When India implemented a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020, Lalit Khambhayata, then a reporter and deputy editor at the daily newspaper Gujarat Samachar, turned all his attention to health and science journalism. Until then, he had covered the environment, technology, and defense for the Gujarati-language paper, based in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad. Suddenly, he was writing about scientific studies, World Health Organization announcements, health ministry updates, and other COVID-related news.
It was tough going at times. The press releases issued by the central government often lacked context suitable for local readers. Most publicly available information was in English or in Hindi; little if any was provided in Gujarati, despite the language being spoken and read by over 55.5 million people. And like many Indian publications, the Gujarat Samachar had few reporters with experience covering science. In the early days of the pandemic, Khambhayata says, many journalists were essentially rehashing government-issued immunization and disease statistics and calling it health reporting.
Khambhayata’s circumstances paralleled those of other journalists in India and throughout the Global South, as they sought to tailor coverage of a global pandemic to their unique, regional audiences. There was the language issue, of course: The world’s 8 billion people speak over 7,000 languages, yet English is the lingua franca of science and scientific research, and many other languages lack even the terminology to convey science’s more complicated technical concepts. But newsrooms also had to bridge the social and cultural divides that often separate the science world from the communities they serve. Meanwhile, they were battling an infodemic of false and misleading claims, which spread across borders, continents, countries, and into even the most remote communities almost as quickly as the virus itself.
In time, Khambhayata (now a news editor at the newspaper Divya Bhaskar) came to see these challenges as opportunities. He sensed that the Gujarat Samachar’s readership had a clear appetite for scientific discourse on the rapidly evolving pandemic. And he saw openings to use knowledge of his community’s shared culture and history to bridge information gaps. In one story, he used an incident from the life of lawyer and Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati native, to explain the historical significance and importance of quarantining. Gandhi, who quarantined in South Africa during the plague of the late 1800s, “wrote a full chapter on quarantine in his autobiography,” Khambhayata explains.
Khambhayata is one of countless journalists throughout the Global South who found ways to cover the pandemic with clarity, compassion, and cultural fluency under trying circumstances. To understand the challenges these reporters faced, and the essential contributions they made, we spoke to journalists and fact-checkers from Kenya, Nigeria, China, Peru, Colombia, and the Philippines, in addition to Khambhayata in India. Taken together, their contributions offer valuable lessons on earning communities’ trust in a time of crises.
Chukwunaeme Obiejesi, reporter for the BBC’s Igbo language service in Lagos, Nigeria
In the spring of 2020, misinformation about untested COVID-19 remedies was spreading voraciously in Africa, just as it was throughout the world, including in the U.S. Among other things, the president of Madagascar had famously claimed that an herbal remedy produced from artemisia, a plant used to create malaria drugs, was the coronavirus cure. To Chukwunaeme Obiejesi, a Nigerian multimedia journalist for the Igbo language service of the BBC, there was an obvious need to debunk the falsehoods in ways that would resonate with audiences in his home country.
Obiejesi had done health reporting in English before, but the pandemic was the first time he’d been tasked with covering health stories in Igbo. Although English is the official language in Nigeria, Igbo is the native tongue of around 25 million Nigerians, and it is spoken by 40 million people globally. Obiejesi holds a bachelor’s degree in Igbo language, but he says that reporting on health in Igbo proved difficult. For some words, he says, there are no substitutes in Igbo and there is a risk of not communicating the right information.
He gives the example of “oxygen,” which in Igbo is translated as ikuku ndụ, or “breath of life.” Put in the context of health reporting, Obiejesi explains, people may assume it’s “the air that we breathe” instead of understanding it as oxygen in a medical emergency situation. Obiejesi says that reporters will sometimes work around those problems by finding ways to combine Igbo with English, a mash-up known locally as Engli-Igbo. For oxygen, he explains, “we say, ikuku ndụ oxygen.”
