“We were supposed to be journalists, giving accurate information and fighting rumors, but sometimes even we thought that if you opened the window, Covid would come flying in.”
That is how Tania Orbe, a science reporter living in Quito, Ecuador, remembers the early days of the pandemic. Like many journalists, not only in Latin America but all over the world, the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic three years ago was a challenge in managing the personal and the professional.
“There was uncertainty in everything, in going out on the street, going shopping, the fear one would be exposed and infected,” recalls Orbe, who reports for PlanV, the main digital news outlet in Ecuador, and teaches at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.
She had an additional reason to be fearful: Her husband and mother suffered from cancer at the time, and their immune systems were compromised.
But as the pandemic transformed the work of journalists, eventually Orbe found her footing, because in some respects work became easier.
“Suddenly it turned out that sources were more available, because they were easier to locate,” she says. “Some of that has remained even after we went back to normal. One of the effects has been that we do less reporting in the street because there are more options to do interviews.”
But there were also challenges, especially the fact that across Latin America science expertise was not readily available.
This was not necessarily because there were no experts but because the experts were remote to journalists.
“Outside a few journalists, we didn’t have a culture of dealing with scientific sources, because they had been out of the public eye. But we managed to open some doors, although this later led to confusion because sometimes, we would interview an internist when what we needed was a virologist,” she says.
In the end, Covid-19 might have a transforming impact on journalism in Latin America. It brought us closer to the scientific community; taught us how to deal with data; made us more aware of the importance of using reporting to combat disinformation and gave us more technological tools to facilitate our work.
The Challenge of Data
One problem common across Latin America in the early days of the pandemic was the poor flow of data on Covid cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. In some cases, this was because public health systems were not prepared to deal with the pandemic and had a poor management of information; in others, it was because governments were not willing to admit the pandemic was a problem.
Brazil was the best example of a country with a very poor flow of data but also of how journalists responded to correct that.
“Access to official data was confusing from the national government,” recalls Marcelo Freitas, a journalist in Belo Horizonte, referring to the administration of then-President Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro was one of the most notorious cases of a national leader minimizing the pandemic and opposing restrictions.
But Brazilian journalists and media companies came up with a radical solution: They worked together. Four newspapers and two websites formed a consortium to gather data from sources other than the Ministry of Health. They went to state governments and got the numbers on cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. The group created a website and gave daily updates from June of 2020 until January of 2023.
It was the biggest effort of collaborative journalism undertaken by the Brazilian press, says Freitas, who wrote about it in his book: “We were also in the front line. The stories of journalism in the pandemic,” which was published in August of 2022.
Mexico also had this problem, with data flowing slowly from authorities because their capabilities for testing were limited.
I remember talking to a doctor in a hospital in the northern Mexican city of Gómez Palacio, when he said, “Do you realize that it was here where the first person died of Covid in the country?”
I responded he was mistaken. The first victim had been a man in Mexico City who died on March 18, 2020. No, said the doctor, another man died earlier the same day in Gómez Palacio. But he had been recorded as the second victim.
When I followed up on the tip, the reason why the cases got mixed became clear. The man who died in Mexico City was in a hospital that had a PCR machine for Covid tests, so he got a quick confirmation of his infection. The man in Gómez Palacio was tested but his nasal and throat swabs had to be sent to a lab in Mexico City because there wasn’t a local facility for testing. The man died before the lab finished processing the sample.
The story highlighted an absurd situation: Mexico had only 37 PCR machines. Six were in the capital, Mexico City. The remaining 31 were spread out across the country.
That was one example of how public health infrastructure in Latin America was not prepared for the pandemic. We saw hospitals overwhelmed and communities lacking health professionals to deal with the onslaught of cases and deaths. Without adequate testing capabilities, the number of cases was underreported. In Mexico, for instance, journalists had to sort through data given by the federal government and very different numbers given by state authorities.
The experience taught us to be more skeptical of the data presented by public officials and to look to other sources for validation. In the month following the first infection in my hometown in northern Mexico, it felt ridiculous to report that there were only 15 cases in a city of 1.4 million people. I had to consult with specialists in infectious diseases to model an estimate based on more accurate data, like deaths and hospitalizations. We concluded the number could be as much as 20 times high. Working through how to explain it to the public proved to be a valuable lesson.
Dealing with disinformation and fake news has been a challenge throughout the pandemic.
In Ecuador, it created a recipe for panic in the early days of Covid-19 because the city of Guayaquil, the country’s largest, was brutally hit. By April of 2020, Guayaquil had recorded 60 deaths, more than entire countries at that point in the pandemic.
“It was sad having to confirm the information coming from Guayaquil — the deaths, saturated morgues, unidentified bodies,” says Orbe.
The tragedy in Guayaquil laid fertile ground for rumors spreading in other cities in Ecuador.
“Suddenly everyone became a ‘Covidologist,’” Orbe remembers. “There was a lot of information available for journalists who knew how to get it but also a lot of misinformation. The challenge was separating the two and knowing who to trust.”
She points to an example on reporting the number of deaths. The government gave one figure in a daily press conference, but data from the civil registry showed a higher number of deaths. Those certificates, many of which did not list Covid-19 as a cause of death, did mention associated illnesses, such as pneumonia. Orbe adds that, due to the lack of tests, many people died of Covid-19 without a diagnosis, “so it was a challenge to accurately report” what was happening.
However, at least part of the public became more careful with information — and some in the media became more aware of their role in perpetuating misinformation. Around April or May of 2020, I started getting messages on social media from people asking if a post that had appeared on Facebook or Twitter was true. Most were patently false, attributed to just “a cousin” or “my friend,” or for their sheer exaggeration (I once was asked about a report of dozens of cases inside a hospital in the national public health system. The “report” was a memo done by someone thought to be a medical doctor. When I googled the “doctor’s name,” it turned out she was a historian who worked at the National Archives and was totally unaffiliated with the hospital.)
Journalists in Latin America still suffer scars from covering the pandemic. Like almost everyone, we lost colleagues and family members, while at the same time we were trying to get the public a clear picture and accurate information.
Sometimes journalists did so in the face of hostility. Freitas remembers that in Brazil, Bolsonaro attacked the media for covering pandemic and presenting how serious the situation was, when the government was minimizing it.
“It was a tense environment against the press, Bolsonaro was very aggressive with journalists in interviews,” he says.
And attacks came not only from the president, also from supporters. “Journalists were also insulted or shouted at by people on the streets, people who were against isolation,” Freitas adds. “Journalists [who] carried cameras and microphones with their companies’ logos visible, they were the most exposed.”
Unfortunately, some of the seeds planted against the news media remain and continue to be used to attack the press. During the pandemic we saw how some governments with authoritarian tendencies in Latin America — like those in Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala — flourished under the guise of a public health emergency. My colleague Marcela Turati and I reported on how Mexico’s president minimized the impact of the virus and accused journalists of undermining him. Yet, says Freitas, journalism was essential. What he says about Brazil could easily be applied to the rest of Latin America and the world:
“If it was not for the journalists work [reporting on the pandemic], I’m sure the number of cases and deaths would have been higher.”
Javier Garza Ramos is an independent journalist in Torreón, northern México and an expert on journalist safety. He is the founder of the local news platform EnRe2Laguna and the host of the daily radio newscast Reporte100.