BY SYDNEY KAWADZA
THE mainstream media’s handling of crisis situations has come under the spotlight since Covid-19 tore through the world last year, toppling enterprises, decimating economies and leaving a trail of death and destruction across regions.
The pandemic, according to many observers, has exposed journalism’s shortcomings, especially the profession’s inability to confront an avalanche of the social media misinformation, which has literally overrun long-established mass communication systems.
The scourge has also not spared journalists, who have succumbed to the virus in Zimbabwe and across the world.
Top scribes — including Zororo Makamba, former Zimbabwe Union of Journalist secretary-general Foster Dongozi, broadcaster Janet Munyaka and Charles Kawadza — were some of the many prominent personalities to succumb to Covid-19 since the first Zimbabwean case was recorded in March last year.
Practising journalism has become a challenge as countries intermittently impose strict regulations to prevent contagion, with media organisations forced to enforce a “work from home” policy.
However, for journalists, the challenge has been access to the internet and other critical services required to publish stories.
The duration of the pandemic has seen the resurgence of a social media onslaught on the mainstream media with communities heavily relying on unverified reports through the internet.
In an interview, Alexander Rusero, a media analyst and lecturer, said Covid-19 caught the industry by surprise with no one prepared to handle the “new normal”.
“The Covid-19 pandemic was the story of the century which all media houses were never prepared for,” Rusero said. “It’s important to note that the first victim of the coronavirus was actually a journalist in March 2020, in the form of Zororo Makamba.
“So, you find that the media industry in Zimbabwe became a casualty rather than a necessary platform to actually disseminate useful information to curb the coronavirus,” he added.
Working from home meant stories were not meticulously verified.
“Journalism, being a science of verification, a science of meticulous cross-checking of facts, entails that what the frontline reporter would have gathered is cross-checked and verified. However, with people working from home, with the trauma, with the fear, the unknown circumstances and anxiety, there were a lot of shortcomings in terms of the Covid-19 narrative,” he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic, Rusere added, also saw the “resurgence of the state” where government was placed at the apex with officials prescribing lockdown measures.
“It’s the state that now proscribes and prescribes what needs to be done, the information that needs to be churned out (and) the statistics. So, there was a resurgence of authoritarianism in terms of Covid-19.”
Rusere said journalism’s greatest problem was fake news.
“Fake news manifested because of an information vacuum. The government was not churning out information in time, in real time,” he said.
However, media analyst, Professor Nhamo Mhiripiri applauded regular updates from the World Health Organisation and the government.
He queried the mode of information dissemination.
“Information dissemination is problematic given all our media platforms and technologies do not have a universal reach, including radio which tends to be over glorified as media for Africa,” Mhiripiri said.
“Certain people do not receive information timeously and instantly, putting their lives at risk. Some rural communities receive information late for various reasons, including accessibility challenges.
“The deaf and blind, who constitute at least 10% of our population, do not always receive instant information in the format, language and technologies accessible to them, even when there is a presidential address on Covid-19,” he added.
Mhiripiri said while sign language was always available on television, not all people have the receivers.
“Most of our rural citizens depend on the school and hospital systems for information of a public nature, but with lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings, these centres of oral transmission of information have not assisted as much as before,” he said.
Speaking during a media briefing on Covid-19 recently, Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention director John Nkengasong said the media had done exceptionally well during the pandemic.
He, however, bemoaned fake news, which has dominated and affected even vaccination programmes.
“The media have been extremely clear; most media organisations have their own tracking systems, and they share the right information,” Nkengasong said.
“The greatest challenge has been social media, where false information is shared. If you receive false information don’t share it because this will result in misinformation and miscommunication.”
Nkengasong encouraged the media to continue helping the continent to push citizens to get vaccinations.
“I think the media has a role to continue encouraging people to take the vaccines and most importantly to communicate that the vaccines will not stop the transmission but are designed to slow the rate of mortality or the rate of hospitalisation,” he said.