"A novel mix of information"
The Covid-19 pandemic broke all barriers of access and information.
By Chaitanya Marpakwar
Jyoti Shelar is a senior Mumbai-based health journalist. Having worked with the Mumbai Mirror and The Hindu, she is now an independent journalist who writes for international publications including the Washington Post. Jyoti covered the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, often juggling between heart-wrenching human interest stories and hard news breaking stories, and even data-driven articles. Jyoti tells us that for her, the pandemic broke all barriers of access as journalism became completely digital in a way that was not seen before.
Excerpts from the conversation
Travelling was the biggest challenge. This was the first time that reporters like me could not reach the spot and report from there. I could not access or reach any hospital. Even if I did manage to reach, I had to protect myself. But in terms of information, I think Covid-19 changed things completely. Information became more accessible. Authorities gave out information, they were not used to talking to the media via video calls or having an online press conference. But they did all this. So the government authorities changed their ways of functioning. It was a very big change. This was unimaginable in the past.
What about the use of social media? You are someone who uses social media extensively. Did it have any positive impact on your journalism or not?
I would say social media had a positive impact because you get access to a lot of information. But at the end of the day, you have to constantly battle the fake news and misinformation that keeps coming your way. During the pandemic, a lot of misinformation was doing the rounds. As journalists, we should see and bust fake news, but my worry was about the general public. In terms of diagnosis and treatment, there was a lot of fake news, and they were very vulnerable. So fake news and misinformation were a big problem.
Can you revisit some of the best stories that you did on the Covid-19 pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote an in-depth piece on a group of travelers who returned to Maharashtra. So they in a sense brought coronavirus to the various cities of the state. I spoke to these people who came back and were the first ones to go into quarantine. It was all new for the patients, the authorities and for me too. So this was one of my first. But one of my most memorable pieces. Later I did a story on Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum. It was already making headlines globally. The world was watching Dharavi and everything you wrote became important. Everyone was interested. I also did a story on the city’s Covid-19 hospital that did deliveries of Covid-19 infected mothers. They did the highest number of deliveries there during the lockdown period. So this was a very special story because the doctors were worried, fearing that the babies would also be Covid-19 positive. Luckily, nothing happened.
Do you think there were some missing elements in the Covid-19 media coverage?
I don’t want to criticise anyone, but in the initial days, there was a lot of change in policies and processes. For instance, all decisions were being taken locally for testing, quarantine norms, treatment protocol. This became a big problem for reporters to process this information and then publish the correct information in a constant state of flux. It also became confusing for people to comprehend and understand. So this I think was a big problem. It gave a sense of chaos to the people. Because communication was not clear, it led to more panic. But later on, things improved and cleared out.
What is it that you learned in the pandemic? Did you gain any new skills?
One thing I learned was writing in a pattern that appeals globally. Because suddenly our stories became global. For example, I have been reporting on health issues for a long time, but when I reported on the pandemic, there was global interest in what was happening in India because of the huge population we have and the challenges that it poses. Writing became extremely important. You had to appeal to a global audience. I also learned to access information in different ways. My source base expanded a lot. Before we used to quote a certain number of doctors, but during the pandemic, we came across many more doctors, health experts.
Are there any stories that you would want to revisit or go back to?
There is no particular story, but initially, when I was doing daily reporting, things were scattered all over the place. I would like to go back to some stories which I couldn’t report in a way that I wanted to due to lack of time. I would like to go back and magnify some aspects, like the slum pockets with a high number of TB patients and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on them, since both these diseases impact the lungs. There was a fear of TB and Covid-19 in treating at some point in time. I would like to go back to see how this actually panned out.
Any tips you have for young journalists who are interested in health journalism?
See, I don’t have a medical degree or background. But I have reported on health based on my sources. Journalists mustn’t feel that they are not experienced enough to report on any subject. Over the years, I have managed to write on complex subjects. All journalists must be open to writing on a range of subjects. Health journalism is now taken much more seriously and it is now an extremely important beat now.