The way in which journalists have become health reporters overnight due to the Covid-19 pandemic was the topic of discussion at the recent launch of the Reporting the Pandemic Guide 

 The resource was developed by the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) and its partners to assist South African journalists and media practitioners navigate working during a global pandemic. 

 The launch was chaired by Mia Malan, founding editor-in-chief at Bhekisisa Health and panellists included Portia Kobue, journalist and reviewer of the guide, Ina Skosana, health and medicine editor at The Conversation Africa, Heidi Giokos business reporter at eNCA and Mbali Dhlomo, publisher and editor of Genuine Media and Intuthuko Newspaper 

 Kobue stressed the importance of journalists protecting the privacy and dignity of people when reporting on stories. “I think it is very important for us as journalists to protect the privacy and dignity of ordinary citizens. Sometimes as journalists we become passionate about what we are reporting on in the hope of assisting and helping to highlight challenges that ordinary citizens are facing such as an illness or pandemic,” said Kobue.

She also noted that journalists should refrain from labelling or judging people, for example she said people who did not want to be vaccinated or wear a mask, should be asked why they don’t want to be vaccinated or wear masks instead of being criticised and ridiculed. Kobue also highlighted the importance of personal safety for journalists reporting during the pandemic, saying that journalists need to be careful and look after themselves and their mental health whilst reporting. 

Chapter four of the guide notes how working agreements between journalists and media houses have changed due to the pandemic. Journalists were able to continue working during the pandemic, and employers had to find ways to mitigate the risks for journalists in their newsrooms. The guide lists various ways that employers can mitigate these risks. Skosana contributed to chapters on the basics of health and science reporting and vaccinations. She said that it is important for journalists to understand and know basic scientific terminology. “A lot of the time we use scientific work without explaining what it means,” she said.  

 “I think it is very important to have this discussion because there are many journalists who have no idea how to report on health or a pandemic. This guide summarises what I was going through” said Giokos, who is a business reporter but subsequently became a health reporter as a result of the pandemic.  She said that the two chapters which resonated with her were those on mental health and stigma. “I don’t think we really acknowledge and understand what impact Covid-19 has had on people particularly journalists reporting on the pandemic and from vaccination sites.” Giokos said at times she was so focused on the story that she neglected her own mental health. She also addressed the stigma around Covid-19. Giokos, who tested positive for Covid-19, said that people reacted quite negatively. “The main thing that stuck out to me when reporting on Covid is that information is key, stick to the facts and if you do not understand something pick up the phone and ask,” she said.  

Dhlomo, publisher and editor for Intuthuko Newspaper, a community newspaper that circulates in the south of KwaZulu-Natal, said that the needs of community media journalists are different from those in the mainstream media. She said that the guide will assist community journalists with information that they may not have access to in their newsrooms. Dhlomo hopes that the guide will be translated into South Africa’s other indigenous languages so that journalists in other provinces will have a better understanding of the guide and the message. She added that the guide will assist young writers and journalists to be a step ahead in regards to information about a pandemic. 

 To read more about the guide, click here

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