Media reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Athira Liyana

GOMBAK, 9 December 2021: Roughly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the entire world to experience an overwhelming shift of events where the standard operating procedures (SOPs), the movement control order (MCO), and increased cases of violence, domestic abuse, and health risks, have altered the lives of individuals. 

These overwhelming shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic became the central theme of discussion during the CORENA 2021 on Wednesday (8 December), in which five speakers addressed the COVID-19 and media reporting of the pandemic from their research findings.

In consequence, Dr. Mohd Helmi Yusoh from the Department of Communication, IIUM, stressed how Malaysian online newspapers portray the Sheikh Jarrah conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis through their news headlines. 

Upon analysing 20 news headlines from The Star and Berita Harian online newspaper, Helmi noted: “There is one clear theme constructed within these 20 news headlines –  the theme ‘oppressed vs oppressor’ in which the Palestinians are the victims, and the Israelis are the oppressors.”

The Star uses headlines like police attacks and barbaric attacks to describe Israelis, whilst Palestinian struggles are used to depict Palestinians,” Helmi remarked, adding that “Berita Harian uses similar headlines whereby ‘serangan Israel’ and ‘polis serang’ depicts Israelis, whereas ‘diserang lagi’ and ‘hilang tempat tinggal’ represents Palestinians.”

Helmi further established that there is no significant difference between the two newspapers in the way they constructed their news headlines to which he concluded that, “theoretically, these newspapers seemingly have the same political stance with the Malaysian government regarding this conflict” whereby the Malaysian government has taken a firm stance by criticising the Israeli attack on the Palestinians.

Dr. Wan Norshira Mohd Ghazali, also from the Department of Communication, IIUM, continued discussing how Berita Harian maintains its social media presence in news portals and Instagram through communicating the COVID-19 SOPs.

Wan Norshira highlighted that Berita Harian‘s coverage in their news portals is slightly higher than Instagram; however, there are a few times where Instagram received higher coverage whilst news portal were low – and vice versa.

She added that “both platforms gave consistent importance of the SOPs”.

Berita Harian used two types of messages to appeal to their audiences: non-narrative (factual arguments) and narrative (story-like news) to which Wan Norshira stressed that non-narrative types are more preferred despite narrative styles being used minimally by both platforms.

“Instagram is an important platform for Berita Harian to disseminate COVID-19 SOPs and general information,” she stressed, adding that “tools such as hashtags allow faster interactions, while videos and infographics are appealing to readers as an easier and quicker way to accumulate information.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Shafizan Mohamed from IIUM also discussed the types of news frames used by The Star and Malaysiakini and to whom they target during the MCO period. 

“Action and informational frames dominate the ways both newspapers cover the pandemic,” Shafizan stressed, adding that “both newspapers covered similar issues, mainly focusing on informing the readers about the MCO enforcement.”

Shafizan said that both newspapers have the same target audience to which they target both the risk bearers who are those most affected by the pandemic, and the risk advocators who advise about the situation like medical and security front liners.

Despite the minimal differences between The Star and Berita Harian in which newspapers focus more on the target audience and significantly focusing on MCO protocols, “it can be inferred that in time of health crisis, both newspapers were in solidarity with the authorities and did not attempt to build any unnecessary fear and controversies”, Shafizan emphasised.  

Auji Haziqah Hj. Mustapa from Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB) said that “between 2020 and 2021, Brunei received multiple news headlines of sexual assault and child abuse cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Auji mentioned that the effectiveness of such existing news headlines in preventing abuse and violence during times of the pandemic and lockdowns won’t entirely prevent abuse; however, “these headlines help raise awareness and help uplift communication barriers by the victims themselves as media reporting assists in non-verbal communication such as hand gestures to allow victims to seek for help.”

In response to the need of seeking help, Norazreen Sapiee from Open University Malaysia (OUM) discussed the experience of the risk group – the group of elderly and chronically ill – at Kuching, Sarawak during the dispersal of the COVID-19 virus and their resilience during the pandemic. 

“People are likely to experience fear and anxiety if family members were to be in contact with the virus, hence resilience can help individuals to overcome hardships caused by COVID-19,” Norazreen stated.

She further explained that it is crucial to understand and predict the factors that may influence resilience among the risk groups during the dispersal of COVID-19 as information disseminated online may inflict fear.

“There is a significant correlation between knowledge, family support, media exposure, optimistic thinking with behaviour intention and resilience in providing safety of the risk groups,” Norazreen highlighted.

Norazreen concluded that “high levels of these factors promote the ability for individuals from the risk group to protect themselves.”

Recognising the significance of media reporting of the pandemic, Shafizan stressed the reliability of news dissemination to the audience with questions raised by both speakers and participants. 

The seminar was attended by 77 participants through Zoom Cloud Meeting and was concluded with the reminder of properly pursuing the SOPs and MCOs along with trustworthy news dissemination. ***

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