Journalists vital in pandemic fight: Experts

They highlight reporters' key role in helping to mitigate fear by providing accurate info

(Clockwise from top left): Former principal and current honorary fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford, Professor Denise Lievesley, ST senior health correspondent Salma Khalik, and director of research and internationalisation at Norwegian Veterinary Institute, Professor Carlos Gonçalo das Neves, at the virtual Science in the Newsroom Global Summit 2020 on Nov 23, 2020. PHOTO: NEWSROOM GLOBAL SUMMIT 2020

Journalists have a key role to play in fighting present and future pandemics, particularly in tackling the veritable flood of information - called an "infodemic" - they bring along, said Dr Sylvie Briand, director of the World Health Organisation's Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness department, yesterday.

"Epidemics bring a lot of fear and uncertainty... now (that) everybody is connected and can have 24/7 access to news and information. So it's very hard to manage this tsunami of information that we call an infodemic," said Dr Briand at the virtual Science in the Newsroom Global Summit 2020.

The inaugural two-day event, which kicked off yesterday, is hosted by the World Editors Forum and aims to help newsrooms prepare for future science or health-related crises. Supported by Temasek Foundation, it seeks to bridge gaps in health and science reporting skills, and build greater trust in the media.

Yesterday, Dr Briand said the infodemic necessarily carries a lot of false and misleading information - made overwhelmingly obvious during the Covid-19 outbreak. This can lead to confusion. Inaccurate information can be dangerous and result in people taking misinformed risks, she said. This happened in Iran, where thousands of people drank toxic methanol in an attempt to shield themselves from Covid-19.

Misinformation also erodes trust in government, public health authorities and in science, Dr Briand added. She said in that every epidemic, three types of rumours tend to circulate: about the origin of the disease; whether it actually exists or if the pandemic is made up; and the kinds of measures that can be taken to fight it.

"This is where journalists can really help, because journalists are (the) mediator between the science and the population. They have a very important role to play to distil the science, explain how the scientific process works, and how it's normal during a new pandemic or epidemic to have uncertainties."

Journalists also play a key role in helping to mitigate this fear, reassuring the public while remaining transparent about the risk posed by the disease, said Dr Briand.

Two other experts also gave their views during the session, moderated by Straits Times senior health correspondent Salma Khalik.

Professor Denise Lievesley, former principal and current honorary fellow at Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford, said reporters can help the public better understand the statistics used during a public health crisis.

One example, she said, is the British government turning the number of Covid-19 tests administered into a target. Prof Lievesley said: "It became a political issue, rather than a good measure that helped us design better systems."

Meanwhile, Professor Carlos Goncalo das Neves, director of research and internationalisation at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, said journalists can also help prevent the next pandemic.

He explained that journalists need to work closely with scientists when covering scientific studies.

"It might be good science if it gets published in Nature. But it's only (considered) the truth if it's on BBC or The Straits Times... if (the message) gets spread the right way, it has the potential to touch people like never before," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2020, with the headline Journalists vital in pandemic fight: Experts. Subscribe