Western Balkans: Journalism During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Jelena Kalinić, Journalist and 2022 HJN Ambassador

Journalists reporting on healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic have a difficult task, as they are expected to navigate and manage  misinformation fueled by rumors that are amplified on social media, unclear and/or contradictory messages from ministry of health and politicians, and keep abreast of developments concerning the science of the virus.  By providing accurate health information, journalists can increase trust in the public health system and offer their audiences the knowledge to make informed decisions about their health.

Recognizing the important role that journalists and the media have in the fight against COVID-19 and the need to strengthen collaboration between the media and public health practitioners, Internews convened a panel discussion under USAID’s MOMENTUM Routine Immunization Transformation and Equity project to bring together stakeholders with different perspectives on COVID-19 vaccination.  The dialogue sought to highlight the current communication challenges in Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina and facilitate on-going collaboration moving forward.  

This panel discussion, held on December 19, 2022, featured the following speakers: Dr. Stefan Mandić-Rajčević from the University of Belgrade, who is also a consultant with MOMENTUM Routine Immunization Transformation and Equity; Dr. Iris Žeželj from Reason for Health and the University of Belgrade;, Serbian journalist, Jelena Spasić from Kurir and Association of Journalists of Serbia; and Jelena Kalinić, MA, biologist, science journalist and Ambassador for the Internews Health Journalism Network. The panel was moderated by Marija Arnautović Simanić from Mediacenter of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Information gaps make room for disinformation 

Referencing COVID-19 vaccines specifically, Dr. Mandić-Raičević  emphasized that before the vaccines became available in Serbia, there was already a lot of misinformation and disinformation circulating in the country that undermined confidence in the safety and effectiveness of these new vaccines. Practically, a “gap” was created in which disinformation did its work, he says.

“Everyone thinks that the basis of infodemics is that someone writes disinformation. However, the basis of infodemics is the lack of answers to questions,” emphasized Mandić-Raičević.

[The World Health Organization definition of infodemic: too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.] Mandić-Raičević also believes that it is necessary for the media to be as close as possible to the source of accurate information, so that the content they provide is altered as little as possible.

He says that the lack of vaccine uptake was partly due to the lockdown at the start of the pandemic, and later due to the fear of contracting COVID-19 when trying to access vaccination services. In addition, as health workers were transferred to COVID-19 care centers away from their regular facilities, fewer vaccinators were available to provide routine vaccinations. 

Need for in-depth analysis and explanatory types of journalism

Jelena Kalinić says that responsibility for low vaccination coverage should not be placed exclusively on parents of children and citizens.  Institutions also have a responsibility,  including the media, which may provide a platform for “experts” to spread misinformation in their statements. “One should not unconditionally rely on the correctness of experts, this is a logical error of the ‘argument of authority’,” she says.

According to her, much of what is shared by the media is usually negative. Stories about positive situations and potential examples of solutions are not commonly published. “The media in our overly complex world can no longer just report and transmit statements, but must also take on an educational role,” says Kalinić.

She also points out that in the fight against the infodemic, more work needs to be done as pre-bunking (preventive debunking), education, content packaging in new forms, and the development of explanatory and in-depth analysis journalism. She also highlights that civil society organizations and religious institutions are important stakeholders in this process.

Personal and honest stories

Journalist, Jelena Spasić, speaks about the potential of personal, authentic stories and how they are a powerful tool that can be used to reach an audience. As a journalist who works for a media outlet that is usually characterized as a “tabloid”, she gives an honest and intriguing perspective: that it is precisely such media that can be important for spreading accurate information due to its reach to many people and that it should not be marginalized. Spasić also cites an example from her own media outlet (Kurir) whereby they intentionally did not bring on experts who spread disinformation.

“The media should be an intermediary between the public and the institutions. The institutions should be open and think in such a way that with their openness and truth they will contribute to a better understanding, and not by hiding, not by being silent,“ she points out.

However, Spasić believes that the media and institutions should not be partners and that the function of the media is to criticize, to hold those in power accountable for their mistakes.

The moderator, Marija Arnautović Simanić, drew attention to the fact that personal stories can be a double-edged sword: they can arouse emotion, but they can also undermine people’s right to privacy – for example, for patients in COVID-19 hospitals.

Appealing to cognitive processes and belief systems

Psychologist, Iris Žeželj, shared her views on communication during the pandemic. The study of cognitive processes, which is the focus of her field of study, is extremely important for understanding people’s reactions and why they become prone to rational or irrational thinking, science and facts or conspiracy theories.

“We will not change the world so easily. Social media is here to stay. People get information through them and we have to make this communication [about evidence-based information] competitive so that it can compete with conspiracy theories and disinformation,“ Žeželj says.

She goes on to point out that belief systems can be strong predictors of whether someone would get vaccinated or not, much stronger than education, gender or belonging to an urban environment, or having an occupation.

This discussion highlighted the important role that journalists and the media have in providing information to the public and their ability to influence behavior and counter misinformation and disinformation. 

This article was brought to you by the Internews Health Journalism Network in partnership with the MOMENTUM Routine Immunization Transformation and Equity project supported by USAID. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of Internews and JSI Research and Training Institute, Inc. and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government. MOMENTUM Routine Immunization Transformation and Equity is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of the MOMENTUM suite of awards and implemented by JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. with partners PATH, Accenture Development Partnerships, Results for Development, Gobee Group, CORE Group, and The Manoff Group under USAID cooperative agreement #7200AA20CA00017. For more information about MOMENTUM, visit www.usaidmomentum.org. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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