As newsrooms across the Caribbean continue to face the challenge of COVID-19, how are they adapting to maintain effective, responsible and ethical journalism during the crisis?

By Aurora Herrera

With no end in sight, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of over 560,000 people so far. During any crisis, access to accurate, fair, balanced and reliable information is key to saving lives and mitigating loss. Journalists are also tasked with looking at the bigger picture, while reporting and relating how the pandemic is affecting the people in their locality. Effective and responsible reporting is essential to preventing prejudice and panic, protecting people’s right to privacy and also to holding governments to account. 

Even though journalism is performed differently depending on cultural and national contexts, the main tenets and ethics are widely shared. This includes; an obligation to the truth, loyalty to serving the public interest, a discipline of verification, maintaining independence, being transparent and accountable, and practising a duty of care  towards the audience as well as colleagues within the industry.

The same can be said for many news organisations across the Caribbean region. Despite their size or resources in comparison to larger media markets, many are working to ensure that their reporting on COVID-19 is effective, ethical and responsible. Earlier this month, the Public Media Alliance (PMA) took the opportunity to talk to public interest media colleagues in the region to explore their best approaches and the challenges they face in ethically reporting on the pandemic. 

An obligation to the truth

Accurate, truthful reporting is the cornerstone of journalism. In Jamaica, the Jamaica Observer has developed specific measures as part of their coronavirus response. Charmain Clarke, Managing Editor explained their strategy to PMA. 

“A lot of how we cover COVID-19 is based on our overall approach to journalism,” she said. “Accuracy, fairness, balanced reporting are all factors that continue to remain important to all of us inside [the] Jamaica Observer newsroom, and the entire company. We know that we have a huge responsibility to our audience, to provide them with the facts, to ensure that we do not contribute to the already high levels of fear they are experiencing.” 

To date, there have been over 730 cases of COVID-19 in Jamaica. Ten people have died at the time of writing. 

Mavelin Acosta of the Dominican newspaper Hoy also relates that her newsroom practices the same standards of journalism. 

“We have official sources and with everything that we have to cover, we consult the sources and verify the information,” she said. “With Covid, there is a lot of sensitive information, which has to be handled properly. If it is not handled, it can lead to panic of the population, it can lead to problems with the health of the people and it can lead to problems with the economy so if we have to write something, we must ensure that it is true information.” 

The Dominican Republic has over 38,000 cases of the virus and more than 850 deaths. 

Read more: Coronavirus: Resources and Best Practices

Myriam Malmin, General Manager of MBMPRESS Agency in Martinique, also echoed the strict adherence to established journalism practices and that despite the need for truth, care has to be taken to respect the privacy of individuals. 

“During this period, the ethical rules were not put aside,” she said. “Only information on the number of patients and the type of person affected (man, woman, child, ages) were disclosed. No personal data has been released. The newsrooms were very respectful of the people and they tried to remain dignified and professional, in the dissemination of necessary and verified information.”

Jean-Phares Jerome, Deputy Editorial Secretary at Le Nouvelliste in Haiti, told PMA that, “Every day we get official numbers from the Ministry of Health, we verify the information, cite credible sources, do not incite violence and we tell the truth. When reporting on patients, we respect and safeguard their privacy.”

In Haiti, there have been 6,300 cases of COVID-19 and over 110 deaths. 

Discipline of verification

Many organisations have warned about the harmful effects of misinformation and so-called “fake news”. 

To correct misinformation and verify facts about the pandemic, the Jamaica Observer published a number of two-page spreads addressing and debunking Covid myths. These spreads also provided their audience with useful tips on coping with the virus. 

Indhira Suero Acosta, a journalist who works for PolétikaRD, the first fact-checking project in the Dominican Republic, and also for Plenamar, a digital cultural magazine, spoke about the need for verified information at this time: 

“I think that the pandemic and all of its “fake news” has shown the importance of having verified information and a specialised press in this type of topic” – Indhira Suero Acosta

“I think that the pandemic and all of its “fake news” has shown the importance of having verified information and a specialised press in this type of topic,” she said. “I especially believe that having a press trained in scientific and health issues would help a lot to face situations similar to this one. Journalists would be better informed to inform people and they would also be more alert to misinformation.”

She also emphasised the benefit of working within a network. “Alliances are another working strategy in the work that we do. For example, in Polétika RD, we’ve been working with Latam Chequea, a network of fact-checkers in Latin America and Spain. Joining forces with them helped us to open our eyes to another way of work, one based in groups, sharing, and gathering ideas.  And that aspect, joining forces and collaborating with others, it’s vital nowadays.”  

Independence and Accountability

Journalists are accountable, most of all, to the public. They must hold power to account so their audience is not taken advantage of, contextualise data so the public can understand what is being spoken about and where possible, they must be available to verify facts. 

During the pandemic, the Jamaica Observer launched a “WhatsApp tip line”. According to Clarke, it was used to “engage with our audience, hear their concerns and provide them with the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, which is also available on our website through a special tab – for whenever they need it. People were eager to know the numbers, how many cases we had, how many deaths, how many were children, etc.”

On the main pages of the Trinidad Express and the Trinidad Newsday, there are links to dashboards dedicated to data on the virus, which the public can access at any time. On the Trinidad Express website, the public can also view all of the stories the paper has published on COVID-19 and see a chronology of the virus in Trinidad and Tobago, which has had 133 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 8 deaths. 

Showing humanity

During this time when hope and empathy are difficult to feel and practice, many journalists are striving to share stories from people who have been affected, providing examples of resilience and unity. 

