The mass media and its role during a crisis

By Aznan Mat Piah

In any crisis situation, the mass media, particularly the mainstream media, play a very important role in giving a daily update of the development that is taking place to keep the public well informed from time to time. Mass media could play a part in creating awareness of the situation and in shaping the views and opinion of the public to make the right decision. Herein lies the role of the mass media in a democratic country like Malaysia.

A crisis may be simply defined as a time of difficulty clouded with uncertainty when important decisions have to be made. It is described as the turning point for better or for worse, a situation that could lead to instability affecting individuals, groups, community or the whole society if situations are not handled or managed properly. Normally, in a crisis there would be a wide range of communication challenges, among others, lack of information and frequent internal confusion, intense public scrutiny, escalating flow of event, loss of control and intensifying media attention.

Managing a Crisis

A crisis management would see application of communication principles involving a process by which an organisation deals with a major unpredictable situation that could threaten to harm the organisation, its stakeholders and the general public.  Thereby, the importance of the mass media in crisis management stems not only from the intention of the organisation to communicate the right and accurate information to the public, but likewise, for the public to communicate with the organisation their feelings on the ground as to how the crisis has impacted them in terms of their day to day living or livelihood.

In other words, given the situation of uncertainty, a two-way communication should prevail at all time to win trust and confidence.

We have been more than a month now into the lockdown situation since the movement control order (MCO) was enforced on 18 March in an effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown, which has put people to stay at home, except for those running essential services and the front liners, had caused anxieties, tensions and stress among many of us.

The imposition of the MCO saw the Malaysian government invoking two Acts of Parliament: the Act on Prevention and Control of Infectious Disease (1988) and the Police Act (1967). The acts are intended to ensure that the public will be in compliance with the directives to restrict and control movement of the people in effort to contain the pandemic.

The world has never had such a serious health crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected more than 180 countries, including Malaysia. To date the pandemic has infected almost 3 million people with death tolls exceeding 200,000 globally, according to World Health Organisation (WHO). The last known global pandemic was the worst Spanish flu pandemic or the deadly influenza pandemic lasting almost 36 months that occurred around a hundred years ago in 1918 killing more than a million people.

It’s unprecedented, a catastrophe and life threatening…

It is not surprising that this crisis is widely regarded as unprecedented. Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in one of his speeches, described the crisis as “unprecedented that requires unprecedented measures” to deal with the issues. “We are a nation at war with invisible forces and the situation we are now facing is unprecedented in history,” he said. Given the challenges ahead in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, his statement can be interpreted as a message to the people to be prepared to shift from the norms of the past to start adopting a new norm in their everyday life amidst uncertainty.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad said that the economic crisis in 1997/1998, which took about a year to resolve “is nothing compared to the one we are facing now”. “This is more of a catastrophe, which is threatening both health and economy of the people at the same time.”

Tun Mahathir added, “Unlike other crises we have gone through, this time our physical movement is restricted, we cannot see the enemy we are fighting, we can only sense the danger of the spread.”

Earlier, when Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin went on a nation-wide special address on 16 March to announce the imposition of the movement control order (MCO) to contain the spread of the pandemic, many people might not have understood his message well. This was seen by some ‘not so positive’ reactions by those who refused to comply with the order.

Malaysians being active people suddenly have been told to confine themselves to staying at home, their movement restricted, and the need to practice social or physical distancing and to observe strict hygiene. Social, religious or business gatherings have been totally prohibited.

The MCO had also wrought its impact on the economy following temporary closure of business premises causing business corporations to halt their business, triggering fear of business folding up, concerns over employee retrenchment and sustaining of business. Many feared the extended MCO could bring serious implications on the nation’s economy.

Creating awareness, information flow and education process

Coincidentally, to many people this seems to be the first time they heard about coronavirus or COVID-19. They may have heard about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), but many could not imagine or fathom how dangerous the virus could be to easily cause infections to people. That is the reason why many seemed to take things for granted, that they felt they will not be easily infected by the virus.

This is where it is important for the mass media to educate the people with appropriate information on the spread of the virus and to make them understand of government’s intention to enforce the MCO. The media has a role to create awareness of the pandemic and to call for support of the people in efforts to break the chain of transmission of the virus.

Hence, during the first phase of the MCO, we saw the mass media consistently carrying in their reports not only information in news format, but also in the form of infographics and visuals with useful information prepared by the Ministry of Health giving an explanation on the virus, how it is spread, and providing advice on how to avoid from being infected, together with healthy tips on hygiene, with an advice on constant washing of hands with soap. The people have also been advised to wear masks in public places to avoid infection.

Apart from that, there were advocacy campaigns driving the message on how to keep away from the virus and to prevent from infection including an explanation and advice on social or physical distancing. At the beginning of the MCO, there were also short video clips featuring popular artistes like Siti Nurhaliza and Maya Karin being aired on all television stations calling on people to stay at home and to stay healthy during the lockdown. It is clearly seen that the mass media is playing an active role in educating the people on how to respond to the pandemic.

