2 June, 2020

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The Portrayal Of Coronavirus By Media In Sri Lanka

By Theodore Warnakulasuriya

Dr. Theodore Warnakulasuriya

“Fear can make us panic, or do things which make matters worse, like circulating rumors online, hoarding face masks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak.” ~ Prime Minister of Singapore

Starting off the first day of corona news that emerged from China, as it started reportedly in December 2019, when a group of people from China’s northern Hubei province developed an unexplained pneumonia-like condition.

As expected false assumptions and rumors about the coronavirus outbreak have been running riot on media in other countries as well as in Sri Lanka. More specifically, believing in “when it bleeds it leads conflict journalism principal, mainstream media such as print media, radio, television and social media continue to inject fear psychosis to the young and old, as well as educated and uneducated engaging in the usual “Blame Game”. All media outlets, starting with mainstream media including print and have come up with special programmes, discussions, interviews chaired by so-called “corona specialists” (some are surely political corona pundits ) pretending that they know everything about the corona and how to overcome the threat better than anyone else. From the crowds that flock into supermarkets, pharmacies, and basic food outlets, it is clear from the outset that some so-called “corona pundits“ have given Mahadana mutttha type solution to solve basic problems that arise regularly due to the imposition of curfew and related issues not foreseen by them. As mentioned in the Sunday Times, editorial  It was unbecoming of the Presidential Media Unit to put the blame on the general public for what happens usually when the locked-down or locked-up citizenry flock straight to besieged supermarkets, wholesale markets, grocery stores, food distributing vehicles and pharmacies that are opened for a limited time. In events beyond their control, public should not be held ‘scapegoats’ or blamed as it happens not even for maintaining strictly the social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. I was appalled too, to see innocent people including elderly and mothers with their children who have come from near and far distances to go empty-handed because even the most of state Osu Halas are closed, and asked to use mobile phones. Even they have phones, not all Smartphones, and they do not have k the basic English language skills to use “What’s Up App”. It is surprising that most of these Political Corona Pundits have forgotten or they pretend that they have not thought about the existence of ‘digital divide’. Most of us know (except these so-called corona politicians) digital divide as it called, typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections such as dial-up and limited access to subscription-based content and language issue.

There are good information as well as more misinformation misleading the public at large at the moment because there is no synergy among the various panels who repeat promptly without thinking about the consequences whatever that come to their minds to please the anchors and to suit their political masters, For example, some doctors advise that “masks” wearing is not essential or necessary but some others advice it is a must and also compulsory. In another instance, government’s official communication says that food such as vegetables can be transported directly.  even when there is curfew operating. However, we see on the television screen, that lorries bring vegetables to Colombo Manning Market, distributers cannot come and get those vegetables due to the prevailing curfew in Colombo and other places. Most of the decisions that are taken so far lack logic. Surely all of us agree that prevention is better than cure, and the situation is quite serious. Instead of lockdowns and full-time implementation of curfews, alternatives should be thought well in advance knowing some people have no money at all even to buy the basics. What is alarming is politicians, as well as officials, make certain statements without thinking of consequences further confusing the minds of even educated people. Is the sensational fear inculcating these days with the help of media justified?

Looking at some of the television programs and news items that are broadcasted regularly by some of our major television stations we find that  sometimes doctors, politicians, various officials with the help of Television anchors also blaming the general public for not following the prescribed guide lines given by them. Without coming into haste and uncharitable judgements one has to understand the ground reality. Talking of behavioural change first thing one needs to realize is changing human behaviour is not easy at all. Even normal times most people do not observe the rules and regulations prescribed for the common good. We need to remember that not all problems are communication problems that can be solved by media communication alone.

Our mobile networks keep parroting “Are you in a safe place? …. Messages as though at this time of crisis communication alone can solve the problem without attending to engineering aspect which seems to be the problem in Sri Lanka.