Obiejesi found that audio and video stories were especially effective for conveying concepts in Igbo, and for debunking social media hoaxes and COVID-19 misinformation. He produced short, comedic, but informative video explainers that relied heavily on visuals, and he often combined cultural and satirical elements to communicate global health reports and refute false narratives. During the spring 2020 lockdown, his reports collectively garnered over two million views.
Obiejesi says it was critical that the videos were in Igbo. Although English is an official language in Nigeria and a vast majority of Igbos can read English comfortably, “they generally prefer consuming video contents in Igbo language to reading text articles in Igbo,” he says.
Based on his experience, Obiejesi adds, he views the future of science reporting in local languages as “very bright.” All that’s needed, he says, is “some creative thinking and some innovations.”
Jane Qiu, independent journalist in Beijing, China
Not many journalists have landed interviews with Shi Zhengli, the elusive Chinese virologist at the center of the heated debate over the origins of the new coronavirus. But while reporting a 2022 feature story for MIT Technology Review about a controversial hypothesis that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where Shi is a researcher, independent journalist Jane Qiu spoke with the scientist on multiple occasions, collecting hours of interview material.
To Qiu, it was a testament to the critical role journalists who understand “the historical, social, political, and cultural contexts” of local issues can play in global science stories. She says Shi agreed to speak to her in part because of her strong background in molecular biology and ability to grasp the nuances and complexity of the work, but also, as she wrote, “because I understand China, and because we can communicate in Chinese, our native tongue, in which I conducted the interviews.” Qiu believes she was one of the few journalists Shi could speak to without the fear of being misunderstood.
Qiu thinks that some Western journalists fail to appreciate just how much it can take to gain the trust of sources for whom English isn’t the first language—and how daunting it is for Chinese-speaking scientists to give interviews on sensitive and controversial topics in English. For example, she says, there are no tenses in Chinese, so when they speak in English, Chinese speakers often use the present tense, even when describing something in the past—a tendency that can result in their statements being misconstrued. Similarly, Qiu notes, the absence of auxiliary verbs like could and would “also presents serious challenges for English speakers trying to understand Chinese,” which can lead to “dangerous misunderstanding.” Also, says Qiu, there’s a certain power of expression that you need when weighing in on sensitive and controversial topics—a power that Chinese scientists “might or might not have when they try to express themselves in English.”
Language isn’t the only barrier. Qiu says that journalists from the West may not understand the Chinese social and political context. As a result, she sees a pressing need to build up the capacity of journalists in the Global South to cover global science stories such as the COVID-19 pandemic. She likens this need to the “widespread realization that we cannot rely only on journalists from DC and New York City parachuting down to cover local stories,” such as in the U.S. Midwest. Likewise, outside the U.S., foreign correspondents and parachute journalists alone are inadequate; they will always see the story only from an outside angle.
Qiu cites work by Chinese journalists like Xu Luyi and Chen Xiaoxue of the Chinese-language outlets Caixin and The Intellectual, respectively, as examples of stand-out pandemic coverage in the country. But she’d like to see more representation of Chinese journalists in the international press. Even when local journalists do contribute significantly to stories for major Western outlets, says Qiu, they are often credited only as stringers or fixers. Editors at global outlets should proactively build and maintain relationships with journalists on the ground, she says, and funders should support projects to foster relationships between editors in the West and journalists in the developing world. Otherwise, important stories and perspectives will be missed. “An understanding of the world only from the Western perspective is not only limited but extremely dangerous,” says Qiu. Local journalists, she adds, “are indispensable in our understanding of the world, and our relationship to each other, and how to make the world a better place. So that is not negotiable.”
Leandro Amaya Camacho, journalist for the digital magazine Nube Roja in Piura, Peru
In the early months of the pandemic, Peruvian journalist Leandro Amaya Camacho followed a young university student in Piura, a city in northwestern Peru that was among the most impacted by COVID-19 in the region. The student worked alongside her elderly father in a crowded market. As COVID-19 spread through the country, the duo had to decide between protecting themselves by staying indoors or working in the crowded market in order to feed their family and pay off their debts.
