*Teresa Mioli and Júlio Lubianco contributed to this report.
In less than three months, COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, has taken over media headlines around the world, including in Latin America.
Many media outlets that had adopted paywalls or made some of their content available only to subscribers have opened access to the general public for all daily coverage of COVID-19, which has already taken more than 7,500 lives and infected more than 180,000 people worldwide.
In Brazil, the first Latin American country to report a case of COVID-19 in late February, the newspaper O Globo created a new journalistic team that involves almost its entire newsroom to cover the news about the coronavirus.
“On our website, we´ve gathered all the content about coronavirus in a new section with almost everything opened to all readers, knocking down the paywall,” editor-in-chief of O Globo, Alan Gripp, told the Knight Center. “We've also created a special newsletter, a PDF with all the tips to deal with the illness (proper to share on whatsapp; estimated more than a million shares), a bot answering questions and a music streaming ‘festival’ with Brazilian artists to help people entertain themselves at home,” he added.
Gripp also said that they have changed the settings of the sections of their print newspaper so that all coverage about the virus is on the first pages of the edition. “We are still thinking about new products to launch in the next weeks, depending on the transmission speed of the virus,” he said.
Another newspaper that has lifted its paywall for everything related to COVID-19 is El Espectador of Colombia.
"The change has been strong and we are trying to guide those who read us so as not to fall into the panic experienced on social networks," Edwin Bohórquez Aya, digital manager of El Espectador, told the Knight Center. "We want to be responsible with the journalism that we are doing and that also implies taking the time to understand all this that is happening because the rain of information seems like a storm," he said.
The Colombian newspaper has begun to channel all its information about the virus through its Health section, and the editor of that section guides the content that is published, both for the digital and print versions. "He is the one who places the calm," Bohórquez said.
Also, according to Bohórquez, they cover the impact of the global pandemic on the national and international economy, such as the fall of the stock markets, etc. All the content on the coronavirus is grouped in a special way in the daily and updated edition of the newspaper, and the design team has opted to make visual content in order to be more educational.
La Voz de Guanacaste is a small newsroom in Costa Rica that is looking to continue generating content that is not just about the coronavirus. "It is evident that our audience needs other news too," Emiliana García, executive director of La Voz de Guanacaste, told the Knight Center.
Due to a lack of advertisers and in order to not overwhelm the work team, the Costa Rican media outlet was forced to suspend its print edition in April, García explained. "We believe that people are consuming more digital content and we should focus our resources on creating more news that way," she added.
In Peru, investigative journalism site Ojo Público has 90 percent of its journalistic team working to cover the pandemic. For this reason, they have organized their coverage of COVID-19 into seven thematic axes, Nelly Luna, general editor and co-founder of Ojo Público, told the Knight Center.
The first seeks to cover the most current data, especially from official sources on the spread of the virus in Peru, such as the number of cases, etc. The second axis is that of service to its audience, distributing resources and information from official national and international sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO), to avoid contagion and take care of the mental health of those who are in quarantine.
The third axis is to combat the "infodemic," that is, the massive dissemination of false information, with fact-checking. The team from its Ojo Biónico section is in charge of that. They have opened a WhatsApp channel to clarify the doubts of their readers about the false information that is shared on social networks. Fourth, they are doing investigations, delving into some issues related to the virus such as which companies are behind the sale and distribution of masks.
The fifth line is devoted to analyzing local and regional data with a more positive approach, Luna said, to encourage calm among her readers. They disseminate information on the number of cases of recovered patients, the number of discarded cases, etc. The sixth has to do with opinion, with editorials on the need for a more proactive citizenry to fight the pandemic, and journalists' opinions on lessons from countries where the pandemic is most advanced.
Finally, through its ten correspondents, the site is covering how the pandemic is experienced in various regions of the country and the emergency measures decreed by the government, such as the recent curfew.
"This allows us to have a fairly broad idea of how the COVID-19 crisis in Peru is being taken on, and through data analysis, of what is happening in the region," Luna said. "Furthermore, we are part of the alliance with IFCN and Poynter to start disseminating verified information, through the hashtag #CoronavirusFacts," she added.
In Ecuador, the site GK is also combating false news about COVID-19 and focusing its coverage on contextualizing and explaining the incidence of the virus in the country. "At GK we don't do breaking news, but we always contextualize the news that occurs and in this case the production of that content has increased exponentially due to the number of updates the government gives on the subject," Isabela Ponce, editor and founder of GK, told the Knight Center.
“Since there is a lot of false news circulating, our job is to publish truthful and contrasted information that sometimes comes a little later, but is better. We try for our publications to not contribute to the collective panic, that is to say, we are going to prioritize the information that guarantees tranquility with useful information,” she said.
They have not neglected, Ponce said, their human rights agenda in this coverage. They have continued to produce mainly content focused on children, women's rights, and health rights.
Since the first case of COVID-19 in Ecuador was confirmed in early March, they have produced a landing page that gathers all the news on the subject and their updates of figures, news and reports.
“On our social networks, especially Instagram, we have prioritized useful graphic content for our readers. Yesterday we asked our readers what they wanted to know about the issue and after consulting experts, the reporters answered those questions, as a way to also contribute [to fighting] disinformation. In the networks we are also spreading data so that they are informed but also with advice to cope with the crisis at home, because a curfew has been decreed here,” Ponce explained.
In Argentina, one of the first Latin American data verification sites, Chequeado, has focused all of its fact-checking work on coronavirus coverage.
“In this context, and taking into account everything false and misleading that circulates about the coronavirus, that is our specific focus when it comes to talking about coverage. Everything we have been publishing aims to provide checked information on the subject and to explain complex issues related to the virus,” Pablo M. Fernández, director of innovation at Chequeado who is also responsible for its telecommuting plan, told the Knight Center.
Combating false information about the coronavirus is also one of the missions of the Mexican journalistic site Animal Político, its director, Daniel Moreno, told the Knight Center. To do this, they have created a microsite where they gather all the information about COVID-19 at the country and global levels.
They seek to resolve the doubts of their readers by consulting with specialists and authorities on the subject, in addition to encouraging health care by explaining and disseminating the measures that the population should take, Moreno said.
Likewise, "we are giving voice to those who will be most affected by the closure of activities, such as informal workers, small and medium businesses, etc," Moreno said. “We want to make a‘ diary ’of how the city is shutting down, and how it will affect daily life; we want to accompany the readers in confinement with useful information on mental health,” he added.
For now, Moreno said, the only figures on people infected with the virus that the country is aware of are from official sources. “Today, even out of care for our journalists, I cannot ask them to chase down the number of sick to check whether the figures are correct. But there will be time to review what was done, if it was done on time, if it was done well and if they informed us how it should be done,” he stressed.
Many journalists in the region are working remotely from their homes, initially to safeguard their staff but eventually to comply with the quarantines and curfews that many countries in the region have decreed.