The media and COVID 19: the unsung heroes

[By Parkie Mbozi]

To better understand and appreciate the role of the media to our lives in general and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s start with the basics: what we the audiences and society expect of the media.

Let’s analyse together from two perspectives: 1. Functionalist tradition, which argues that we the consumers know what we want from the media. We turn to them (media) to satisfy our wants, needs and goals. 2. normative perspective, which means that the media fraternity and society at large expect the media to perform certain roles and to behave in particular ways.

In terms of category 1, from many years of research, including my most recent on why Zambians turn to online newspapers, scholars have summarised audience needs from the media into eight groups. I will focus on five main ones. They are: 1. Information and news seeking, that we are to turn to media to keep abreast of what is going on in the country and around the world; 2. utility, for information we can directly use to improve ourselves, such as learning new things (educational/instructional), forming opinions and making plans or decisions; 3. Socialisation, for ‘contacts with family, friends and the world, to talk to other readers and as a way to learn about their opinions; 4. entertainment or relaxation, for ‘fun, enjoyment and to cheer up’; 5. escape or tension release, ‘for diversion from routines, work, school and boring moments’.

In the light of the COVID-19, which broke out in China in December 2019 and in Zambia on 18th March 2020, to what extent have the media met these expectations? Below is my take. I would like to ‘hear’ yours in the discussion forum below.

Information and news function: If you have no idea how important this WPFD is, just imagine, for a minute, how this world would be like without your favourite source of news and information.

Or in the current situation and right here, right now, without any of the media houses covering the daily briefings by the Ministry of Health on the COVID 19: no TV, no radio, no print or online newspapers or indeed no social media. Already some expectant followers of the briefings complain each time that they have come later than the scheduled time.

On the international stage, imagine life without the likes of BBC, CNN, Sky TV, eNCA, SABC, Al Jazeera, etc. Without these channels we would be in the dark about what is happening globally about COVID-19, wouldn’t we? For instance, we wouldn’t be in the know about the currently trending feud between the United States and China over the origin of COVID-19 virus, would we?

Or on the positive side, we would be in the dark that New Zealand has become the first country to successfully eliminate the COVID-19 virus from its ecosystem (sorry to use this term). Or to put it in the typology of our health minister Dr Chitalu Chilufya, zero ‘new cases’ and zero ‘active cases’ for, let’s say, the last 30 days. We wouldn’t be aware that Spain and Italy have eased lockdown restrictions or that the USA has authorised the use of the drug Remdesivir for treating COVID-19 and that it reduces the recovery period in COVID-19 patients. In the exercise of this function the media are expected be a true mirror of society and reality. In terms of COVID 19, the reality is that there is both negative and positive news and that both need to be mirrored in the media.

The question is, how have the Zambians fared on this function? Utility: we look to the media to provide us with information we can use to learn, adapt and cope with various situations. In the context of COVID-19, without the media we wouldn’t have been able to hear, see or read about the measures for keeping ourselves safe, would we? We would miss out on all the adverts, promos and programmes that educate us on how to keep safe, wouldn’t we?

Without any media covering the daily briefings by the Ministry of Health we wouldn’t have information to help us make plans about which COVID-19 hot spots in the country or world to avoid, or about how to wash our hands to avoid getting the pandemic, would we? The question is, how effective have the Zambian media been in conveying utility or instructional information and educating us about the COVID-19 generally?

Escape’ or ‘tension release: through this function the media are expected to offer options from the daily routines and monotonies or exposure to one reality. In the era where COVID-19 is so omnipresent in all spheres of life, the question is, are the media helping us to ‘escape’ to other (less depressing) realities or from the daily routines of work, social life, school, etc?

Entertainment’ or ‘relaxation: without the media, the sports lovers would miss watching or listening to live soccer matches of their favourite soccer teams or of boxing, golf, cricket, motor and horse racing, etc. wouldn’t they? Or we would miss what is happening in say, movie, music, fashion, etc, industries, wouldn’t we? COVID-19 is a serious and depressing matter. The question is, to what extent are the media providing us with the entertainment and relaxation we need in this moment?

Socialisation: according to this function, we turn to the media in order to connect with other readers, experts, friends, relatives, etc. This is particularly so with the advent of the Internet and interactive apps adopted by the media, which have resulted in convergence between the traditional media and social media platforms. We, the audiences, are now able to interact with each other and share views on issues published in the media through chat forums (like the below), SMS or WhatsApp messages to stations. The question is, to what extent are the media enabling us to interact amongst ourselves and with experts on COVID-19?

To conclude our interrogation of the media performance from the aspect of their meeting our needs, wants and goals we seek from them (functionalist), it is evident there is a lot to celebrate on this day, even in the context of the COVID-19.

From a normative perspective, the media have traditionally been expected to perform the following functions: watchdog role, interpretative role and change agent or interventionistic role.

Watchdog role

Society expects that media work as guardians and protectors of the public interest and resources on their behalf. Journalists are expected to gather information about wrongdoings of people in power and deliver it to the public. The media work as the ‘fourth estate’, ostensibly as powerful as the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary. In the context of the COVID-19, the media are expected to keep an eye on how the resources allocated for the cause are being handled, focusing on corruption and any wrongdoings. There was a time HIV and AIDS campaigns in this country were dubbed ‘AIDS business’. COVID-19 has potential to take the same route. The question is, how well have the Zambian media performed this function during the COVID-19?

Interpretative Role

This type of journalism requires that journalists go beyond the basic facts related to an event and provide more in-depth news coverage. It calls on journalists to be analytical enough to interpret rather than just deliver ‘facts’ as they are given by the sources. It means journalists fully educate themselves about the subject. It demands them looking for systems, rationale and influences that explain what they are reporting on. They must interrogate what they receive from sources and go beyond the ordinary with trend-setting articles, powerful think-pieces and further straying into the field of investigative reporting.

In the context of COVID-19, the media need to ask questions, sometimes tough ones, about, say, the measures taken by the authorities to fight the pandemic. They must seek guidance of scientific or ‘alternative;’ facts or ‘good’ practices or lessons from elsewhere. For instance, an interpretative journalist would interrogate Zambia’s partial lockdown measures against common practices in the SADC region and globally. She/he can then compare the trends in infections between countries that are in total lockdown (e.g. Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana) against Zambia’s.

The question is, how well have the Zambian media performed this function during the COVID-19?

‘Change agent’ or ‘interventionistic’ role

This type of journalism subscribes to the notion that the journalists have an obligation to pursue a particular mission and promote certain values. Journalists with a high interventionist attitude get personally engaged in the subject they are reporting about. They become ‘change agents’ with the aim of influencing not only public opinion but also, and more importantly, social behaviour change. To be successful ‘change agents’ the journalists need to specialise and become some semblance of ‘subject matter specialists’. This is a model that was successfully adopted in HIV and AIDS and other development disciplines. I have personally been involved in training journalists in this type of journalism since the mid-1990s and dedicated my MA thesis to it.

Though it is still early days, we can interrogate whether the Zambian media are showing signs of performing this function on COVID-19?

I will end the article with the reminder that the media also need resources and personal protection to effectively fight COVID-19. The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) reports that 55 journalists across 23 countries died from COVID-19 between March and April.

The author is a media and health communication researcher and scholar with the University of Zambia. He is also a PhD candidate with the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Send comment to: pmbozi5@yahoo.com./EC

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