05 May 2020 | Story Rulanzen Martin | Photo Supplied
Margaret Linström has been teaching journalism at the UFS for almost a decade.

The credibility of journalism is facing an unprecedented threat around the world, and even more so during the current Covid-19 pandemic. With the reality of fake news and misinformation via social media platforms it has created a situation which can only be addressed through a free press.  

According to Margaret Linström, freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism in the Department of Communication Science at the University of the Free State (UFS): The role of journalists has become even more important during the Covid-19 pandemic when the lives of people literally depend on accurate and credible information. 
“Having access to accurate information can mean the difference between life and death during this global crisis,” says Linström 

It is therefore fitting that the theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day (3 May 2020) is Journalism without fear or favour, as many journalists are currently engaging in possible life-threatening missions to honour the commitment of providing verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis and bringing the news to the people. “World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1993. “The day was inspired by the efforts of African journalists who called for media pluralism and independence,” says Linström  

The day serves as a reminder to governments of the need to respect the commitment they have to press freedom. 

Is Covid-19 redefining journalism? 

The defined role of journalists must never change and should therefore be no different during a global crisis, which is “to inform, investigate, analyse, provide multiple perspectives, and build democracy.” The changes the pandemic could impose on journalism will most likely only become apparent after some time, which is why the International Center for Journalists, a non-profit organisation, has already launched an international study on how Covid-19 is transforming the industry.   

“Probably the most interesting innovation is how journalists are managing to report on the pandemic from their homes. This is of course only possible as a result of technological advances,” says Linström. She also notes that infographics used in the media are increasingly becoming a large part of the news coverage around statistics and “it is important to place these statistics in context for the readers, which is often best done by way of a visual representation like comparing the infection rates of different countries”. 

In South Africa, the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism is an active media player that is keeping an eye open in terms of trustworthy news but also innovation in reporting. It is an independent media organisation which has been doing commendable work since the start of the pandemic.

Misinformation a second pandemic 

With the continued spread of Covid-19 there is a second pandemic which has spread alongside it, that of fake news and misinformation or distorted truth. “These can range from harmful to downright deadly health advice, to outrageous conspiracy theories. The only way to address this second pandemic is for the media to provide accurate, scientific, fact-based news and analysis,” says Linström.

The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us of the importance of a free and independent press that reports verified information to the public, and holds those in power accountable. Linström, who has more than 20 years of journalism experience, says that lies and propaganda are not new concepts – “what is new is the ease with which any Dick, Tom or Harry can create fake news and the speed and ease with which it spreads globally”, she says. 

Having been a journalism academic for the past 10 years Linström stresses that journalists can combat fake news by “using basic skills of fact-checking and verification and providing the public with news that trustworthy, timely and unbiased. To put it succinctly, journalism is the weapon of change as a result of information having been weaponised”. 

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