Defiance and violation of MCO

Ironically, despite widespread and constant news information reported in the mass media to remind the people to stay at home, there are still people who defied the law and violated the MCO by going out “without any good reason or reasonable explanation as to their action”, according to the Minister in charge. You read about people going out for jogging in the park, playing football in the field, going out at night to meet a ‘good’ friend or going out for a sleep-over as though there is nothing for them to worry about. As a result, thousands were being detained and several were charged in court for violating the order.

A number of them were found guilty and faced imprisonment or fine. The violators included some politicians as well which clearly showed that no one is above the law. Even though the percentage of non-compliance of the MCO was below 5 per cent, the authorities took a serious view of the offences as this could obstruct government’s effort to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. The news was widely captured by the mass media.

University students finally allowed to go back

Another issue that received wide media coverage is the university students or those students from institutions of higher learning who were stranded for more than a month in their campus when the first phase of the MCO was imposed. But, following ease of restrictions announced by the government recently, the students were finally allowed to leave campus for their hometowns, under strict standard operating procedure (SOP) that requires health screening, and a strict observance to social distancing.

The whole process of transporting the students was handled by respective universities, under strict supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education with support from the police and security officials. Public could see the arrangement and the journey of students heading to their hometowns by bus fully aired on all television stations.

Entering 4th phase of MCO, a recovery phase

We are now entering the fourth phase of the MCO, from 29 April until 12 May. Since the enforcement of the MCO by the authorities on 18 March, the public have been kept abreast with latest development on healthcare measures taken by the Ministry of Health to curb the spread of the pandemic. The public are kept informed of new cases of infections, on quarantining for those coming back from abroad, contact tracing, and screening and testing processes, followed by strategic approach taken by the government to contain the virus in districts or areas categorised as red zone (with more than 41 cases of infections) through enhanced movement control order (EMCO). News reported on the EMCO should drive public to be concerned of their safety and to take precautions.

We learned of the different clusters such as the Jemaah Tabligh, the main cluster that constitutes almost 40 per cent of the country’s 5,851 COVID-19 infections (as of 28 April 2020), as well as the spread of the virus in the community reaching fifth generation. The media reported the issue raised by some quarters that the spread of virus could have been avoided if the previous government had stopped the religious gathering of almost 16,000 people from being held at Sri Petaling mosque from 28 February to 1 March. Although the issue had sparked debate between the current and previous Health Ministers, it did not become much of public concern as the real issue in hand was health rather than politics.

The Director General of Health, Datuk Noor Hisham Abdullah later admitted that his Ministry was nine days too late when they only knew about the gathering on 9 March when a participant from Brunei tested positive for the virus. By that time, those who attended the gathering have moved out to their hometowns, villages and districts.

Interestingly to note when cases were on the surge during the first and second phases of the MCO, the front liners, some in tears, were appealing to the people to cooperate with them by staying at home as a means to curb the spread of the pandemic with messages like “You Stay at Home, We Work” and “Stay At Home and Help Us”. Visuals with voice displaying strong emotions that described the experience of the front liners in attending to COVID-19 patients, touched the hearts and souls of many as these were also shared on social media.

What the crisis has taught us

The crisis has taught us a lot about health issues. For example, many are coming across for the first time the term such as “flattening the curve” and trying to make sense what it means. Meanwhile, experts are talking about halting exponential spike and epidemiologists focusing on research to contain the pandemic. Many have never heard of the virus before and how the disease is being contained. This may be partly the result of public ignorance, but the press conferences of the World Health Organisation (WHO) held in Geneva and televised on Malaysian media, had continuously reminded of the coronavirus being contagious and dangerous which could easily spread among humans. Countries faced with the pandemic were called upon to take serious measures to contain the virus.

Broadcast media like television news channels carried interviews with experts and aired special programmes that provided good insights into understanding the issues faced by the country that touched not only on healthcare alone, but also on other issues that have larger implications on society, business and economy. To contain the spread of the disease, it is crucial for the public to gain a clear understanding of the pandemic and how it affects them, which is an important aspect of public relations where clarity of the messages should be emphasised to ensure comprehension and acceptance.

There were also reports on voluntary involvement of people from all walks of life, who have come forward to assist the government, like the NGOs, to help with cooking and contributing foodstuffs to the homeless and the poor. There were even individuals, university students and staff, and even prison inmates, who sewed PPE (personal protective equipment) dress for hospital front liners during this trying time.

