/ 3 April 2020

Traditional media: A block against deadly pathogens and people

Cellphones the front line for gender equality
In the Research ICT Africa After Access 2018 survey of 10 African countries, including South Africa, non-users said that the price of smart devices was at primary reason for people not being connected. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


Oh how the zeitgeist has changed in a few short weeks. A deadly pathogen was what was needed for those (people and governments) hostile to “experts” and the so-called “mainstream media”  to come crawling back, begging for trustworthy news and a vaccine.

Those anti-vaxxer mums who have been holding measles parties for their children will likely be the first in line if a vaccine for Covid-19 is found. Who knows, maybe even Gwyneth Paltrow will bin her vaginal steam douches and anti psychic-vampire charms in favour of lab-made medicine.

In Britain’s elections last year, the Labour Party warned a victory for Boris Johnson could spell the end for the NHS, but any action on his part to undermine the service now would be political suicide as its doctors and nurses have become national heroes.

In terms of the press, several polls since the start of the pandemic show a majority of people checking the news several times a day and turning to trusted news sources and state broadcasters rather than social media and their crazy uncle’s health blog rants about the benefits of CBD.

A March survey of ten countries by US communications marketing firm Edelman found that mainstream news organisations were the most-relied upon source of Coronavirus information, almost  “twice as much as global health organisations.”

Edelman, however, found one of the countries surveyed, South Africa, was an exception with more people turning to social media than major news organisations.

Also, although respondents said they were relying primarily on news organisations for their Covid-19 information, they ranked journalists lowest when asked about their most “trusted spokespeople”, while scientists ranked highest.  This peculiar contradiction shows that most people still don’t know what journalists actually do. Unless we’re writing an opinion piece like this, we are quoting the scientists and distilling their information for public consumption.

The Pew Research Centre’s latest survey regarding media in the age of Covid-19 showed a majority of Americans saying they thought the media was doing a good job of covering the pandemic, although data showed differences between Republicans and Democrats on whether the situation was being exaggerated. 

Fox News, for example, posited the virus was a “Dem hoax” for some time before finally doing an about-turn. And Donald Trump has personally attacked reporters at his virus press conferences for asking questions he didn’t like.

In an effort to perform a public service and also attract new readers, some legacy media such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have dropped their paywalls so that anyone can access their reporting on the coronavirus.

Whether users reward them by subscribing, and keep their subscriptions once this is all over is yet to be seen.

It’s worth noting that coronavirus became the world’s biggest news story not when it was ripping through Wuhan, but rather when it hit Western Europe.

For us journalists in Africa who diligently covered the Ebola outbreak in Congo for years, without it ever really becoming a major international story despite the violent attacks on health workers, a plethora of fake news and painful deaths, this was not particularly surprising, although it is still depressing.

A large number of those surveyed by Edelman said they were worried about fake news. In times like these, fake news can actually kill as can labelling real news “fake”. Several US columnists have called on the press to stop covering Trump’s press conferences on coronavirus verbatim as they have proved to be a source of disinformation. His unsubstantiated comments that the anti-malarial Cloroquine could help against coronavirus indirectly led to the death of one American man who ingested it.

Of course, despite the resurgence of faith in science and the news media by some right-wing politicians and expert-maligners since Covid-19 reared its ugly multi-pronged head, there are always those beyond help.

Such as Brazil’s offence-a-minute-spouting populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, who told his countrymen that even if infected he would not suffer from the virus because of his “background as an athlete”. Despite his physical prowess, he still gave the address clad in a mask … funny that.

Much has been written this week on an apparent FBI report that American neo-Nazis were planning to try and spread coronavirus to “cops and Jews” by using spray bottles filled with bodily fluids.

You could see this as scary, or … you could look on the bright side?

Even people dumb enough to believe in eugenics and genetic racial superiority have finally bought into the science on Covid-19. The neo-Nazis believe it exists and they know how it spreads. And they have the doctors, scientists, and “mainstream media” to thank for that.

Kate Bartlett is a Johannesburg-based correspondent and is currently on lockdown while on a journalism fellowship at Oxford University