Saturday, April 13, 2024

Spreading the News, Battling Disinformation: The Barbadian Media Response to Covid-19

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Resurgence: This series of essays curated by the National Cultural Foundation’s Literary Arts Officer, Karra Price, features the thoughts and commentaries of Barbadians immersed in various aspects of daily endeavour.  

This essay examines the role played by the media during the height of the pandemic and the ways in which media practitioners embraced their responsibilities, while facing uncharted territory. 

New normal. Post pandemic. Contact tracing. Self-isolation. Home quarantine. Social distancing. Symptoms and signs. These terms were probably in the first line of every television and radio broadcast or newspaper story during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a broadcaster with fifteen years of experience, I entered a new dynamic of news gathering, production and storytelling that was both exciting and terrifying. As a reporter, one is usually a few steps ahead of most people regarding international news.

I vividly remember monitoring global stories of this coronavirus (they used coronavirus much more than Covid-19 in the early stages), and it all seemed surreal. We watched in horror as this new virus swept through China and started to travel to different parts of the globe, leaving a trail of death, fear and confusion.

Watching the approach of international media houses evoked feelings of extreme anxiety. The stories they told were almost exclusively about death and sickness. Since there was so much unknown about Covid-19, they could not carry many educational pieces. Most stories attempting to explain the virus were confusing. As a result of the uncharted waters, conspiracy theories came to the foreground and muddled what little information there was.

While closely monitoring the fateful unfolding of events in China, Italy, The United Kingdom and America, I became acutely aware that these were stories that the local media in Barbados would soon be covering – it was just a matter of when. The good thing about it (if I dare use the word “good” in this context) was that by the time March 2020 came around, there was much credible information about the virus and how to prevent and combat it.

A COVID-19 dashboard issued by the Ministry of Health.

Usually, the role of a good journalist is to delve into any situation and report the facts in ways that resonate so that people can make decisions with a complete understanding and knowledge of any given topic. However, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the cause was much more significant. As a result, our role was transformed into shaping public awareness and providing information that moulded public opinion.

This new role is where it became challenging, or at least tricky. By this time, the great battle of Covid-19 misinformation and disinformation was in full effect, where the public was inundated with false information, whether by some people just getting the facts wrong or mischievous characters deliberately seeking to mislead.

Moreover, because the “facts” about the virus were being updated literally every day, there were many times that information had to be updated or sometimes totally changed. The media was at the mercy of the medical experts studying the virus, who were themselves unsure at times about the complexity of the disease. Soon, the public became aware that the media and scientists were still learning, evoking general unease and hesitancy to accept the information that was disseminated.

Beds, ventilators and dialysis machines in the primary isolation room which is used for the sickest patients at Harrison’s Point. (FILE)

While there was some public pushback on social media and at some of the town hall meetings hosted by the government, thankfully for the media, Barbadians were generally receptive to the information they were given.

Media houses across the island combined to find creative ways to educate the public on the dos and don’ts of Covid-19 via commercials, editorials, call-in programmes and features. Broadcast media had to change quickly, and the use of technology and communication platforms like zoom became day-to-day tools as the media found new ways to reach people locked inside their homes during the shutdowns.

Traditional reporters were transformed into social media influencers, with their product being the most talked about thing on the market – “Coronavirus facts”.  The media started to break down the massive amounts of information regarding the virus, vaccines, policies, supermarket hours and many other bits of essential information into bite-sized pieces for public consumption. After a few months of constant information, it was apparent that some members of the public were suffering from Covid fatigue, so a bite-sized approach focused on social media was needed.

This period was quite stressful for the media as many of us were battling a sense of duty to our profession and country and a genuine fear of becoming ill. While most people were staying in their homes, we were still interacting at least with each other and sometimes with medical and government officials.

Each time a team member contracted the virus, it placed more pressure on an already strained environment. I remember travelling to the isolation facility in St. Lucy and understanding that while I was telling a story to help Barbadians better understand what was taking place, I could also be placing myself and my family in danger.

Now that we have (hopefully) passed the worst of the pandemic, there are some important lessons the media has learned. One of them is understanding that the public is inclined to conduct its own research and will sometimes challenge the media. Understanding this, the media must now be prepared to show all angles of every story to eliminate doubt and foster public trust.

Based on the encouraging response from Barbadians regarding vaccine uptake and following protocols, I am confident that the impact of the media during the Covid-19 pandemic was effective and created a relatively positive outcome.

Again, it says that Barbados is a progressive country with citizenship willing to trust reliable sources in the face of the unknown and crippling fears. It also signals that should there be another variant, or another crisis of the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic, Barbados stands ready to respond.

The media industry, and by extension the country, has displayed the ability to learn, adhere, adapt and rebound. Even though the pandemic has transformed how we work, communicate and interact with each other, the change is progressive.

Barbados is now more resilient, more informed, and better protected. Even as protocols have been rolled back, good hygiene practices continue, and the sense of community spirit has been lifted. A true resurgence of the Barbadian spirit can be felt throughout the country, and I believe that while lives have been lost and thousands will have sad memories from the period, the country has been strengthened.

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