The media gave prominent coverage to official statements by the Prime Minister on important policy directions and his announcements relating to the RM260 billion people’s stimulus economic package and assistance (PRIHATIN) to help the B40 and M40 groups affected by the MCO, as well as those who suffered from loss of income and business closures, particularly the small and medium scale entrepreneurs (SMEs). It is important for the message from the government to be clearly interpreted by the masses. The Prime Minister’s well written speech had touched the hearts of ordinary people when he quoted the example of Mak Cik Kiah (from B40 category) receiving the stimulus package, in government’s effort to assist the poor.

Significant attention has also been given to how messages have been prominently covered by the electronic media, the print as well as the online media during the crisis. As noted by public relations practitioners, in a crisis situation, information flow is important to the public. There ought to be greater openness in the delivery of information messages, this being the fact that if accurate information is not communicated to the public, there is bound to be speculations, and certain messages could be wrongly interpreted which could lead to confusion and chaos among the public.

A distinct feature that exists during a crisis is the spread of fake news because people tend to make assumptions over what is yet to be confirmed or a bias reporting based on sentiments or of which facts are not yet established, verified or skewed towards certain parties or of speculative nature. WHO termed such information attempt as spreading “infodemic” which means the presence of over abundance of ‘some accurate’ and ‘some not accurate’ information due to the urge for news to be published quick enough to get public attention.

Hence, the high volume of such information makes it difficult for people to differentiate between fallacy and truth. The daily briefing by the Senior Minister (Security cluster), Datuk Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, warned the public to refrain from spreading fake news for which they can be charged in court for such offences under the law. Among the basic rules of public relations is to keep the public well informed. Managing public expectations and ensuring people to remain calm to gain trust and confidence is the rule of the thumb.

Well coordinated media engagement

Malaysia has handled the crisis pretty well judging from positive media reporting that received public attention. Apart from important messages conveyed by the Prime Minister from time to time which received prominent coverage, the flow of messages from the authorities to targeted public has been well coordinated for broadcast and reporting by the mass media.

There are two press conferences per day; one, a briefing of the National Security Council by the Senior Minister (Security cluster) that provides latest updates on the security aspects touching on the enforcement of the MCO and dealing with violation cases and ensuring strict observance of the rules to restrict movement of people and quarantine, and the disinfection of premises and locations categorised as dangerous in efforts to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus. The other important briefing is by the Director General of Health representing the Ministry of Health, which gives a daily update and a round-up on new cases of infections, victims, recovery cases, the healthcare system in terms of hospital facilities and treatment, and on the healthcare of front liners carrying out contact tracing, screening and testing to address the spread of pandemic.

The fact that there are two major spokespersons from the government handling the crisis – one by the Senior Minister (Security cluster), Datuk Ismail Sabri Yaakob on security matters, and the other by the Director General of Health, Datuk Noor Hisham Abdullah – to communicate important messages to the people on a daily basis, shows good coordination. Such strategy avoids confusion being created among the public.

In between statements delivered at press conferences by two prominent speakers, there were occasions where certain ministers responsible for certain portfolios like Education, Higher Education, International Trade, Economics and Finance, Infrastructure, Sciences, and Religious Affairs came into the picture to make clarifications pertaining to their portfolios.

The mass media, especially the electronic media, invited Malaysians from various circles such as scholars, parliamentarians, lecturers, economists, business leaders, women, and social activists to come forward to air their views in forum sessions on how they see the crisis affecting the public, and inviting for suggestions to address the issues, such as ensuring aid could be delivered in a timely manner, coming up with bartering system for purchasing food directly from suppliers, and solving on-going issues affecting business, especially the SMEs. These forums served as useful feedback to the authorities.

The pandemic had also raised the issue of women and gender-based violence where women are seen to be the worst hit by the crisis based on the United Nations report on the “Impact of COVID-19 on Women”. The attempt by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to inject humour (the Doraemon mockery) into the issue to maintain harmony between husband and wife had raised concerns about the burden of imbalanced gender role that sparked outrage among women groups and the NGOs. The issue had drawn attention of the international media apart from the local media, putting Malaysia on the spotlight as a country that still practices patriarchy, and misogyny remains rooted in the culture.

Exit strategy and post- MCO

From the progress that Malaysia had made so far in containing the virus, the Director General of Health indicated that “we are now moving into the recovery stage”. Certain restrictions could be eased soon to allow certain sectors of the economy to go back to work in phases but subject to procedures like social distancing and hygiene regulations being strictly observed. This move is expected to reactivate or jumpstart the economy that has been affected by the lockdown.

The public should be made to be aware of the need to adopt the new norm, at least for a period of another one year and the half, before a vaccine or a cure is found. The mass media should continue to play the role to educate the public not to go back to the old practice that they were used to before, but to adjust to the new normal.

In the event the MCO is lifted people should take the new normal as a new form of practice. Although many would feel uncomfortable with the new normal given the fact that it goes against the grains of human behaviour, but, if the new norms are put into practice, such norms viewed abnormal would become normal if it is done consistently. ***

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