Camacho’s story, published in Nube Roja, which he co-founded, exposed the economic precarity many Peruvians faced during the pandemic, and the difficult decisions they had to make as a result. It was a prime example of how empathetic and respectful on-the-ground reporting enriched coverage of the pandemic—helping elucidate the myriad ways the pandemic affected everyday life in communities. News reports must do more than convey data, Camacho explains. “They should tell the people’s story.”
In Peru, the people’s story is largely one of inequality. A quarter of the country’s population lives in poverty. A disproportionate share belong to Indigenous groups, who comprise around 40 percent of the country’s population but are often marginalized by the mainstream media. “Discrimination is a huge monster,” says Camacho, who himself is a descendant of the Indigenous Sechura ethnic nation.
Camacho says it’s critical to highlight these problems, and that understanding systemic inequality and poverty has been important to effectively reporting about and for Indigenous communities in the face of the pandemic.
He advocates for more Peruvian outlets to translate stories from Spanish into two widely spoken Indigenous languages, Quechua and Aymara. However, “it is not just a matter of translating our reports,” he says. “It is also necessary to identify ourselves with these communities, because journalism is not a power, it is a service.”
Juan Esteban Díaz Puerta and Olowaili Green Santacruz, producers and filmmakers for SentARTE in Medellín, Colombia
As the COVID-19 pandemic first swept across Colombia, the Spanish-language production company SentARTE decided to try something new: Not only did they begin to incorporate health reporting alongside their arts- and culture-focused content, they also began experimenting with producing content through a more Indigenous lens.
Among the journalists they tapped for that effort were Juan Esteban Díaz Puerta and Olowaili Green Santacruz, both Colombian producers and filmmakers who have worked with SentARTE for the last eight years. Latin America’s oldest democracy, Colombia comprises dozens of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian ethnic communities. Puerta, Santacruz, and their colleagues reached out to some of these groups as part of a cross-border effort called The Power of Trust, which sought to strengthen intercultural health networks and build trust in vaccines in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia.
As Puerta and Santacruz describe it, the collaborative approach was a “beautiful process” in which a team of expert translators and producers co-created with the Indigenous communities to give voice to groups that were especially vulnerable during the pandemic. The collaboration yielded a rich array of stories: a short film that documented how the COVID-19 outbreak impacted community life; a documentary about traditional Indigenous healers and medicines; a micro podcast about the coronavirus and the traditional remedies that some Indigenous communities were using to combat symptoms. There were stories of traditional healers who had created protocols to prevent the spread of the disease in the Gunadule community, which Puerto and Santacruz say has so far reported no COVID-19-related deaths. There were stories of Indigenous communities who partnered with experts to establish botanic centers, seed banks, and initiatives for the correct handling and preservation of medical plants, with an eye toward better understanding the implications and effects of COVID-19.
Although those traditional methods hadn’t been vetted with Western science methods, “for the Indigenous people, their traditional and ancestral medicines are effective and give answers for the correct treatment and prevention of diseases,” Santacruz and Puerta said in an email. The aim of the project, they said, was to give Indigenous practices a platform at a time when narratives about these communities were largely being overlooked.
Booma Cruz, writer, editor, and translator for VERA Files in Quezon City, Philippines
At VERA Files, a multilingual Philippines news outlet with expertise in fact-checking projects, the key to combating COVID-19 misinformation was to attack it from every angle.
To start, that meant publishing in as many languages as possible, says Booma Cruz, who is a writer, editor, and translator for VERA Files, as well as a co-founder and a member of the publication’s board of trustees. Many of VERA Files’ fact-checks—which range in format from podcasts and social media posts to interviews and articles—are published in English and Filipino (the national language of the Philippines, which is mostly made up of Tagalog, the country’s predominant dialect). In addition, the site also publishes in two other Filipino dialects, Ilocano and Cebuano.