“Our coverage has spanned everything from advice to pregnant mums, quarantine-inspired cuisine, interviews with local athletes who have missed what was supposed to be their last Olympics, the economic fallout, the opportunities that COVID-19 provides, the success stories, the acts of kindness, and so much more,” Clarke said. “And throughout all of this, the focus is on real people, and the impact it is having on their lives.”  

“And throughout all of this, the focus is on real people, and the impact it is having on their lives.” – Charmaine Clarke

Clarke explained to PMA that part of their strategy was to feature those on the frontlines, giving the audience the “opportunity to see them as real people.” For example, the Observer carried a story on the Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. Christopher Tufton, sharing with the audience what it is like to manage that ministry during a pandemic, and also focused on how he was coping as an individual. They also featured Dr. Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, Chief Medical Officer in the health ministry, “giving our audience an opportunity to get to know this lady who always appears so composed and calm during the press briefings.” For Mothers’ Day, they shone the spotlight on 11 mothers working in the medical field. 

“As they say, real heroes wear scrubs,” Clarke said.

In Trinidad, the Express newspaper has featured stories of good samaritans helping fellow nationals. One example of this is the story of Karissa Bissoon, a young mum with cancer who was stranded in the Bahamas. Businessman Derek Chin was also unwell and attempting to return home to Trinidad but the borders of the country had been shut due to COVID-19. The Ministry of National Security granted them both an exemption but with commercial airlines remaining closed, Bissoon reached out to the local media in Trinidad to highlight her story. Chin was sent a copy of the article and he offered to pick her up on his way to Trinidad, as he was chartering a private flight. 

Avoid hate speech, social stigmatisation and stereotyping

The core principles of journalism reject the republication of hate speech or any language that encourages social stigma and stereotyping. To report responsibly and ethically, journalists must publicly challenge these issues. 

Jerome of Le Nouvelliste told PMA about his newsroom having to deal with stories relating to or with the potential to cause stigmatisation. 

“There was, at the beginning, a campaign of discrimination against people with COVID-19,” he said. “For example, their identity was revealed without their consent. People were afraid of the disease. They were trying to get away from everything that represented the coronavirus. We did a lot of awareness and people now understand that they will not die automatically if they have the disease.” 

Malmin said simply that in Martinique, “As for hate speech, it did not have the right to be cited.” 

In Jamaica, Clarke said that stigmatisation “has been a big thing here.” As a speaker on the PAHO panel Journalism and COVID-19: Responsible Reporting on the COVID-19 Pandemic and Mental Health, she described an incident where one woman called the newsroom in tears because her husband had been among passengers on a cruise ship who were suspected of having COVID-19. After testing negative, her husband was returned home “but then the way in which he was returned home – in a big yellow bus, a police escort with lights flashing – led to some embarrassment for her.”

The newspaper ran the headline, “They steal the joy,” revealing contradictions in the methods the government was employing to curb discrimination. According to the article, “The Government has employed a number of strategies, including a media campaign and advisories at various press conferences, to encourage the public to desist from discriminating against individuals and family members who have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis in any way.” However, as exemplified by this woman’s story, the way in which people were returned to their families alerted the wider community to the fact that these people have been tested for coronavirus, resulting in stigmatisation. 

Practice duty of care

Within the journalism industry, media managers and journalists have a responsibility to care for their own mental and physical safety as well as those they work with. 

With regards to responsible reporting on an internal level, Le Nouvelliste adopted measures such as asking journalists to work from home, especially if they had to take public transportation. When the number of cases were peaking, the newspaper closed its newsroom for three weeks and it became mandatory for all journalists to work from home. However, now that cases are decreasing, reporters are starting to work in the office again. Barrier measures such as hand washing and wearing a mask are non-negotiable.

Martinique, a French territory, has aligned their methods with France and complied with French national directives. 

Malmin said that “All newsrooms have set up a minimum face-to-face service and a telework organisation for the majority.” 

Interviews were all carried out by vidéoconférence, a method that Malmin says was not easy. However, she acknowledged that it is a practice that has allowed the journalists to evolve processes and protocols that can be utilised in a future crisis situation.

“For field reports, journalists were equipped with masks, gloves, poles and disposable protective caps for the microphones,” she said. “This while respecting the safety distances indicated by the government.”

Clarke emphasised that the Jamaica Observer was keeping their team members in mind, especially those “who may not wear scrubs but are also on the frontlines.”

“From very early on we made a big push to ensure that they remain safe, that they had the gear they need to protect them while they are chasing their stories,” Clarke said. “COVID-19 has changed the world, the way we do business, the way we live our lives and the way we work. The newspaper industry has not been immune. At the Jamaica Observer we continue to adapt to the changing environment, always guided by the basics that have shaped our coverage over the years.” 

The learning curve

COVID-19 continues to pose a learning curve for newsrooms around the world and while national papers and outlets have much in common with continental outlets, the nature of their work is much more focussed on local and hyperlocal stories. There is often only two-degrees of separation between the journalists and the subjects of their reports. 

This introduces an interesting and unique dynamic in terms of access, duty of care and source confidentiality, where subjects might be more open and willing to share information with journalists they know directly or by association, which can also make these sources more vulnerable. Navigating this landscape within the confines of a pandemic is a complicated act, one which requires a journalist to report ethically and responsibly every single day. 

Journalists around the world are learning to work with this new normal and as with all learning curves, they make mistakes and must keep learning and improving. 

PMA partner, the Ethical Journalism Network has put together a checklist of 7 Points For Covering A Pandemic. This list can be used as a tool to ensure that despite the differing cultural and ethical considerations for newsrooms across the world, journalists work to manage hate speech, propaganda and misinformation responsibly and with integrity.

Header Image: Text FAKE NEWS as keyboard letters lying on a sea of old keyboard letters. Credit: clue/iStock