Kuth (1981) has spoken about “Three Es’) that should go hand in hand in a campaign or in a successful prevention program. Namely education, engineering and enforcement. However, we have seen in Sri Lanka there are severe short comings in all these three areas. Most of the time engineering, which is the environmental modification of equipment design and basic infrastructure suited for a particular task is lacking. The public may be educated what to do but enforcement is not even. We see in Sri Lanka, rich and powerful are excepted from enforcement. We have witnessed how officers in uniform break the ques and get what they want. It is not a secret now that Government was initially too slow to lock the gates at the entry points of the country for persons coming from infected countries. Some were allowed to come in without any checking.

Gorge Gerbner (1998) proposing cultivation theory argued that the media generally presents an image of the world that does not reflect reality. Television images are often an exaggeration or fantasy of what actually exists. Further elaborating his theory Gerbner said that today people watch television as they might attend a religious service “except that most people watch television more religiously. Arguing that dramatic violence brought directly to our living rooms cultivate and instill fear in us and he further talked about the social cost of fear propagated by media outlets.

“Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hardline postures….What is dangerous is (italics mine) they may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. This is the deeper problem of violence -laden television”.

New contagious diseases are scary. They frighten us because they are unknown and unpredictable. The current outbreak of the new coronavirus has received extensive media attention, the coverage that can tell us a lot about how uncertainty in the face of such an epidemic can all too easily breed fear.

Psychologists attest that while fear is an emotion that we frequently experience as individuals, it can also be shared and it is also social,  one which circulates through groups and communities and shapes our reactions to ongoing events. Like other emotions, fear is contagious and can spread swiftly.

Usually, media coverage sets the agenda for public debate. While the news doesn’t necessarily tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about. In doing so, the news signals what issues merit our limited attention. Research has consistently shown that when issues receive extensive media coverage and are prominent in the news agenda, they also come to be seen as most important by members of the public.

Former US President Franklin D Roosevelt probably overstated the case when he famously said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Yet at a time rife with misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories, it is worthwhile remaining alert.

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Latest comments

  • 4
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    Every month we help some less fortunate families with their daily essentials. The other day, one lady called and said, they are existing by eating rice with water. While she was on the phone, heard the kid yelling for want of milk. These venerable people are not educated enough to order everything online plus they don’t have the means too. Owing to continuous non stop curfew we are in a adverse situations to give them a hand. Authorities should find a way out to stop the suffering of these people.

    • 2
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      Dr. Theodore Warankulasoiriya,

      Re: Role of Media,

      “Research has consistently shown that when issues receive extensive media coverage and are prominent in the news agenda, they also come to be seen as most important by members of the public.”

      With COVID-19, it is most important because it can kill about 2 percent of those infected, and make seriously ill 12 percent of those infected, spread silently, and overwhelm the health care system, in addition to the economic disruptions.

      The temporary inconvenience to contain the virus is a very small price to pay, as shown by South Korea and Taiwan.

      The state must identify the clusters and contain them.It is the responsibility of the state, and the people should cooperate for their own good. This is the message the media should convey, along with the measures each individual can take.

      Even President Gon Donald Trump of the US now understands this. Better late than never. Good that President Gon Gotabaya Rajapaksa also now understands,

  • 3
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    Have the media been any different in other matters?
    Sensation is the staple of our journalism.

  • 0
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    Warna, Silly Lankas, media for a long time now, has been the mouth piece of crooked politicians where its manipulated to either exploit or abuse public. The media has been involved in this for so long , they now are out of touch , with their role in such human crisis. There was a time during JR,S autocracy where blanket censorship was forced on media, I witnessed pages in news papers were either left blank or redacted, to let public know indirectly, that government is not only suppressing media but what is that they are trying to hide from the public. Once I saw almost a full page left almost empty but the title/head line left intact so that public is aware of it. In the mean time the government mouth piece Rupavahini , kept dishing out, biased govt version. At the time , public too had the sense to know the difference. Now what we have is, nothing but unadulterated political version., which in turn is disseminated and shared in social media with multiple add on.

  • 0
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    Therefor, like in so many other countries, and in order to avoid confusion amongst the general public, the SL Govt COVID19 Crisis Management Team should regularly appear on National TV to give latest updates and make announcements on its handling of the crisis.

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