By Kufre Etuk
On 22 April, the Akwa Ibom State Ministry of Information in collaboration with the Nigerian Medical Association, NMA organized a-one day workshop on ethical reporting for 50 select Journalists in the state. The essence of the workshop, according to the Commissioner for Information, Mr. Charles Udoh, who was represented by the Director of Information, Akparawa James Edet, was to provide synergy for doctors to acquaint journalists with professional knowledge on coronavirus and the technical details necessary for effective reportage of the pandemic.
The workshop which took place at Ibom Multi-Specialty Hospital was more of interaction and knowledge sharing than a handout session for beginners. Apart from being the first of its kind, the workshop provided an opportunity for both medical doctors and journalists in the state to harness their experience and expertise in fighting a common invisible enemy of the state. This event underscored the value placed on journalists as critical stakeholders in the fight against COVID-19. The Honourable Commissioner for Information, Mr. Charles Udoh deserves commendation for facilitating that workshop. Worthy of note is the NUJ Chairman, Comrade Amos Etuk’s role in ensuring the event was a success.
Kick-starting the workshop on “overview of COVID-19: simple facts and figures”, Dr. Usenobong Morgan x-rayed the journey of the state government in curbing Covid-19 pandemic. He revealed that mass testing for coronavirus may be impossible for now pending when the ongoing modular lab constructed by the Akwa Ibom State government will be ready. He said, so far, 53 persons have been tested in the state, adding that the state had nine confirmed cases, five active, one death, and three discharged as of Wednesday. Dr. Morgan also said that four suspected cases were currently treated, awaiting result.
The State Epidemiologist, Dr. Aniekeme Uwah who gave an overview of the objectives and agenda of the workshop, averred that restriction of movement has really helped to curtail and contain the spread of coronavirus in the state, noting that with more people staying at home, contact – tracing has become easy and possible.
The state Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP Comrade Ini Ememobong who talked on “Socioeconomic impact of Covid-19; lockdown as a preventive prescription or punitive measures”, noted that in view of the impending post-covid-19 economic uncertainty, there was no way the state government could give palliatives to all Akwa Ibomites. He agreed that it is safer to stay at home and live longer than to move around in search of food and contract the virus.
The PRO of NMA, Dr. Ekem Emmanuel John who expatiated on “Ethical reporting: where medicine and journalism meets”, disagreed with journalists who believe they should tell the world everything. The talking point of the workshop was why news reportage should not create fear and panic. Research shows that the mortality rate for COVID-19 is only 10 per cent while Ebola and Lassa fever are 40 and 35 per cent respectively. In view of this, journalists were enjoined to harp on the preventive measures rather than dwell on the gravity of the pandemic. One common factor that defined all the speakers at the workshop was the emphasis on journalists to abide by the medical ethics when it comes to handling patients personal medical information. Their position is that as doctors are guided by the Hippocratic oath, journalists too should be guided.
The missing link
The Hippocratic oath is mainly applicable to doctors, not journalists. While doctors work to protect their patients’ interest, journalists are mandated to protect the public interest. These are two opposite job roles. Therefore, while it may be wrong for a medical doctor to reveal personal health information of his clients to members of the public, it is not totally against journalism ethics to do so provided such information is in the general interest of the public. Doctors owe their patients loyalty, journalists’ allegiance is to the public.
As earlier stated, journalists owe members of the public the duty of telling them the truth. How can a journalist give hope without providing full information about the virus- who have been affected, what exactly is the government doing about the virus, who is the health personnel handling the case, what is the expertise and the antecedents of this personnel? Patient information on the health issue is important for the public. Information here does not mean disclosing their names, but the whole gamut of other things that will give the public full understanding of the feelings, impacts, hazards etc; of the case at hand. On this, Nigerian health workers have failed to cooperate with journalists. The health workers have always erroneously and sanctimoniously classified every information on a patient’s case as classified and private. Such extreme conservatism leaves the journalist with almost no firsthand information and experience to tell his story. This is where suspicion and mistrust set in.
Doctors who handled different areas of the workshop demonstrated dexterity and showmanship in their presentation. This, they deserve applause. But health reporting is a specialized form of communication. Health reporters are well trained in reporting health matters. Doctors are not health communication experts, as such, they possess limited or no skills in teaching journalists how to communicate health issues to the public. Health communication is beyond the patient-doctor model of conflict resolution in Public Relations. It requires special skills, timing and language power.
However, most participants at the workshop had expected to hear from health communication expert(s) who would have taken them into the reality of reporting pandemic like coronavirus and what is expected from any journalist who wishes to venture into doing reports in this direction. The workshop had no health communication expert.
Aside this, we are no longer in the age of Magic Bullet Theory of the press where members of the public would swallow news from the mass media without processing such information. Theory of selectivity is quite applicable now. Members of the public select which piece of information they want to hear and retain. In the face of this pandemic, journalists in Akwa Ibom state are not the only set of people feeding the public with information about the coronavirus. While we may preach hope in Akwa Ibom state, the majority of our target population may access other sources of information of interest to get additional information about the pandemic which are congruous with their worldview. Again, if journalists continue to hide certain information from the public in the name of preaching hope when the public expects such information disclosed, both the journalists and their organisations will lose credibility. Social media also allow people free access to a variety of information on a particular issue. This too can be a dependable source of information to many, such that no matter the hope journalists preach, people may not accept.
The workshop can be said to be the first fruitful engagement between the Incident Management Committee of Covid-19 pandemic, Ministry of Information and members of the fourth estate of the realm because it afforded every participating journalist opportunity to clear certain misconceptions about government’s response to coronavirus in the state. Questions were carefully answered by all the doctors who handled different topics in the workshop. The participating journalists were acquainted with registers of the pandemic that will make them churn out professional pieces to members of the public. The terminologies were operationalized for proper understanding.
The way forward
We are living in a society where oddity defines news selection, in many cases. Members of the public appreciate stories wrapped in oddity. People want to hear that Governor Udom Emmanuel has contracted coronavirus. They want to hear that a Commissioner is infected with Covid-19. They appreciate negativity and tend not to believe positive stories. This is a typical situation in our present society.
In this case, many journalists are forced to weave their stories around what the public wants. Stories are now based on what interests the public without attention to the public interest. Journalists who tend to dwell on the path of honour, by reporting positives, are considered by members of the public who believe so much in oddity as weak, government journalists who have been paid to tilt stories in favour of the government.
To get the masses to accept positive stories of hope especially as it borders on coronavirus, there is need for serious reorientation of the masses. This shouldn’t be left in the hands of journalists but National Orientation Agency, Ethical and Attitudinal Reorientation. Select agents of socialization such as school, church should be involved in this. The public should be made to understand that no society can grow with people of such mindset. Once people’s mindsets are changed then positive stories will easily penetrate and there will be attitudinal change.
We are also living in a society where negative story writers and yellow journalism are heavily rewarded by the mighty in society. Journalists who engage in yellow journalism are feared, accorded respect and honour while journalists who harp on development journalism are treated with levity. Lawmakers, Commissioners keep these guys on their payroll. As long as the mighty in our society continues to reward this set of people, Akwa Ibom State will continue to witness dearth of good stories about the government’s effort in curbing coronavirus.