Sometimes, VERA Files would translate stories by request. A long-form report on the science of vaccine efficacy, originally published in English, was translated into Filipino after a doctor who was featured in the story suggested that Filipino audiences would benefit from it. In 2022 alone, Cruz and the teams at VERA Files produced 145 bilingual fact-checks.
VERA Files also experimented with different storytelling formats. They created short infographics optimized for social media in the Filipino language. They produced “shorties”—fact-checks published as quote cards. They even made English and Filipino versions of a comic book aimed at debunking COVID-19-related misinformation and disinformation.
“Our primary goal was to bring health information closer to the public by illustrating characters who speak in the local language,” Cruz says, adding that the Filipino version of the comic book was more widely read than the English one. “It aims to appeal to underserved audiences who may not easily understand scientific and medical jargon.”
Linda Ngari, fact-checking editor at Africa Uncensored in Nairobi, Kenya
Every time Linda Ngari writes something, she thinks of her 78-year-old grandmother, Risper Mmbone, who lives in a rural town in western Kenya. She asks herself how misinformation affects people of her age and level of education.
Ngari is the fact-checking editor at Africa Uncensored, an independent media house based in Nairobi, where she debunks misinformation, publishing her work in both English and Swahili. From rebutting Facebook posts that claim black tea can cure COVID, to countering misinformation around the effect of vaccines on virility and childbirth, Ngari has tackled unscientific claims that perhaps her ailing grandmother and others in rural areas would fall prey to.
Like other science journalists who report in Indigenous languages, Ngari says it’s often difficult to find the right words to convey technical concepts, and there are certain terms, like mRNA, that don’t translate at all. But she was often able to work around those problems by finding creative ways to help her audience connect with the science.
During the pandemic, for instance, Africa Uncensored began running quiz programs twice a week. “We just asked questions like, ‘Do you know the different kind of symptoms that COVID has?’” and offered awards to recognize the top four winners, Ngari says. “We gained a lot of traction on that,” she adds, noting that the process helped the team not only build awareness about the pandemic and but also strengthen audience engagement.
Ngari found other ways to get her readers involved. She invited them to share their questions, fears, and reservations about the vaccine, which helped give her a better sense of what content would best serve the needs of her community. She says this inclusive approach was essential for making the global story of the pandemic feel relevant to the specific communities she sought to reach. For her, reporting on the pandemic was about more than just writing; it was about providing a public health service to people who may have had no other way to access it. Says Ngari, “The person who is more likely to listen to local languages is not the kind of person who would afford a doctor’s consultation.”
Mahima Jain is an independent editor and multimedia journalist. She is a fellow with the Population Reference Bureau Public Health Reporting Corps. She covers the socioeconomics of gender, environment, and health with a framework of systemic inequality and injustice. Her work has appeared in leading Indian and global publications including The Guardian, Fuller Project, The Caravan Magazine, Mongabay, and others. Mahima was a runner-up for the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award in 2021. Her work was nominated for the prestigious Society of Publishers in Asia Awards in 2021 and the One World Media Award (podcast category) in 2022. Mahima’s journalism has been supported by several prestigious grants and fellowships from the International Women’s Media Foundation, Earth Journalism Network, and Médecins Sans Frontiers. She is based in Bengaluru, India. Follow her on Twitter @theplainjain.
Jennifer Ugwa is an independent investigative reporter based in Abuja, Nigeria, who has partnered with prestigious media organizations locally and globally. She is passionate about under-reported stories on public health that can spur policymakers to make actionable decisions to address Nigeria’s health crises. Her stories on rights violations of internally displaced persons, corporate tax evasions, and environment/climate justice have featured on Women’s Media Center, International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, and Climate Tracker. She is a recipient of international journalism fellowships, including the U.K.-based Finance Uncovered Money Trail training, Investigation Grant for Environmental Journalism, Public Health Reporting Fellowship, Global Reporting Center Fellowship, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @Jennifer_Fact.