Coronavirus outbreak: How should media handle it?

Coronavirus outbreak: How should media handle it?
Martinus Adinata

The Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, announced on 2nd March that two Indonesians had tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19), marking the first confirmed cases in the country. The news is particularly worrying as there are fears the world's fourth most populous country is failing to identify transmission of the virus quickly enough.

So how should Indonesian journalists and media respond to the news about the growing threat of the coronavirus? Telum spoke to several journalists’ to get their thoughts.

Yadi Hendriana, Editor in Chief of MNC TV
The press must work hard to carry out its duty to deliver accurate and factual information, avoid hoaxes and conduct verification. Most importantly, they need to make sure the information will become the product of “positive journalism,” bringing a good impact to the public and not spreading fear.

Victims’ privacy must not be breached and publicised due to the negative impact it will bring. The public’s right to information should not break the right to privacy and endanger people. In delivering information, the media must use the principles of educated inform, security inform, and avoid trial by the press. Public safety is the primary concern. Information ethics, according to the journalistic code of ethics, must be put forward.

Trisno Heriyanto, Editor in Chief of
We definitely have to be alert, but also need to apply prudence. There is too much information on the coronavirus that has yet to be proven right, so all information must be gradually verified from official sources or competent parties.

Coverage should focus on the virus as an object, not who the patients are, their jobs or health records, and even their families. Cross-check all new information on the virus. We don’t need to bombastically package it, just stick to the facts. Don’t appear (for TV presenters) with excessive use of facemasks.

Fikri Muhammad, Journalist of National Geographic Indonesia
As a journalist, I have yet to be satisfied with the response given by the party that should have the credibility to speak out (the government). I am not content because sometimes their answers are not serious. The narrative always aims at calming the people, but the statements do not make sense and tend to raise alarm with the public.

I cannot deny that the current market needs for media often brush off the principle of journalism ethics. I can only hope that media editors across Indonesia can think clearly about the impact of making news out of the victims of COVID-19. I just found that victims are unhappy with the existing news. I hope the media that remain sensible and able to provide a scientific education to the people and cover more on the recovery of victims as opposed to focusing on those that are in critical condition or have died.

Rikando Somba, Editor-in-Chief of Validnews
Information transparency for the public must be prioritised. However, as regulated in the Law on Press and Journalistic Code of Ethics, as well as moral ethics and compliance to prevailing laws and regulations, the coverage about the coronavirus and its spread must also adhere to individual and privacy rights, especially those who have infected. They should be receiving empathy instead of becoming a news object. Journalists must cover the truth and comprehensive information, not spread fear.

Wella Sherlita, Producer of iNews TV
Using the standard coverage principles should be sufficient. 5W1H is a must. But, since this is about a sensitive outbreak, there are particular guidelines, just like when covering Ebola, SARS, Avian Flu, and so on. No need to exaggerate and be overly sensational, but we need to be informative, balanced, and put the public’s interest first because the media should not be the voice for specific people in a time of an outbreak. The full name and domicile of victims cannot be revealed. It is a taboo to mention names. Not to mention the stigma attached to living families. So, it is absolutely forbidden to specify the full name and domicile.

Tonggo Simangunsong, Editor of INDOZONE
Journalists should consider the “suspect” status instead of immediately judging them by clearly revealing their identity, even putting into details who they are, where they live, even indirectly recommending people to stay away from them. Journalists must have empathy. Their duty is only covering according to facts, not mixing coverage with personal feelings or sentiments. The privacy of victims and people who are suspected of contracting the coronavirus must be maintained. The media should not act like they are punishing them, when in fact, the victims did not want to be infected in the first place. Journalists must also be wise in choosing an angle so as not to create anxiety and panic. I believe that the public is influenced by the media. For example, the phenomenon of panic buying occurs after receiving the first information from the media. This is very unfortunate. Information that will incite panic and fear must be covered proportionately. 

In terms of this panic, I saw a TV journalist using a respirator when covering the event from the location of the coronavirus suspect, Depok, being spread across social media. This is an exaggeration. Millions witnessed as if Depok was in a state of emergency. As a comparison, a reporter from CGTN in China only wore a mask when conducting coverage. This was very over the top and created excessive anxiety among the people. As a result, facemasks have become extremely expensive.

Erwida Maulida, Writing Staff of Nikkei Asian Review
The privacy of patients must be protected - their identity, pictures, and home address must not be mentioned in the news. When covering, journalists should not endanger themselves (for example approaching the patient, increasing the risk of being infected by the virus). In covering the news, the media should use proportional and accurate words, preventing unnecessary panic.

Aditya Heru Wardhana, Supervising Editor of CNN Indonesia TV
The news shouldn't rub salt in the wound. The public interest always takes precedence over ratings, clicks or shares. Journalists must understand the coronavirus case while keeping abreast of developments. The editorial room weighs every news aired, avoid bombastic titles, ensure the accuracy of the information and the credibility of news sources. The safety of journalists also must be highly considered.

Mahdi Muhammad, Journalist of KOMPAS
Indonesia does have a problem with personal data protection. Not only at the community level, but also at the government level. That was the case when the Deputy Mayor of Depok (corrected me if I was wrong) announced the data of two of his citizens who were exposed to Covid-19. The media, from reporters to editors, must understand that there must be protection for these patients. We must remember how vile our cyber citizens when they see one thing that is not in accordance with their wishes. Stigmatisation. That is something that needs to be avoided as a result of the media coverage.

For now bombastic and clickbait headlines will go hand in hand. But, does the editor want news that falls into that category - even if it turns into rupiah or dollar sheets - causes panic in the community? Editors must think clearly about this before deciding to publish the news for the citizens to consume.

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Telum media database

  • Erwida Maulia
  • Mahdi Muhammad
  • Trisno Heriyanto
  • Wella Sherlita
  • Aditya Heru Wardhana
  • Rikando Somba
  • Tonggo Simangunsong
  • Yadi Hendriana
  • Fikri Muhammad
  • Telum Media
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