude, widespread panic and fear resulting in people coming up with bizarre solutions like sleeping with babies, virgins and what have you that served to compound rather than solve the problem. This also becomes fertile ground for breeding discrimination against PLWHA when transmission, like in the case of mother-to-child, might not be child’s fault. But because society was fixated with sexual transmission, it was felt that it is deserved (divine) punishment for sexual indiscretion.
Fast forward to late 2019 and 2020 and we seem not to have learnt any lessons. There is already talk of a “Chinese virus” that is spreading faster than the science of its origin. It is true that it was first detected in China but no one knows for sure whether the oft-repeated videos on social media of game meat really is the source or as the Chinese have tried to pay the Americans back in their own coin, claiming the latter brought it with them during the military games held in Wuhan late last year. Then there is the Zimbabwean scenario that God is paying back those who brought the country to its knees through economic sanctions with Covid-19!
When traditional media gives these fabrications airtime and space, it is really adding to the problem. These are sensational and may bring in higher ratings, clicks, increased sales of traditional newspapers no doubt, but it does more damage than good. The media must go beyond the usual “he said, she said” type of reporting and even the bizarre and brazen claims made by politicians and public office holders intended to grab headlines to more responsible reporting. Why do we have dedicated fact checkers in news organisations, if these controversial but false claims get airtime and space? The news value of prominence or any other justifications from the point of view of the news judgment criteria is not good enough.
A handy tool used by media, particularly social media, to create fear and suspicion is the narrative that Covid-19 has been brought into a country by foreigners. A great effort is made to identify the foreign country of those who have become ill and one clear effect of this is to fuel stigma and stereotyping. The effect of this naming convention is to imply a causal relationship between the spread of Covid-19 and being from a foreign country. Media should avoid the blame game. One of the outcomes of such stigmatization can be that individuals who are taken ill may even be denied the medication and healthcare they require to get well again and break the chain of infections and co-infection continuing to other members of the population. The fact that the virus has no vaccine is stated repeatedly, yet the fact that most of those who contract the illness are cured is seldom mentioned.
Social media has played an incendiary role and has stoked the demon of fear and death relentlessly. We have seen locally suspect stories of how a plane arrived at Hosea Kutako Airport and every passenger was allowed into the country without any coronavirus checking. The same claims were made of how a passenger ship arrived at the Port of Walvis Bay and all the passengers were allowed into the town without anyone checking any of them. Both these examples are fake social media stories and there are many more of the same in Namibia and other countries. In another African country, on the 17th of March a middle aged man is alleged to have been stoned to death by a group of angry youths who thought his persistent coughing during a drinking session was due to coronavirus which he was trying to hide. Fear, panic and suspicion are rampant and hate is not too far away.
This is more poignant when the focus turns to empty store shelves that add to the panic and fuels more panic buying/hoarding because of the doomsday frames employed by the media. It is the same reporting that makes people now look at you with suspicion when you cough or sneeze in public. And if you are Asian-looking, then you must have the virus. That you are Vietnamese, Indonesian or a Philipino is beside the point. Chinese shops and restaurants have suffered most as long-term customers have abandoned them for fear of being infected with the alleged “deadly coronavirus”.
Now that the West is the epicenter, how would Americans and Europeans feel if they get the same treatment? Bear in mind that the New York Times framed and traced the virus to Huanan Seafood Market with their reporting painting all Chinese as unsanitary then the animal (ape)-to-human transmission, like in the case of HIV & Aids, also made its presence felt with CNN introducing bats as the “biological super villains” that are originators of the virus.
And of course, the rest of the world follows the agenda set by the powerful Western media. Why we have not deemed it fit to have an African news agency/outlet(s) that tell(s) our stories and sets our agenda is another lesson that we can learn from this pandemic. Don’t get us started with the Western press framing of Africa as disease-laden, poverty-stricken, nothing-good-can-come-out-of-the-continent imperialistic and ethnocentric posture. But that is a story for another day.
Bad news and sensationalism rules the day. How? Bad news is more attention grabbing. Meanwhile the success of China in treating coronavirus is not getting as much airtime as the “Chinese virus” allegation by the president of one leading nation in the West. The success of South Korea or Singapore in dealing with the coronavirus is getting minimum coverage in the media. Industry and commerce is reopening in several countries in Asia including China. Better ways of treating coronavirus have been found in China, Singapore and Japan but none of these positive stories have featured much in our media outlets.
On the other hand, the unproven assertion that coronavirus is divine punishment to Western countries for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe has received wide coverage. More space and airtime should be devoted to success cases, the low death rate for persons without pre-existing medical conditions, how some governments including the Government of the Republic of Namibia have risen to the occasion etc. This is because the doom and gloom scenario painted by the media is at variance with the World Health Organisation’s stance that “these epidemics, these pandemics and this virus is controllable and the result or the outcome is in our hands.”
In conclusion, since the solution is in our hands, we would like to provide some suggestions to ensure that the media does its work of creating public awareness of the coronavirus pandemic without fuelling fear, panic and stigma.
There are some words/phrases the media should avoid which are inaccurate and instill fear; for example, “deadly coronavirus”, “there is no cure”, “Chinese virus”, etc.
There is also need to avoid labeling the nationality of individuals who are affected as it leads to such nationalities being discriminated against by the frightened public. An individual from Spain, Germany or indeed China does not represent all the people in that country as others may be free from the infection.
Avoid alarming images of people wearing masks and gloves (unless they work in hospitals or in airports) where they have to serve many people. Such images send the wrong information out to the public that we all need masks and gloves to prevent the spread of coronavirus; which is not true.
Frame stories within a context and help to create accurate awareness of what steps to take to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Always refer to the Ministry of Health and Social Services when not sure how to present information you have obtained from various sources.
Media use of local languages spoken in all corners of the country is important to ensure that the coronavirus message reaches all corners and all groups to take the correct action and not to be overcome with fear and open themselves up to charlatans and con-men/women because they lack the right information.
The Media Councils of several countries in East Africa have come up with guidelines on how to report on the coronavirus. Below we provide the guidelines from the Media Council of Uganda:
Avoid sensational language that may create anxiety and elevate fear in the public thus causing unnecessary panic.
Avoid gory images which feed into stereotypes.
Avoid speculation about worst case scenarios.
Provide readers and viewers with specific steps they can take for safety and precautions including treatment.
Endeavour at all times to obtain proper information from official sources and promptly correct any wrong information published.
Direct readers, viewers and listeners to official sources of information.
Know which questions to ask and when about new developments and research.
Elicit information from more than one genuine expert.
Always remember that not every rumour deserves coverage.
Endeavour to make complicated information easy to process by your audience.
Avoid at all times the use of derogatory language.
Research on the current questions being asked by your audience and answer them accurately.
Always include data sources, dates and context in your articles as well as maps and graphs.
Let all of us be strengthened by the World Health Organisation’s stance that “these epidemics, these pandemics and this virus is controllable and the result or the outcome is in our hands.”
*Professor Kingo Mchombu is former acting vice chancellor of the International University of Management. He now serves as advisor to the chairman and IUM governing council.
*Professor Eno Akpabio is head of the media section in the Department of Information and Communication Studies, University of Namibia.
* The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the authors and not of the universities they work for.