HomeArticlesMia Malan: Eight lessons COVID taught me about journalism

Mia Malan: Eight lessons COVID taught me about journalism

  • During a crisis such as the COVID pandemic, people have simple demands of the media: how to protect themselves, which government rules they have to follow and what the future holds. 
  • Such demands changed the way Bhekisisa functioned and created new opportunities for branding and partnerships. For instance, we partnered with a data journalism organisation to use statistics meaningfully.
  • In this reflection on two years of COVID reporting, editor-in-chief, Mia Malan, reveals lessons the news media can take forward for the next pandemic. 

On a hot, humid Sunday morning in June 1998, I walked into the media room at a massive international conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

I was a young, nervous and confused radio journalist for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Before this event, I had never reported from outside South Africa.

The enormous room was packed with hundreds of journalists, many dressed in suits and ties, frantically typing on laptops (a rarity for South African reporters at the time).

A much younger (of course) Anthony Fauci, the head of the United States (US) government’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — today he’s President Joe Biden’s chief COVID advisor — walked past me in a blue suit and takkies (“sneakers”, as the Americans called them). He had just spoken at a press conference, which I had missed.

To say I was overawed by everything around me would be a big understatement.

I had read about Fauci in newspapers and books and had come across his HIV research in journals, but didn’t expect a world-famous researcher and I to ever be in the same newsroom. 

Fauci was heading over to the other side of the chamber where cubicles, filled with teams of producers, editors, reporters and broadcast equipment, had been set up. The booths at the 12th International Aids Conference were labelled with international media houses’ logos and names and Fauci was heading to the nook of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where a presenter was going to interview him.  

The SABC didn’t have a cubicle (you had to pay for those). It was just me, my black tape recorder and CNA notebook. I must have gulped. A lot.

The theme of the conference was “Bridging the Gap”. But there were virtually no African journalists present (three reporters other than me, if I remember correctly). Yet it was the continent with by far the most HIV cases.

The Western world was telling Africa’s story — on its terms. More than that, first-world journalists were filing report after report on something that their countries had, but that Africa’s public healthcare systems had never seen: HIV treatment. Our 22.5-million HIV-infected people in 1998 were dying; their (the United States and western Europe) 1.4-million cases had a real chance of survival.

See, antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) were unaffordable to Africa, where 70% of the world’s Aids cases lived. Pharmaceutical companies had (at that stage and for many years to come) refused to drop their prices or to share their recipes and know-how with generic manufacturers.

Instead, the continent became stigmatised as one with helpless people dying of a disease mainly transmitted through sex. We Africans were told to use condoms or abstain from sex if we wanted to live, a strategy that scientists later showed was of little use worldwide.

Just over two decades later, I was unperturbed when a similar scenario played out with COVID-19. By that time, after having reported on HIV for 22 years, I had come to learn that pandemics are magnifying glasses: they amplify what society ALREADY looks like and rarely reveal anything new (other than the emerging science of the germs that cause them).

Inequity, the prejudice and racism of the Western world towards Africa, pharmaceutical companies’ greed, the South African government’s rampant corruption and the Global North’s attitude of “the Global South needs to share their genome sequences but we won’t share our vaccines” are nothing new.

All of these aspects will, sadly, probably play out again when the next pandemic hits, because systems — and people — rarely change fast enough to allow for dramatic transformation. As STAT journalist Helen Branswell puts it: “Next time, it will be worse. Borders will close more quickly [remember those Omicron travel bans exclusively designed for African countries?], keeping people out and critical matériel in, because countries will know what lies ahead. It’s ugly and it’s counterproductive but it may be inevitable.”

But that doesn’t mean nothing good can come from pandemics. For one, they speed up processes because of the urgent need to respond fast. COVID has, for instance, forced the World Health Organisation and African governments to create ways to produce more jabs in Africa, a procedure that would otherwise have taken decades. The pandemic also led to South Africa’s public and private healthcare sectors working together in a manner that may never have happened without COVID, a model which could be used for the implementation of the country’s National Health Insurance scheme.

