Role of newsrooms critical amid coronavirus crisis, says ST editor Warren Fernandez

The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez said the media plays a role in encouraging discussion that is evidence-based. PHOTO: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

The role of newsrooms across the world has rarely been more critical as they help people make sense of the coronavirus pandemic, said Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/ Malay/Tamil Media Group and chairman of the Asia News Network.

This comes even as the crisis poses challenges to the media industry, as news organisations struggle to stay afloat amid the economic impact of the pandemic, he added.

Mr Fernandez, who is also editor of The Straits Times, was replying to a question on how newsrooms have coped with the challenges posed by Covid-19 during the World Economic Forum and World Health Organisation joint briefing on the Covid-19 response in the Asia-Pacific yesterday.

"These are very bewildering times for all our readers, and we find that the effort to help them join the dots and see where things are going is something that is especially valued at this time," he said.

To this end, journalists and editors have taken a step back to not just report on the news, which is coming at a relentless pace, but also analyse, interpret and explain it, he added.

At The Straits Times, for instance, the askST column, an interactive platform for readers to send in their questions, has received thousands of questions.

Journalists have sought answers from experts and also convened panel discussions to discuss the issues of interest to readers.

Mr Fernandez said these efforts have been well received, and audiences for these columns and discussions are two or three times more than what the newspaper usually sees.

Subscriptions for the newspaper are also up, even though all stories about the coronavirus are outside the paywall on The Straits Times website.

"There is hunger for information and people are trying to make sense of where this is all going," said Mr Fernandez.

"Ironically even though audiences are going up, revenues have taken a beating," he said.

He added that The Straits Times is still relatively robust and will be able to weather the storm.

To help each other and also help readers make sense of the fast-developing situation, partners in the Asia News Network and the World Editors Forum have also been collaborating more, sharing information and leads among science correspondents, for instance.

The editors at the World Editors Forum are also looking at ways to secure the future of public service information.

Said Mr Fernandez: "We feel that without good, credible, reliable information, the kind of debates and discussion we're having today - reasoned and rational debate on what to do with the pandemic and how to take ourselves forward - won't be possible.

"It's not an issue just for journalists or editors, it's a societal issue."

Another role the media plays is encouraging discussion that is evidence-based, he said.

Asked whether media coverage has had an impact on how different countries promoted the use of masks, Mr Fernandez said that he did not think so.

He said the experience of East Asian countries with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003 probably shaped attitudes towards wearing masks.

Singapore, meanwhile, had started out responding to the coronavirus with Sars in mind, but later felt it was more similar to H1N1 influenza.

And when more information emerged, and more became known about asymptomatic cases, Singapore's position on masks also changed, he added.

"I was glad that the politicians had the courage to make a change on the position as the evidence changed, rather than digging their heels in...

"I think that's the way the media ought to encourage the discussion going forward, so that it is evidence-based and scientifically sound and not just based on political rhetoric," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2020, with the headline Role of newsrooms critical amid coronavirus crisis, says ST editor Warren Fernandez. Subscribe