COVID-19 reporting: Need of collaboration between media and research
The Research Centre for Applied Science and Technology (RECAST), located on the premises of Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, carries out research in science and technology. Since its establishment in 1977, the institution has published numerous research papers and journals.
In recent days, while the country is struggling to cope with the alarmingly increasing rate of COVID-19 infections, RECAST has started publishing a peer-reviewed journal. It was a concept developed during the three-month-long nationwide lockdown.
The journal “Applied Science and Technology Annals (ASTA)” has published a COVID-19 special edition, including research articles by 31 researchers. According to RECAST, it is Nepal's sole journal on COVID-19 so far.
When I asked if any journalist had ever contacted him or the institution to report about this initiative, Professor Rameshwor Adhikari, chief editor of ASTA, simply said, “None.”
The journal included articles on many different subjects: Nepal’s health sector post-COVID-19 pandemic, agriculture, traditional herbs, Ayurveda, natural anti-viral drugs, nature of the virus, science and technology during the pandemic, and psychological problems of the people, amid others. It sounded a little strange that no journalist had yet consulted it.
This article mainly focuses on COVID-19 reporting in the Nepali media. It deals with a few questions: How are journalists disseminating information about scientific research and expert views on COVID-19? How are Nepali scientific journals being used, and what is the status of foreign journals? What are the challenges of relying on Nepali journals? How can the lack of communication between Nepali scientists and journalists be corrected?
Krishna Adhikari, a Nepalgunj-based reporter of Himalayan Television, has been reporting on COVID-19 for the past five months. His stories on ‘COVID-19 outbreak in a Muslim village of Banke was broadcast in May. He produced several in-depth reports on the health and sanitisation status of the area and the precautionary measures being taken there. So far, Adhikari has filed 140 field-based reports on the pandemic. But he has never quoted any scientific research paper.
“I have seen very few scientific journals published in Nepal,” said Adhikari. “I don’t think any reporter quotes from specialised journals in our country outside the Kathmandu Valley.”
However, some journalists in the Kathmandu Valley were found to be quoting foreign journals while reporting on COVID-19. They believe that linking local stories with foreign journals makes stories more effective and qualitative. Bunu Tharu, a reporter with ekantipur.com, has been reporting on COVID-19 since its first outbreak in Nepal in January. She usually consults scientific journals and researches carried out in other countries.
According to her, there are limited foreign journals covering COVID-19. Or, perhaps they are difficult to find in Nepal.
In the third week of April, some big international media, including the CNN and BBC, aired news about re-infection of COVID-19 in recovered patients. Nepali media ran stories quoting them. It raised a lot of questions and curiosity among the Nepali people.
Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC), under the Ministry of Health and Population, publishes Journal of Nepal Health Research Council (JNHRC) four times a year. In recent days, the Council has given top priority to research-based articles on COVID-19. The chief editor of JHNRC, Dr Ganesh Dangal, states that the Council has been receiving several articles on COVID-19 these days. “Articles on health and psychological problems related to COVID-19, scientific research, traditional medicines and research capacities are common, but articles based on research conducted in our own country are very rare.”
Dr Dangal stresses on the need for research on the COVID-19 trend in Nepal. “Since, the trends and nature of COVID-19 infection are different in different countries, we also need to know about the kind of virus we are dealing with,” he says.
Nepal Journals Online (NepJOL) documents journals published in Nepal. There are 185 journals published across the country, which can be easily accessed via NepJOL. NepJOL.info is managed by the Central Library of Tribhuvan University. Journal of Nepal Physical Society, Nepal Journal of Neuroscience, Nepal Journal of Environment Science and Applied Science and Technology Annals and many other research papers on COVID-19 infection have been published on this site. Several news stories can be developed with the help of these research works.
Journals published by the TU Department of Microbiology, Patan Hospital and Bir Hospital are also very useful for reporting on COVID-19. It would be a mistake to say that scientific research works are not conducted in Nepal. The bitter reality is that research works are neither recognised nor looked for. Despite the availability of scientific journals in Nepal, journalists have little access to them. Even if a journalist develops news stories based on scientific research, they do not get the expected level of attention and priority.
In recent days, Dr Dangal believes that the gap between researchers and journalists has been lessened to some extent. Journals on COVID-19 have become a matter of interest for many journalists since the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, he says. The Council has also established a communication department to publicise its important research and achievements. The department has been interacting with health and medical journalists time and again.
The novel coronavirus witnessed for the first time in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, has now spread across the globe. However, the symptoms of COVID-19 infection are not the same in all nations, so in joint collaboration with Intrepid Diagnostic Centre, Nepal Health Council has initiated research on the genetic structure of the COVID-19 virus in Nepal.