In the case of the news media, research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University reveals that COVID has restored at least some trust in journalism. When the pandemic arrived, people’s confidence in the news media was at an all-time low — only 38% of study participants in 46 countries said they trusted most news most of the time. One year into the pandemic, it had risen to 44%. 

Bhekisisa experienced this growing trust too during COVID. Our readership tripled. Our Twitter followers more than doubled. Our Instagram followers quadrupled. And the 353 COVID stories we filed between South Africa’s first COVID case being reported, on 5 March 2020, and when the country’s state of disaster ended, on 4 April 2022, were republished 1 059 times. Moreover, our staff were interviewed about their stories and other COVID issues 671 times on television and radio. We also spoke at 136 COVID events and moderated another 35.

But did we learn any lessons? Here are eight things COVID-19 taught me about journalism.

1. Accurate information is pretty useless if people don’t understand it

What people need from the news media during pandemics is pretty simple stuff: they want to know how to protect themselves, which government rules they need to follow and what the future holds, 2020 Reuters Institute research found. Bhekisisa data during the pandemic corroborates this: our two top-read stories were two “resources” that broke down lockdown regulations in an easy-to-understand way. The third and fourth most popular articles focused on what COVID pills can and can’t do and vaccine side effects for teens.

So why don’t people just read the government’s published regulations or vaccine manufacturers’ press releases? Well, because they’re full of indecipherable jargon and people also often don’t trust the source

The news media’s job is to unpack complicated information accurately and, in some cases, such as manufacturers’ treatment or vaccine data, combine it with the findings of independent studies. But in the middle of a pandemic that can be tricky: one study showed that only 4% of COVID reporters were specialist health correspondents. Consequently, many journalists didn’t understand the information they had to incorporate in stories well enough to break it down and so published articles filled with the jargon from the original sources.

In my opinion, the two most meaningful journalism skills during a pandemic are the ability to dejargon science and policies and to report these issues in a way that helps media consumers understand why they need that information and what they should do with it. And that requires far more than sourcing accurate information; it needs advanced storytelling skills and the capability to explore how science and policies interact.

Those are the crafts trainers should develop in reporters who will cover the next pandemic, rather than merely bombarding them with science and health information. Finding accurate information rarely depends on specialised skills; explaining that information depends almost entirely on such skills.

COVID showed us that explanatory journalism deserves to be a specialised field of reporting.    

Bhekisisa’s four-part series on why Russia’s Sputnik V jab was unlikely to be approved by South Africa’s medicines regulator — Why science and research can be hard to swallow: The giant hamburger of trust — written by Joan van Dyk and Aisha Abdool Karim, is one I’m very proud of.

WATCH: In the science kitchen: Making the perfect burger

2. You’re going to get nowhere without partnerships during a pandemic

Pandemics make things happen considerably faster than they normally do, because there are so many more urgent needs at play — the situation presents opportunities for new projects and growth. I learned this from Howard Phillips, who wrote the book Plague, Pox and Pandemics.

But to speed things up, you need more hands and skills; you can’t possibly do it all on your own. So during a pandemic you either have to learn to form partnerships or miss the bus.

COVID, for instance, opened up gaps for data journalism. Because of contacts Bhekisisa had built up over the years, we had access to data many other journalists didn’t. But we didn’t have the skills or time to package those figures in formats that allowed for consistent updating or for consumers to interact with it. 

Another media startup, Media Hack, had the expertise, but they lacked the data. So we worked together to develop a COVID dashboard that showed new COVID cases, deaths, testing data and later also vaccination figures, in a format considerably easier to understand than the health department’s version. The dashboard ended up being frequently quoted in presentations of the ministerial advisory committee on COVID and it was used by several television stations for daily updates.

Moreover, Bhekisisa and Media Hack tracked how COVID-19 took hold in South Africa and we broke down the complex formulas the government uses to determine the beginning and end of a COVID wave. 

Bhekisisa also worked with the community media organisation Eh!woza, without which we wouldn’t have been able to give a voice to Khayelitsha residents during COVID (in return Eh!woza’s stories got a bigger audience and we mentored their staff in video scriptwriting). Lastly, the national television station Newzroom Afrika hosted a daily slot with our reporters during the first 18 months of COVID, which gave them free access to science journalists and Bhekisisa the privilege of a regular television audience.

