Frontline health workers in São Paulo, Brazil. Better-supported journalism might have helped warn the public and save thousands of lives. Instead, the Covid-19 expanded unchecked from China and across the world. (Photo: ICRC)

What is so ironic is that had donor governments, foundations, corporations and private individuals with means bothered to support independent news organizations at a time when credible journalism is in crisis with global coverage severely curtailed, Covid’s spread might have been prevented. We are talking perhaps of investments totalling no more than several hundred million dollars over a year for independent local and international journalism.

And yet, many still fail to understand the crucial importance of independent media as a critical base for democracy and public interest. Of course, it does not help either when you have self-serving politicians such as America’s Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan, India’s Modi or Tanzania’s Magufuli constantly lambasting or persecuting journalists for doing their job.

Who is doing the reporting today?

While lead press groups such as The New York Times, BBC, Le Monde, The Guardian, El Pais  and others are indeed striving to report properly, it is often the freelancers or smaller newspapers and magazines ranging from the Providence Journal in Rhode Island to Tribune de Genève that tend to smoke out the first signs of a crucial story. How many times have I encountered during the 1980s, 90s and even early 2000s persevering independent reporters in places like Somalia, Afghanistan or Thailand working for a bevy of publications and broadcasters? They would spend months on end in the field to provide a story that most major media would only cover once it had emerged as something big.

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Unfortunately, this is no longer happening. Most news organizations, particularly newspapers, have closed or significantly cut back on their overseas coverage.

What this means is that there are fewer foreign correspondents, many of whom rely on good local reporting for their pointers, to critically cover disconcerting realities such as China’s gradual economic takeover of Africa or the long-term impact of climate change and pandemics in Latin America. (See Global Geneva article on the role of local reporting to promote change). Major cyber groups such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and others are also responsible for this journalism collapse; they have earned fortunes off the backs of dedicated “content providers” as they almost derogatively term writers, cartoonists, photographers and filmmakers. They give little in return. Journalists simply no longer have the means to report. (See Global Geneva article on the publishing world’s evil empire)

While some argue that social media are now replacing journalists, there remains a huge problem of both due diligence and trust. Many bloggers rely on journalism for their information. Many, too, are not ‘reporting’ but putting across their own points of view often without sourced material. This is making it increasingly difficult for the public-at-large, particularly young people, to discern what is credible, and what is not. Cyber abuse is alive and well. And growing. (See Global Geneva article on young people and cyber monsters).

Romeo Langlois, a French TV journalist for France 24, released in 2012 by Colombian FARC-EP rebels into the hands of the International Committtee of the Red Cross. Reporting is often dangerous with hundreds of journalists killed, kidnapped or tortured every year. Many are also freelancers operating on their own. Since the early 2000s, few major newsgatherers have the luxury of fielding journalists fulltime in the field to report. This is causing a severe dearth of information in the public interest. (Photo: ICRC)

Journalism awareness needs to be part of school education

This is where good journalism should have the upper hand. But news organizations, which many politicians like to attack as purveyors of ‘fake news’, need to re-establish themselves by showing that they deserve the public’s trust. While quality reporting is beginning to make a comeback, many young people no longer understand the role of journalism. Or even how it operates. They believe that everything should be for free. As a result, despite the overwhelming plethora of videos, blogs, SMS’s, influencer postings, and instagrams, they are arguably less informed than previous generations. It also makes them more vulnerable to manipulation. Information awareness needs to be part of basic education. (See Global Geneva article on youth and fake news)

This is precisely what happened with Covid-19. People would have been better informed with dogged reporters based in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Geneva, London and Washington setting off the alarum bells with more effective investigation into what was happening.

According to The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, the first known human infections of the coronavirus – which is believed to have originated as a spill-over from animals, possibly bats or pangolins – first broke out in China’s Hubei province at the beginning of December, 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva also reported the onset of symptoms on 8 December. More recent indications suggest that the first case to emerge, a 55-year-old man in Hubei, was on 17 November, but he did not appear to be Patient Zero. The infection may actually date back to October, 2019. Traces of the virus also appeared in waste water in the Italian cities of Milan and Turin on 18 December, 2019 suggesting that it had already hit Europe.

Information is not just a matter of PR or press conferences: It is about consistent reporting

The problem is that these indicators remained largely within the medical realm and were not common knowledge. Furthermore, the local Chinese authorities were doing everything possible to quash any outside information about the outbreak. For many Westerners, news of the virus did not really concern them. It was yet another one of those Asian diseases. Nothing to do with me.

And yet, as pointed out by specialists such as Dr. David Nabarro, a long-time veteran of virus outbreaks, the warning signs have been around for years. We should have been prepared. Furthermore, we can expect more epidemics, if not pandemics, in the years to come. WHO declared the virus an international public health emergency on 30 January, but it only recognized it as a pandemic a month and a half later on 11 March, 2020. By then, it was too late. Cases were surging in Italy, Japan, Iran and South Korea with thousands dying.

The end result is that we now have a pandemic that is re-surging. Many people, including governments, still do not seem to grasp the need to be vigilant. Credible information is still ignored, or people have little trust in their governments and science. This is where more consistent and better-funded journalism can make a massive difference. Not just in North America and Europe, but across the globe. (See Global Geneva article on war and humanitarian reporting).

Handwashing and social distancing are crucial to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet, many people in countries such as the United States, Britain and Brazil, do not grasp the importance of such precautions as they no longer trust information by their governments or the press. Good journalism, which is being increasingly abused by politicians as ‘fake news’, needs to regain its trust with the public. (Photo: ICRC)

But virus outbreaks are not the only issue in urgent need of more reporting, plus context, notably the sort of background information that enables audiences to better understand the broader picture. (See Peter Hulm article on Geneva’s Palais scandal).

As noted in our cover story by scientific and legal experts Paul Mayewski, Charles Norchi and Alexander More, climate change combined with numerous other factors, including pandemics, limited water resources, or fossil fuels, are having a horrendous impact on our security, health and jobs. This is happening now, and not tomorrow. And yet, the Trump administration opted to leave the Paris Accords at a time when our planet cannot afford political dalliances or self-delusion.  

Similarly, the collapse of tourism not just in Africa but across the planet is having a severe impact on worldwide conservation efforts. (See Keith Somerville piece on the impact of Covid on conservation) Local NGOs and wildlife projects have almost overnight lost their main sources of funding. Quite understandably, people are turning to poaching again because they need to survive. This, too, is an area that requires broader reporting to alert the public. It cannot be done with PR initiatives or press conferences. Such information needs to reach out to all population groups, both young and old, with compelling reporting that people actually read, listen to or view. The public needs to understand what is happening to their planet. They also need to know what they can do about it.

A first big step would be for all players, including UN agencies, to finally grasp the importance of independent media and its urgent need to have the proper financial means to operate. All newsgatherers, including Global Insights Magazine/Global Geneva, are affected by this. Hence many of us are trying to work together to ensure that we are fulfilling our responsibilities vis a vis the public. But we cannot do this on our own.

Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author with many years experience covering wars and humanitarian crises worldwide. He is editor of Global Insights Magazine which works with its non-profit partner Global Geneva Group to report worldwide in the public interest. He is also director of the Youth Writes initiative.

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