In the earlier piece, our analyst noted that COVID-19 is a huge story for healthcare and media practitioners. These practitioners are playing two significant roles. Healthcare professionals are caring for the infected persons. At the same time, they are giving specific and strategic messages to people on how to avoid contracting and spreading the virus. Whenever they gave information, different platforms are being used. They either apply personal communication channels such as social media or contacting media practitioners, who use both the traditional and digital media for the dissemination of the messages to the public. Much has been said about how the media practitioners and their platforms (newspaper, radio and television) reported Coronavirus outbreak globally and after the confirmation of the first case in Nigeria on February 28, 2020 in Lagos.
When it was obvious that the Nigerian newspapers were paying much attention to the virus than other diseases ravaging the country, Mr Garba Shehu, the spokesperson to President Muhammadu Buhari said “This morning’s newspapers, all of them have Coronavirus as the lead, cover story. When will they bring the spotlight to bear on 822 who are killed by malaria everyday in Nigeria? This article is not intended to juxtapose the spokesperson’s views with what the citizens and other concerned stakeholders said about the coverage after the first case was reported.
It offers in-depth analysis of what transpired, in terms of coverage of the virus by the Nigerian media and others in the world (that found the incident in Nigeria worthy of reporting), in relation to the views of experts and academic researchers such as Professor Ayobami Ojebode, University of Ibadan. Over the years, the professor of Development Communication has been searching elusive voices for sustainable development in Nigeria and Africa. Our analysis of 86 news stories between February 28 and March 13, 2020 reveals a number of significant insights with many implications for the media practitioners in Nigeria and the rest of the world.
Our first data point for analysis is the dominant messages of the local and foreign media. As expected, the media performed their social responsibility roles through the news reports that established the treatment and control or containment of the virus [see Exhibit 1]. In this regard, the media exclusively discussed how the virus could be stopped from spreading and efforts made by Lagos state and federal governments towards its treatment, including level of its containment, signifying the media interest to free Nigeria of the outbreak. This performance earned the media commendation from the University of Ibadan’s Professor of Development Communication, Ayobami Ojebode. According to him, “They have done very well in encouraging preventive measures. Handwashing and so on. But no one is hammering on preparedness of government in other states beyond Lagos and Abuja.”
Looking at the coverage from media polarity view, analysis shows that foreign media reported more containment and mitigation messages than the local media [see Exhibit 2]. “Before the first case was discovered in Nigeria, there was little media attention. It ran as one-item news lines without analysis or commentary. This was understandable because (1) it seemed like a Chinese problem alone, and (2) little was known of it, so not much could have been said by the media. Social media was however already awash with all sorts of information and misinformation,” Professor Ojebode added.
Exhibit 1: Dominant Messages
Exhibit 2: Messages by Media Category
The Mood of the Media
What was the mood of the media? Did the media see the past efforts of the governments on health sector as good omen for the containment of the virus? With these questions, our analyst wanted to know dispositions of the media towards the Nigerian healthcare system in relation with the recent position of the Joint External Evaluation (JEE) of the International Health Regulations, which placed Nigeria’s capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats at 46 per cent in 2019. Surprisingly, over 10% of the stories were positive to the health system out of 86 stories. More than 17% of the stories were negative to the health system, while 62 (72.1%) of the stories maintained neutral positions about the Nigerian health system [see Exhibit 3 and 4].
The low positive disposition has established the media pressing of the panic button as observed by Professor Ojebode. “After the first case was discovered, the media pressed the panic button – in my view. Before they would settle down to education and information, they first panicked in the news reports. That immediate phase was more like, “Breaking News: Corona is here and we cannot contain it.”
Exhibit 3: Positive Disposition of the Media to the Nigerian Health System
Exhibit 4: Negative Disposition of the Media to the Nigerian Health System
Who Played the Positivity or Negativity Mood Game the Most?
In our analysis, we understood that foreign media were more negative about the virus than local media. With this, we can say that Nigerian media dropped their hypertensive news angle about the healthcare system for social responsibility interest.
Exhibit 5: Disposition to the Nigerian Health System by Media Category
Foresights and Strategic Options
In order to suggest strategic tips for further coverage of the virus, it is imperative to understand the past within the context of Ebola Virus. Available evidence shows that government/institutional measures and response and cases of the virus were more reported by The Guardian, The Punch and Vanguard newspapers at the expense of views from healthcare professionals and other experts with the right knowledge on containment and mitigation of viral diseases. Beyond, the news as the dominant genre of reporting the virus (Coronavirus) and Ebola Virus, the media need to deploy their resources to features, editorials and interviews.
In the words of Professor Ojebode, “a lot is being done in the teaching hospitals and in the departments of Virology. However, both the researchers are not talking to each other. We are still having much more of news than commentaries and analysis. Radio stations are adding jingles. All these are good. But in-depth commentaries and analysis are needed. What are the research institutes doing? What does that mean? What should government do? For weeks, we have been told that Corona cannot affect a black person fatally. Now that we have the first black casualty from Italy, a Nigerian, one hopes that the media will begin to counter that unscientific declaration of black invincibility.”