Moral of the story: none of this would have happened if we tried to do everything on our own. It happened because partners shared skills and resources. That’s where the power lies.

3. If you try to cover everything, you’ll end up reporting on nothing

Focus and be strategic — those are the golden rules. There is absolutely no way you’re going to keep up with all the research during a pandemic, not even scientists do. As an editor, I had to learn to accept that reporters will often know more than I do about a certain aspect of COVID, as we all focus on different things. And that’s okay — it’s a strength, not a weakness, when a team’s able to share knowledge.

Because so many studies were being published and we were a small team, we had to make strategic decisions about what to cover. The strategy that worked best for us was to stick to what we do best — in-depth journalism that makes science easy to understand — rather than trying to repeat what others were already doing. So we didn’t cover news or press conferences (we live tweeted those events instead). We rather took an issue, say, the process our medicines regulator follows to authorise vaccines for use, explained it step by step and then linked it to a recent happening, for example the authorisation (or rejection) of a certain jab.

4. Repurpose stories — in every possible format

It’s easy to get stuff wrong during a pandemic because things change all the time. To get around this, you need to buy time so that you can spend longer periods than usual working on each story to make sure it’s accurate, that you’ve read enough studies and spoken to a wide range of experts. 

One way to buy time is to repurpose stories by filing them in more than one format. We, for example, produced short videos of most in-depth print stories. We’d take one aspect of, say, a story on vaccine boosters and produce a two-minute video.

But that, of course, meant that we needed a multimedia team who could manage the technical aspects of video production, and we had to train our print reporters to “translate” a print story into a video. It was an investment well worth it: not only did this strategy buy our journalists more days to work on their stories, it also helped us to reach a wider, younger audience, which we wouldn’t have accessed otherwise. This plan also helped us to tell shorter, more focused stories that we wouldn’t have had the capacity to do otherwise.

Bhekisisa also explored other story mediums with good pay-offs. We hosted COVID webinars and then filed video clips along with bullet points of the main issues covered under a newly created section on our website called “resources”. Or we’d break down a complex government Zoom briefing on a new variant with clips linked with text. This led to our webinars (they’re live on our YouTube channel) receiving considerable engagement even after they had taken place.

Lastly, we co-produced a series of six television programmes on COVID and other health issues with Newzroom Afrika. For one of the episodes we interviewed the US government’s Anthony Fauci. We repurposed that interview for a print story and also circulated shorter, subtitled clips on social media, resulting in the interview reaching a considerably wider but also more targeted audience of decision-makers in the health field (Bhekisisa’s readership), than if it had only appeared on a 30-minute live TV show. 

WATCH: Anthony Fauci answers 18 COVID questions

5. Consistency is the key to trust

The news media’s reporting can influence whether people embrace or reject science. During a pandemic that often translates into whether people choose to take up life-saving interventions such as vaccines or instead decide to use unproven treatments (such as Ivermectin or chloroquine during COVID).

People are, however, unlikely to trust media reports if journalists frequently get things wrong, even if these are small details. To reduce the possibility of mistakes, we bent an unwritten journalistic “code” during COVID: we asked scientists and other experts to check what we wrote when we were unsure if we had understood things correctly. Prior to COVID, we’d send interviewees only their quotes, not large parts of stories, to prevent them from interfering editorially. 

Our COVID coping strategy taught me an interesting lesson: if you consistently report science or policies accurately during a pandemic, or ask for help to ensure accuracy, the experts you interview rarely attempt to exercise editorial control, even if you give them the gap. Most simply don’t have the time to do so, but their goal is also almost always the same as yours: to get accurate information out to the public. 

And building relationships of trust with scientists and policymakers leads to preferential access to information for reporters, especially in the case of sensitive data such as the number of vaccines that will expire by a certain date or how many jabs are left in a country — data that officials are slow to release out of fear that it might get sensationalised and criticised. In turn, media consumers’ confidence in journalists with such access increases, because they’re able to consistently provide them with numbers and information that others can’t.  

If you want experts and readers to learn to trust you, a pandemic is your chance — use it.

