World News Day: Covid-19 pandemic underscores need for good public communication and credible media, says panel

(From left) ST correspondent Yeo Sam Jo, panel moderator Viswa Sadasivan, SUSS' Dr June Tay, ST editor Warren Fernandez and infectious diseases expert Dale Fisher speaking at the World News Day seminar.
(From left) ST correspondent Yeo Sam Jo, panel moderator Viswa Sadasivan, SUSS' Dr June Tay, ST editor Warren Fernandez and infectious diseases expert Dale Fisher speaking at the World News Day seminar.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of public communication, as well as the need for institutions such as the media to build up trust with their audiences, said panellists during a discussion on World News Day on Monday (Sept 28).

Public communication is often overlooked as a pillar of response to outbreaks, said the panel, and having credible news organisations is critical to such communication.

The three panellists were the group chief of medicine at the National University Health System, Professor Dale Fisher; the head of the digital media programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, Dr June Tay; and Mr Warren Fernandez, Singapore Press Holdings' editor-in-chief of its English/Malay/Tamil media group and The Straits Times editor.

The session, titled Tackling Covid-19: Getting It Right and How You Can Contribute, was held at The Straits Times' newsroom and streamed virtually. The session was moderated by chief executive of Strategic Moves and former NMP Viswa Sadasivan.

Prof Fisher, an infectious diseases expert, said a lack of good risk communication and community engagement could lead to people failing to do their part to curb the spread of disease.

"People always think of case management, infection prevention and control, testing, epidemiology and the epidemic curves that we have to flatten... but the final pillar is always risk communications, community engagement.

"And if you get that wrong, this leads to a failed response," said Prof Fisher, who is also chairman of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network steering committee for the World Health Organisation.

Mr Fernandez said World News Day was an opportunity to make the case that having credible media organisations is important to the process of public communications.

"You need good public information going out, you need the experts. But to complete that circle, you need good, credible journalism as well," said Mr Fernandez, who is also president of the World Editors Forum.

During this Covid-19 period, there has been a surge in number of people accessing news from sources like ST, he said.

This hunger for information speaks to the issue of trust and credibility.

What the newsroom has done is to invest in correspondents, building up their authoritativeness and credibility over the years so that they can step up when such a crisis breaks out, he said.


Mr Fernandez said that a decision was made by the daily broadsheet to put all content related to Covid-19 outside of the paywall as a public service.

"We did that with some trepidation as it has some commercial implications, but what we found was our subscriptions actually went up, and that says to me that people do value the information and decided 'I do need to know, and I'm prepared to pay'," he added.

Asked how strong the trust between various institutions and the public is in Singapore and around the world, Prof Fisher said: "You will notice when you don't have it."

This may not be an issue in Singapore, but other countries are struggling because of this lack of trust, he said.

As this is a community outbreak, it is the community that needs to be part of the solution.

"This is not going to be solved by politicians and healthcare workers. It's the community that needs to hear the messages... and be part of the response," added Prof Fisher.

In her opening statement, Dr Tay from SUSS' School of Science and Technology said that Covid-19 has brought not just risk and challenges, but also opportunities in the digital space.


For instance, some property agents started making virtual reality videos to showcase clients' houses. The pandemic also expedited the use of remote meeting tools like Zoom, she said.

Responding to a question from the audience about how people can adapt as certain jobs are wiped out with the advent of the digital economy, Dr Tay said it was important to harness creativity and the "human touch", or emotional intelligence, into creating more compelling products and services.

"If you see some durian sellers that do live streaming, it's actually very exciting. They are able to engage the audience and show their personality. So we really have to think about how we do things in different ways," she said.