REPORTING on public health issues was not a priority for news organizations before the pandemic. Health as a main news beat is the ideal situation but that was not how it played in reality.
The reason is that, in the hierarchy of issues to be covered in the news, public health is secondary to institutional and traditional sources such as the Provincial Capitol, City Hall and the Philippine National Police. Public health as a news beat is assigned to a reporter already covering any of these institutional sources.
Reporting on health issues was mostly spotty, led by what disease is seeing a rise in cases or what conflict is taking place between leaders or government offices over a vaccine. Then the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic happened. News organizations rushed to the social media arena, Facebook in particular, to break Covid-19 news. In the push to post first, in-depth reporting, adding context and explaining the news got set aside for later, for when there is time and there are people to do them.
The local media mark Cebu Press Freedom Week 2020 from Sept. 20 to 26 to celebrate the significant role they play especially during a pandemic and to reflect on whether the media are measuring up to the public’s expectation. The occasion is also an opportunity for the public to join the call for an informed citizenry and support press freedom.
An assessment of Covid-19 news coverage would show that newsrooms are prioritizing breaking news over in-depth reporting and explanatory journalism. It is easier to report the numbers; it requires more work and a deeper understanding to explain differences between protocols and treatments. Other challenges are the use of medical terminology and how government data are sometimes wrong and confusing. Then there’s the internal limitation of newsrooms downsizing and letting go of journalists.
To address these, some organizations have called for collaboration between newsrooms and public health experts or medical groups. Journalists may ask medical practitioners to explain terms and procedures in an easy to understand language. Bring health experts into the news process as sources or as content writers and producers themselves. (The Philippine College of Physicians - Central Visayas chapter is doing it by posting on Facebook several episodes on Covid-19.)
Health officials in government are encouraged to hold regular press conferences or meetings with the press. A centralized release of information can have its advantages such as government speaking as one but the downside is there is no opportunity to take the time and explain.
For newsrooms, when the next invitation to a seminar and training on public health reporting is offered, take it and send your senior journalists to learn and prepare for the next health crisis.