Trust critical to bolstering public confidence during crisis: Panel

(From right) Infectious diseases expert Dale Fisher, The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, the Singapore University of Social Sciences' digital media programme head June Tay, moderator Viswa Sadasivan, and ST multimedia correspondent Yeo Sam Jo
(From right) Infectious diseases expert Dale Fisher, The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, the Singapore University of Social Sciences' digital media programme head June Tay, moderator Viswa Sadasivan, and ST multimedia correspondent Yeo Sam Jo at yesterday's session on tackling Covid-19. Mr Fernandez said World News Day yesterday was an opportunity to make the case that having credible media organisations is important to the process of public communication as well as the health and well-being of societies. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

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 yesterday.

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

The three panellists were Professor Dale Fisher, group chief of medicine at the National University Health System; Dr June Tay, head of the digital media programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS); and The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez.

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 Nominated MP 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 chairs the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network steering committee for the World Health Organisation.

Mr Fernandez said that World News Day was an opportunity to make the case that having credible media organisations is important to the process of public communication, and the health and well-being of societies.

"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 and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/ Malay/Tamil Media Group.

 
 
 
 

During this Covid-19 period, there has been a surge in the 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.

He said a decision was made by ST 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 commercial implications, but what we found was our subscriptions actually went up, and that says to me that people do value the information," he added.

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

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" to create more compelling products and services.

"If you see some durian sellers who 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2020, with the headline 'Trust critical to bolstering public confidence during crisis: Panel'. Print Edition | Subscribe