The critical role that Philippine media play in covering COVID-19

Creating a balance between objectivity and empathy, as well as the imperative to report a factual story with the personal need to survive. Reporting a story about an epidemic within a broader context that covers other social issues. Always keeping in mind the sobering realization that reporters too are frontliners in an ongoing invisible, yet no less lethal, war.

These were the issues that media practitioners themselves brought out about the critical role they played in covering the COVID-19 pandemic. In an online dialogue held with the Department of Health  (DOH), journalists, communication specialists, and health experts gave insights on how reportage can more effectively help the watching public digest and respond to the information they need to cope with crisis.

Award-winning journalist, Howie Severino, a COVID-19 survivor himself, said that  “the media [has to] give out a complete picture that includes the negatives and positives. We have to convey the fearsomeness of this disease because it’s not something you take lightly. But we also have a chance to turn our trauma into something transformative. We can do this through stories of survival and happiness.”

To fight fake news, renowned journalist Ellen Tordesillas emphasized the importance of rigorously checking the accuracy of the data as well as debunking rumors. “The internet has become a breeding ground for fake news even before the pandemic,” Tordesillas warned. “At its worst, misinformation can endanger one’s health,” she added, referring to reports of citizens using dubious cures.

Floreen Simon, training director at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), reiterated that journalists must consider all the societal and scientific elements that compose a story. She said, “Know the science, know the politics, do the math.”

Dr. Michael Tan, a professor of anthropology and philosophy in University of the Philippines (UP)-Diliman, encouraged journalists to look at the much broader picture. He said, “There are pre-existing economic and social problems that the media must address, such as unemployment, drop in health services, and housing shortages. These issues were magnified during the lockdown, and journalists must connect the dots to paint a more accurate picture.”

Tan, a clinical professor in UP Manila, also called for more purposeful storytelling beyond basic reportage. “Journalists are healers and givers of hope, too,” he remarked. He opined that journalists could also humanize these COVID-19-related and other medical reports by looking beyond their statistics to tell the narratives of the people who fought meaningful battles against COVID.

From a public health professional standpoint, Dr. Beverly Ho of the DOH affirmed the significance of empowering messaging in the long term. “COVID or no COVID, what we push for is for people to maximize their health so they can reach their full potential—economically, socially, and otherwise,” explained the DOH health promotion and communication services director. “We need people’s resilience as we move forward. The media has the power to change mindsets and fuel their motivation.”

When data dissemination falls short, Atty. Faith Laperal,  DOH executive assistant to the secretary, urged for more open collaboration between sectors, from private and public, to healthcare and beyond. “The objective of our COVID response has always been to move beyond mere government efforts and reach out to the entire society,” she clarified. “We have always been open to feedback.”

Celine Samson of the non-profit news organization VERA Files, on the other hand, also pointed out that readers themselves have the responsibility to discern what they do read. She said, “They have to keep an open mind, but always make sure to check and counter check.”

The pandemic is not an easy time for anyone. Transparency, close cooperation between organizations, and public trust are the pillars that will lead the Philippine medical sector towards the solution, as the nation continues the fight against COVID-19 through its media practitioners and health experts.

The event was a joint initiative between Breakthrough ACTION at Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs and Internews Philippines, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).