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Pitfalls to avoid when covering COVID-19 press conferences in West Africa

Kossi Elom Balao

Kossi Elom Balao is a multi-award winning science journalist and Community Manager of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum in French.

This special briefing is also available in French, Portuguese and Spanish.

 

LOMÉ, Togo — The global health crisis has revealed how the public is thirsty for science news, how the work of journalists is essential, and that reliable, rigorous and unmanipulated information can save lives.

It has shown that, with all the uncertainties, polemics and conspiracy theories rising against the COVID-19 pandemic, news consumers want journalists to provide answers to questions and clarify doubts.

Covering COVID-19 in the Global SouthThat’s where the crucial role of the journalist comes in, to look for and collect information from qualified experts, scientists, and academics whose competencies are proven.

It also happens that journalists get information during press conferences organized by health authorities to track the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak, as it is the case in West Africa and elsewhere.

However, when attending these conferences, what are the right attitudes to adopt? How can journalists be better prepared to cover these events without falling into the organizers' trap? What tricks can they use to avoid being vectors for misinformation? How should they deal with government statements on the fight against the disease? How can they be sure that they are giving rigorous, accurate and reliable information? Below, we’ve provided some tips to help you navigate these questions.

Having a good understanding of the health situation

During COVID-19 press conferences, "it seems like journalists are afraid to ask questions," says Noël Kokou Tadegnon, a journalist with Deutsche Welle and Reuters, and co-founder of Togo Check, a Togolese platform fighting against misinformation.

"This fear can have several reasons," explains Milo Milfort, founder of the investigative newspaper Enquet'Action. He cited the lack of mastery of the subject and preparation before the press conference. But there is something else, he says: "health is a subject less covered by journalists.”

In Senegal, Ndiol Maka Seck, a journalist and bureau chief for the national daily newspaper Le Soleil, who has covered several conferences on COVID-19, noted that journalists "are more in a position to listen than to ask questions."

During these events, he says, doctors and other epidemiological specialists often monopolize the discussion because they know little about the disease. And journalists, he added, find themselves with the responsibility of summarizing these sessions.

Should journalists remain silent or occupy the position of observer? The answer that science journalist Lise Barnéoud provides is very simple. Barnéoud, author of the book "Immunisés? - A new look at vaccines," believes it is important for journalists to ask the questions they need to understand the stakes, and the questions they need to ask according to their own knowledge, the angle of their story, and their information medium.

“They must also take into account the reality of their countries," says Adrienne Engono Moussang, a Cameroonian journalist and coordinator of the magazine Sciences Watch Infos. "When a journalist decides to write about COVID-19, he must have a wide knowledge of the situation of the disease in his country, the figures, and the measures that have been taken.”

Tadegnon insists on another aspect: journalists need to be well-informed. "They must interview different sources and master the subject before going to a press conference. They must read other colleagues' works, any document related to the pandemic and, above all, they must be at the forefront of the news related to the crisis.”

Three approaches to covering press conferences

In an ideal world, journalists who cover these topics should already have a solid grasp of the basic information: immunology, vaccinology, the different types of vaccines, etc. “Unfortunately, we know that this is not the case," Barnéoud says.

She outlines several ways to cover a COVID-19 press conference.

First, she said, journalists can choose to write a news story where new information is revealed. Second, they can produce a story detailing science literacy and basic information about complicated topics to make them more accessible and comprehensible. This approach is valuable, Barnéoud says, because it allows people to understand how, for example, the virus is transmitted, and how cautionary measures and vaccines add up to reduce the risk of contamination, etc.

Journalists can also choose to write an investigative piece on a specific angle.

Generally, covering a press conference alone is not enough. Barnéoud therefore advises to complete the investigation with other elements.

All three approaches are necessary and legitimate, Barnéoud said, except they do not involve the same kinds of questions.

Fact-checking the news

In Guinea, some journalists are doing a great job but others simply "rely on the information provided by the authorities,” says Facely Konaté, director of Radio Espace Forêt. “When you listen to their reports on the air, you have a hunch that this is not journalism but communication. There is a difference between informing and communicating.”

A journalist's job is not to recopy press releases, nor does it consist of limiting oneself to covering health authorities’ statements without checking, cross-checking and analyzing them. Journalists must know the right tools to debunk misinformation about COVID-19.

When journalists are doubtful about whether the organizers’ statements reflect reality, it is up to them to verify these statements. This can be done in several ways, says Sylvio Combey, journalist, trainer and founder of Africa Rendez-Vous news outlet.

He advises journalists to "consult and compare the available data." Often, there is a lot of open-source data that is not known. He also recommends consulting previous statements and referring to other sources or people who may be involved.

According to Combey, contradictory information may be available on news websites or social networks of these sources, or in video reports. Journalists can even contact witnesses or specialists on the subject. Their opinion allows them to confront the statements made, he added.

After researching the claims and questioning other experts, journalists can revert back to the authority, asking for clarification of the statements made. The reporter should then contextualize the statement in the story and provide all the facts.

According to Milfort, journalists who do not specialize in health issues and who want to cover a conference on the subject should be trained. This would avoid "asking wrong and inappropriate questions at COVID-19 press conferences.”


About this briefing
This story is part of a series of briefings written by science/health journalists who have offered best practices and insights on covering COVID-19. These briefings are being published as part of a Knight Center initiative sponsored by UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization. To read more about the briefings, click here. Additionally, access the briefings in multiple languages here:

Additionally, join us for the webinar "Variants, vaccines and medications: What journalists need to know to improve COVID-19 coverage" on Thursday, Jan. 27 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. U.S. Central Time (GMT -6).

The event, held in English, will feature simultaneous interpretation to Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Click here to register.

This webinar is being organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in partnership with UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization and UNESCO’s Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.

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