'Lies kill': Journalists tackle challenges in reporting on the pandemic
MANILA, Philippines – In a pandemic, delivering accurate information already poses unprecedented challenge for journalists. But a pandemic in the age of social media is another story: false information proves to be just as rapid and deadly as a virus.
On Monday, May 4, journalists Sheila Coronel, Maria Ressa, and Ging Reyes joined an online discussion – “Reporting in Pandemic Time: New Normal, New Challenges” – that tackled how the coronavirus pandemic is yet again transforming journalism. Coronel is co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and currently the Dean of Academic Affairs of Columbia University; Ressa is CEO and executive editor of Rappler; and Reyes is head of ABS-CBN news and current affairs division;.
In the forum hosted by the Makati Business Club in partnership with the British embassy in Manila, Reyes talked about information overload on social media, where facts and falsehoods merge, fueling confusion among the public. These include half-truths, rumors, conspiracy theories, and even outright lies, Reyes said. (READ: Facebook and the coronavirus misinformation epidemic)
This, along with “conflicting announcements” especially during the early days of the outbreak in the Philippines, made reporters go an extra mile to “double-check twice, three times” information that they obtained, Reyes said.
Ressa cited coronavirus disinformation at the height of the crisis, noting that while internet giants such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have ramped up efforts to fight it, the problem persists and a lot needs to be done. (READ: Facebook admits social media threat to democracy)
“Facts are important, lies kill during the time of a pandemic,” said Ressa.
In early February, the World Health Organization (WHO) already warned that the outbreak was accompanied by massive “infodemic,” which the organization defined as “an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."
Fact-checking claims made on the virus and the pandemic prove to be the most critical in fighting disinformation, Ressa said.
She added though that journalists need to dig deeper.
“The journalist’s role isn’t just fact-checking. We are supposed to do deep investigative reporting so that we can tell you where this money is going,” she said, referring to the public funds released to fight the pandemic that have yet to be accounted for.
This prompted the most notable change in the newsgathering process: video conferencing as a platform for interviews and roundtable discussions, as well as virtual press briefings, where some cases questions from the press are asked in advance – and sometimes ignored by those holding the briefings. (READ: Press freedom takes a hit in PH during coronavirus pandemic)
The challenge with restricted access to information is evident when it comes to reporting of COVID-19 figures.
Coronel said that COVID-19 deaths might go unreported because government offices themselves would not provide accurate numbers.
“In these times, a lot of our data depends on government collection, because deaths are happening in many places, and journalists just do not have the capacity to collect that much information even to go,” Coronel said.
Reyes agreed, saying that the “underreporting” is a growing concern among reporters. Available information remains insufficient, Reyes added, citing one instance where a reporter was able to get death statistics from only two cities in Metro Manila.
Despite existing challenges, the 3 veteran journalists remained optimistic that the pandemic could be an “opportunity” for the future of journalism.
It’s time to “create,” Ressa pointed out, with the advent of new technologies and how these could be instrumental to news reporting.
“This is an exciting time to be a journalist. This is a period when journalism – the way we do journalism – is being reinvented and you have the chance, the opportunity help reshape the new media landscape,” added Coronel.
Reyes said that the press continues to face challenges that go beyond the coronavirus coverage, shedding light on the threats to shut down ABS-CBN, whose franchise expired Monday, May 4. (READ EXPLAINER: Can ABS-CBN operate past its franchise expiration date?)
“Now we resume our continued battle for our existence…. This is an ongoing battle. This is not over. I will expect more challenges to our continued existence in the future,” said Reyes. – Rappler.com