The media in any society are expected to play fundamental roles of educating, informing, entertaining and providing warning as well as societal integration. This is why the media are considered as the fourth estate of the realm. In crisis situations, the media have more roles to play. They are as burdened as the society they seek to serve. The information needs of the people become high and the media are the major sources of fulfilling them. Therefore, the media assumes the mandate to fill the information gap that exists during such crises. They do this by providing relevant and accurate information in a timely manner.
In a developing democracy such as operated in Nigeria, and during the health crisis like the COVID 19 pandemic the world is currently experiencing, the media are expected to operate within the framework of educating, informing, helping to popularize coping strategies, warning and charting a course for relief and recovery. And importantly, the media set an agenda for the citizens. They provide direction for what people say about the pandemic. They throw in light where there is confusion. They manage the vehicle of discourse of the disease. The more the media focus attention, the more the citizens pay attention to the issue.
Within the context of the current global health situation, the Nigerian media are under trial for their roles in the reportage of the disease currently ravaging Nigeria and the rest of the world. Media researchers are already expressing fears on the direction of the reportage of the disease. They question the intent of the reportage prevalent in the Nigerian media landscape. Are they over-focusing on the disease? Are their platforms giving hope with the reports or are they over hyping the pessimism that such occurrence are likely to evoke?
While querying the agenda that the media seem to be giving to the novel virus at the expense of Lassa Fever which preceded the Coronavirus, a professor of Development Communication at the University of Ibadan, Ayo Ojebode, asked a rhetorical question on his Facebook page – “Why are we talking much more about what is killing us much less… and talking much less about what is killing us much more?” This all important question is accompanied with a chart displaying the irony that surrounds the reportage of the COVID 19 side by side with Lassa Fever. Since its outbreak again last quarter of 2019, the disease has claimed not less than 185 deaths as against the 2 deaths recorded through the novel virus at the time of the analysis. However, the COVID 19 has got 99.1% of the media attention while Lassa Fever had 0.9% of the reportage. Is this a pointer to the lopsidedness of the reportage in the Nigerian media landscape? This is a question that needs further empirical investigations.
Source: Ojebode, 2020
Another pointer to the perceived worrying nature of the media reportage of the virus is the outburst expressed by another university teacher, Dr. Obasanjo J. Oyedele, an environmental and risk communication expert who is a faculty at the Department of Mass Communication, Bowen University, Iwo. He raised concerns through a post which did an evaluation of the media reportage of the virus so far. He posted:
This is not a good time to watch TV or listen to the radio. The mass media magnify existing narratives of fear, hopelessness, deaths and collapse of the health system worldwide, with negative psychological effects on people’s perception, behaviours and self-efficacy. Yesterday, during the media briefing organised by the Presidential Task Force on COVID 19, the NCDC Director tasked the media in Nigeria to reduce this heightened tension among Nigerians on COVID 19. Journalists can decide to set a new agenda of providing information on those who are recovering from the virus, the low-level of deaths from the virus, need for people to believe in prevention, and our collective resolve to overcome the virus in Nigeria. We have magnified COVID 19 and framed it as an absolute death sentence and this is not true. Even with those worrying statistics from America and the United Kingdom, there are positive stories on recovery and containment worldwide. It all depends on the story we want to give prominence and the factors behind our reportage. It is true that we are getting new cases (since contact tracing is ongoing and those who returned from foreign countries and their contacts are being monitored), it is also true that some people are recovering. As we cover COVID 19, let us balance our stories, report this other side and present facts capable of raising hope instead of despair. Thank you.
In the post are important questions on the roles of the mass media in crisis situations. According to the university teacher, the media have not done well with the early response coverage of the Coronavirus as the reports are inducing more fear than hope. The Nigerian media have been indicted for poor framing of the stories and giving attention to issues that raise tension than those that defuse it in the land.
In an earlier interview, Prof. Ojebode had pointed accusing fingers at the Nigerian media for pressing the panic button before settling down to education and information. In times like this, the media needs to do more and chart a recovery path for people out of the dust raised by the pandemic all over the world. In Nigeria as it is all over the world, the race out of the COVID 19 pandemic is a marathon. The Nigerian media landscape needs to pay more attention to education, information and analysis that give the citizenry the hope and the boost to survive. Or else, more people would die from fear rather than the actual disease which has been found not to be a death sentence.