On August 6, Shree Ram Subedi, a journalist with Nagarik Daily, had written a news report with the headline “Is coronavirus in Nepal different from other countries?” based on the same research. The research is expected to find out if the virus in Nepal has undergone mutation or not. A series of studies will be carried out on the swab samples of those infected people who have recently returned from countries with high rates of COVID-19 infection. The nature and status of COVID-19 virus in Nepal is a matter of public interest while new cases are spiking daily across the nation.
BBC Nepali Service also gave space to a feature story on the coronavirus in Nepal and research being carried out by Nepali scientists on its website on May 22, 2020. The story, however, has not mentioned or quoted any scientific journal.
Nepal witnessed its first COVID-19 case on in January 2020. The second case was recorded two months later. In the early days of COVID-19 reporting in Nepal, reporters were found giving top priority to field reporting, which remained in practice until the government enforced a nationwide lockdown on March 24. Following the enforcement of the lockdown orders, reporters have become highly dependent on telephone interviews, Viber and Messenger chats and Facebook live for reporting.
Shreesh Bhandari, news editor of Kantipur Daily, sees a change in the way news is reported along with the change in people’s normal life. “When the coronavirus first broke out in China, the world’s attention was somewhere else. Most of the Nepali leaders were busy making comments about immunity of the Nepali people. But we (Kantipur Daily) were giving top priority to news written by experts on the virus,” he says. “After that, news on isolation, quarantine, safety and health guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Ministry of Health and Population filled most of our newspaper.”
According to Bhandari, most of the news stories on COVID-19 were based on information from agencies. Only a few stories published in the Nepali media were based on research journals.
For the first time, an article on the coronavirus witnessed in Nepal was published in “The Lancet” journal in March. Dozens of writers contributed to the article, including Dr Anup Bastola of Shukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, Teku. The article was based on the research work carried out on gene sequencing from the swab samples of infected patients. But no news based on this article was ever published in the Nepali media.
According to Bhandari, most of the newsroom reporters do not have access to scientific journals. The trend of looking for journals for reporting is yet to be developed in Nepal. “During the lockdowns, COVID-19 covered almost 80 per cent of news stories published, but not a single story on the virus was based on scientific journals,” he said.
The articles published in scientific journals are technically difficult to understand. Due to which, high-skilled reporters are required to produce news based on them. Nepal has few such specialised reporters. On the other hand, most of the journals are written in English, which creates language barrier for Nepali-language reporters.
Sudeep Shrestha, editor of online news portal Setopati, states that there is no easy access to scientific journals to Nepali journalists due to which only few news reports are published in the Nepali media quoting those journals. Likewise, there is no trend of informing journalists about articles published by researchers in Nepal. For Setopati, COVID-19 reporting is mainly based on news and articles published by international media like the BBC, CNN and The New York Times. “We usually follow such media and international agencies, which are good sources of reliable and publishable news material,” says Shrestha.
Dr Tista Prasai, a scientist at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), says that there are only a few journalists in Nepal who have studied science academically, so it is difficult for Nepali journalists to produce factual and readable news material from scientific journals. “Scientists usually fear misinterpretation while giving information to any journalist. That could be a reason why most scientists do not announce their findings to journalists,” she adds.
NHRC has been conducting research regarding COVID-19 in Nepal. However, no journalist is found following these research activities. As a result, various important findings made by those researches are still waiting to be published and read. According to the member secretary of NHRC, Dr Pradip Kumar Gyawali, as many as 140 research proposals have already been approved by the council since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. Of the 21 research proposals approved by the NHRC, seven have already been completed, and articles related to those have already been published in its journal. The remaining research works are expected to be completed at the earliest. The research articles published are mainly based on difficulties in the hospitals and workplace, conditions of quarantines, mental status of frontline workers in the battle against COVID-19 and symptoms of COVID-19 among foreign returnees,” says Gyawali. “Similarly, research is underway on traditional herbs and Ayurvedic medicines and trends of COVID-19 virus.”
What can be done
According to Nepalgunj-based journalist Adhikari, there is no culture of informing journalists once a research is completed. Besides, there is lack of proper access to the published journals, and research activities are not properly followed in Nepal. That is why, dozens of research articles are published, but no news based on them is published or broadcast. Not only the reporters but the editors and media owners seem unaware of such developments. Experts maintain that the gap between journalists and researchers should be minimised in the first place for the promotion and maximum use of scientific journals and research articles.
Dr Sunilbabu Shrestha, Chancellor of Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), highlights the need of proper collaboration between scientists and journalists since scientists do the discoveries and provide information, and journalists disseminate those information to public. Institutes like Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC) and NAST, which are conducting various COVID-19-related researches, should provide the journalists working in these fields with frequent training. The training will not only develop their skills and enhance knowledge but also encourage journalists to work more promptly. Research organisations also have to expand the scope of research activities.
Researchers and scientists should let journalists know once their research is completed. They should provide information to journalists. Likewise, journal articles published by scientists and researchers must be reliable and creditable. The language used in the articles should be understandable.
Karki is with Nepal Forum of Science Journalists