6. The traditional definition of a story has changed — adapt or die    

If you’re a journalist today and think your job is done once you’ve filed the text of a website story, or the sound and visuals of a broadcast story, you’re living in a bubble. 

There has been an online revolution that has completely changed who has access to printing presses, and social media platforms, for one, have become essential publishing tools. Twitter threads, for instance, are now stories in themselves. Threads can do many things website stories can’t: they travel faster, allow for quicker interaction with consumers and they reach more targeted audiences (your followers). 

I filed close to 500 Twitter threads during COVID. The threads allowed me to live tweet during press conferences and to get information out in real time. Threads also enabled me to use presenters’ PowerPoint slides (I copied them off Zoom screens during webinars) to explain data or concepts and they led to another form of storytelling: live broadcast interviews about the issues the threads addressed. The threads were often also quoted in print stories.

Spreaders of misinformation so often use social media, especially Twitter, to distribute false information. Journalists should employ the same channels to get the correct information out — even if it means we need to reprioritise how we use our time during pandemics. 

7. Branding is a thing during pandemics — ride the wave

Pandemics are stressful, but they also create new opportunities. COVID, for example, dramatically increased people’s appetite for science journalism because they needed the information in such stories to know how to protect themselves and to try to understand what the future held.

But with this comes the responsibility to make science stories even easier to understand and, most importantly, available on the channels where people will look for them.

Research shows that fewer and fewer media consumers visit media houses’ websites directly. Instead, many media consumers use social media and newsletters they subscribe to access news content. At Bhekisisa, a third of our traffic comes from people finding our stories on Twitter and Facebook.

That’s why, in addition to the text of their stories, our reporters also file six different tweets, three Facebook posts and one Instagram post. On the day that an article, video or podcast is published for the first time, we schedule all six tweets and continue to schedule the tweets throughout that week, as well as at least three Facebook posts and one Instagram post. Without it, the story will be missing out on a third of its traffic.

COVID boosted our newsletter subscribers by 40% and this gave us the chance to expand our branding methods. Our entire team attended “newsletter lessons” from a top international expert who taught us how to use our newsletter as a marketing and branding tool. We have “what we’re up to” and “what [staff member’s name] is reading” sections, amongst others, and the author of a story writes a “why this matters” newsletter introduction branded with a banner with their picture. Why? Because our newsletter coach taught us consumers want to get to know our journalists as people.

Our reporters also make infographics for their stories — because the more there is on a story page to engage with, the longer someone is likely to stay on it. We break up the text of stories with these and also use them on social media to promote content. 

Lastly, we started to produce Instagram reels during COVID as a way for our audience to get to know us better. We’re not yet on TikTok, but many large international media houses are. 

8. When people take note of your stories, gear up for attacks

Attacks from anti-vaxxers have been plenty, but that storm was expected. HIV denialists attacked science journalists no less during the late 90s and early 2000s, they just didn’t yet have the luxury of social media.

So how do you react to the assault? Well, you learn how the mute button on Twitter works, you take the criticism where it comes from (really, if anti-vaxxers agreed with anything I reported, I’d be concerned) and you focus on the science. 

Studies show it’s a waste of time to respond to anti-vaxxer attacks directly; you should rather focus on the audience spreaders of misinformation aim to reach — in the case of vaccines, that would be vaccine-hesitant people. So instead of directly responding to an email or tweet on, say, vaccine side effects, do a story or thread that explains the frequency of side effects or the science behind it.

Anti-vaxxers frequently accuse Bhekisisa of promoting vaccines because a large chunk of our donor funding comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds COVID vaccine research. In response, we produced a “frequently asked questions” sheet, which explains our editorial independence policies, and published it under the “about us” section on our website. 

With our COVID coverage becoming less frequent, as it’s being replaced with stories focusing on other health issues, the attacks have become fewer. But they’re unlikely to stop completely — and that’s okay. 

A prominent scientist, who’s often the target of vehement criticism, once told me: “If you want to be a tall tree, deal with the criticism. If you don’t want to be criticised, go and be a short tree. But don’t expect to ever be noticed.”

Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.