ICFJ launches global forum to support and connect journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic

"The importance of professional journalism in these times of a global health crisis takes on an importance that can define the life or death of people," Luis Botello, deputy vice president of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), told the Knight Center.

ICFJ Forum


To combat the disinformation that exists about the new coronavirus that has already spread to more than 160 countries, ICFJ has recently launched the Global Health Crisis Report Forum. At this juncture, the transnational collaboration of journalists "is essential," Botello added.

This is an initiative of ICFJ and its network of international journalists, IJNet, to bring together and connect journalists, those who verify data and health experts from around the world. In this way, the Forum seeks to satisfy journalistic needs and provide the tools and resources necessary to produce responsible journalism about the pandemic.

¨In the planning of the Forum we reached out to ICFJ’s global network of reporters and also made a call externally to journalists on Twitter on what kinds of challenges they were facing in covering the novel coronavirus pandemic,” Stella Roque, ICFJ director of community engagement and one of the four administrators of the Forum group on Facebook, told the Knight Center. “The response was enormous. We received a flood of emails from reporters all over the world. Needs ranged quite a bit.”

The journalists who responded to the call asked, according to Roque, for more guidance on how to cover a health crisis –especially journalists who have never covered health issues– how to handle ethics and privacy issues when reporting on patients and the families of those killed by the virus, how to safely cover the pandemic without having a “pandemic kit” in their newsrooms suffering from a scarcity of masks, among others.

In Latin America, journalists are taking advantage of the Forum to share the webinars that they themselves are organizing in their countries with guidelines for covering the pandemic locally. The Forum also serves as a space to ask for references from sources in Spanish to contact for podcasts, articles, etc., or to offer expertise and contacts that may serve colleagues from other Spanish-speaking countries.

As an example, through the Forum, a journalist from Mexico obtained the contact information of a mental health expert in Peru for her radio and web podcast in Spanish. Another Colombian journalist summoned her colleagues to carry out a journalistic collaboration on the pandemic, in addition to offering her experience in epidemics to the members of the Forum.

The forum launched on March 20, and the first of its activities was a webinar with Dr. Samba Sow, a public health expert who helped mitigate the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and is now an emissary of the World Health Organization (WHO) in matters related to the pandemic.

This webinar, in which journalists from around the world participated, was broadcast on Facebook Live on March 26.

In a recent webinar in Spanish in which the Peruvian doctor Gabriela Minaya, a specialist in infectious and tropical diseases, was interviewed, the Cuban journalist Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, founder and director of the site Periodismo de Barrio, managed to ask the doctor some questions and expose doubts about the clinical trials that are being carried out to alleviate symptoms of the disease.

Rodríguez also asked at the Forum that there be a debate on the usefulness of wearing masks when leaving home so that expert voices could provide more clarity on the subject.

While the Facebook group is private and aimed primarily at journalists, they also post a curated summary of the webinars and live chats on the websites of the journalists' center and its global network of reporters.

However, in addition to journalists, they also accept those who verify data, journalism students, health experts, and staff from advocacy and media development organizations seeking to support journalists, Roque said.


Webinar in Spanish with journalist Fabiola Torres as moderator. (Screenshot)

For the forum, ICFJ started by contacting health experts because it identified that one of the things that many journalists need right now is accurate scientific information. According to Roque, this is the case especially for reporters who are in various countries of the world where governments do not offer any communication about the pandemic or censor all related information.

“We reached out to universities, took note of which virologists, epidemiologists, doctors, and WHO officials were commenting to the press, and made a push to reach out to them and confirm their participation to speak with our reporters in our Forum,” Roque said.

So far, both the tools they provide and the webinars and live chats are partly in English and partly in Spanish.

Fabiola Torres, a Peruvian journalist who founded Salud con Lupa, a journalism site focused on health issues, is in charge of facilitating webinars and other content and activities in Spanish. Torres, as ICFJ Knight Fellow, is also one of the administrators of the Forum group on Facebook.

“With the ICFJ team at headquarters in [Washington] D.C. and several ICFJ Knight Fellows distributed throughout different parts of the world, we are thinking of a way to help cover this pandemic,” Torres told the Knight Center.

According to Torres, the administrators of the Facebook forum are in charge of accepting the requests of journalists who ask to participate in the group and coordinate with each other to propose an agenda for the issues. They also publish data and sources that may be useful for journalists, also offering them a safe space without false news.

“This issue is not a decision of a single person. We are a group of moderators who are connected by Slack in order to help in the process,” Torres said. In addition to Roque and Torres, the other two administrators are Taylor Mulcahey, of IJNet and Rick Dunham, co-director of ICFJ's Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University.

Just over a week after the forum was launched, it already has more than 1,800 members in the Facebook group.

After the great reception, Botello said they are working to offer the videoconferences, resources and content from the Forum in other languages. "We may include French, Arabic and Portuguese among the languages for the time being."

Likewise, Botello commented, with the Forum they seek more proactive participation by journalists, who promote new ideas that encourage "better [journalistic] standards" to cover the crisis, a greater use of data analysis, visualizations and greater cross-border, in-depth coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Like any global problem, it requires coverage where collaboration across borders is effective," he said.

Since the first week of the Forum's operations, the ICFJ has seen alliances and camaraderie between reporters and journalistic groups around the world.

“We have seen reporters from Africa call for collaborators to put together his cross-border team to apply for the Pulitzer Center’s Coronavirus News Collaboration Challenge. We’ve seen ICFJ partner Code for Africa offer data visualization help to a reporter in a Caribbean, (...) and many more examples of connections that are enriching these journalists amid a pandemic,” Roque said.

For Botello, the Forum aims to respond "energetically" to a global health problem that needs a more informed society. "The transnational collaboration of journalists is essential to combatting the phenomenon of disinformation about the coronavirus," he added.

“We want the global connection to result in bigger cross-border collaborations on health crisis stories and be able to continue to connect reporters with health expertise as the needs arise,” Roque said. At the same time, she added, they want to take advantage of the Forum to conduct journalistic investigations on topics such as censorship, disinformation and other issues related to the challenges facing newsrooms, “in this case, potentially how the COVID-19 pandemic will transform journalism.”

The next webinars with experts on health issues where journalists who register previously can send their questions are listed at this link. At that same link, the videos of the past webinars and live chats are published with a summary of the important points that were discussed.