Staying Safe While Reporting on COVID-1910 April 2020
Internews' Global Health Media Advisor Ida Jooste and Snehasis Sur, a senior television journalist, media trainer and president of the Press Club, Kolkata, provide practical advice for how journalists, particularly in audio-visual media, can protect themselves while covering the coronavirus pandemic.
Safety wasn’t top of mind initially, said Jooste. “It was as if journalists started covering the science, the horror and all of that, and now there is a really a moment when journalists are taking note and editors and newsrooms are taking note, and they’re saying: ‘How can we ensure that we stay safe and keep all of those around us safe while covering this issue?’”
For much of the pandemic there has been and continues to be a huge focus on the numbers, Jooste said, with countries tracking confirmed infections and deaths.
“And we feel as if we then know how widespread Covid-19 is,” she said. What isn’t being reflected, however, are the numbers of those not being tested, and people with mild symptoms or no symptoms are also infectious.
What that means, is that journalists are possibly infectious and so are the people they’re interviewing, said Jooste, emphasizing the core principle in both medicine and journalism of “do no harm.”
Here are some tips Jooste offered:
- Check the local guidance to see how journalists are classified because it may provide more access to personal protective equipment.
- Consider not how do I stay safe in the field, but how do I stay credible as a journalist without going to the field?
- Remote or innovative ways to gather news and information include: focusing on credible, impactful content; crowdsourcing contacts for audio, video files; partnering with other media to share sources and information (on court documents, for example).
- Telling a story from a distance draws on a journalist’s ability to make connections, make meaning.
- Safety also means protecting your own digital safety and protecting others against misinformation.
- Finally, mental health is just as important as physical health – remember to take breaks from work and COVID-19 and connect with loves ones.
And some tips provided by Snehasis:
- Keep a record of where you’ve been and who you’ve come into contact with over the past two weeks for contact tracing. India has developed an app people can download to help with that.
- Follow the guidance of the local authority where you’re based and make sure you’re staying on top of the latest rules and advice because they’re changing often.
- For TV journalists, microphones can be a medium for contamination. So keep more distance between yourself and the interviewee or provide a tabletop microphone to increase personal space. The head basket of microphones can be removed for cleaning.
- Don’t forget to clean your cell phones with an alcohol-based disinfectant.
Some commonly asked questions:
Q: What are investigative journalists to do during lockdowns?
A: Ida = Rely on past contacts, the same instincts to question things and rely on civil society and accountability groups also.
Q: How do you prepare journalists and reporters mentally and psychologically, for possible lay-offs, salary cuts? What advice do you have for journalists in case they lose jobs?
A: Ida = All of the major media development organizations in the world, including Internews, are looking at this issue really, really closely because obviously we’re all concerned about truth telling and you can’t have truth telling if you don’t have journalists who are employed to do that. Stay tuned.
Snehasis = The downsizing has already started, paycuts have already started. This lockdown, this COVID-19 will kill various jobs in sectors including the media. Media has already become its victim. For individuals, we need to develop ourselves as content providers. There are various other areas, industries, services that will require content. So diversification is the answer. Practice content writing and make one’s presence felt on social media, social media also has a revenue model
Q: Once this lockdown is over, what would be the role of journalists in convincing our audiences to keep physical distancing still?
A: Ida = Our stories can change and shape norms and so if we continue to write stories that illustrate how successful lockdowns have flattened the curve or how other countries or how even a facilities in our county have been able to change the trajectory of the pandemic, that’s inspiring to people and gives them something to aspire to.
Snehasis = Covering the best practices, giving examples of two countries – that county A has done it while country B has failed. We need to follow county A and if we don’t, we’ll become country B. And we need to gather information about what is to be done after lockdown. Obviously there will be advisories from the authorities – governments, medical boards – and our duty is to transmit and create awareness by virtue of our media packaged well and repeatedly transmitted so people understand the necesscity of social distancing. Creating awareness is our duty.
Q: Millions of jobless poor are leaving their homes to look for food. They’re not maintaining physical distancing and many don’t have access to media. How do we ensure that hygiene messages are conveyed to them?
A: Ida = When people don’t have access to mainstream media there is a major challenge, but you would often find that people do have access to a form of community engagement or that there are people who do get to communicate with somebody with information. So rather than think, here’s a radio station with its signal or a TV station or print press that gets to people, think which individual with which organization gets to those people and do whatever you can to ensure those people are getting safety messages and have responses they can convey to questions.
- Ida Jooste is an award-winning journalist and media technical expert based in Durban, South Africa. As Internews’ global health media advisor, she guides the design and implementation of programs centered on pandemic response, communicable and non-communicable diseases, universal health care and other public health areas of concern. Ida is currently working with colleagues and media partners on the global COVID-19 response, on the Ebola and post-Ebola response in West Africa and the DRC, as well as family planning and sexual and reproductive health issues and HIV prevention in various parts of the world.
- Snehasis Sur is a senior television journalist working in Kolkata, India, for more than three decades. He also has experience in print and radio reporting. A media trainer for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) and president of the Kolkata Press Club, he recently co-authored a guide on journalists’ safety in the COVID-19 era.
- Your safety as a journalist covering COVID-19
- Reuters Institute report on misinformation
- Internews’ COVID-19 resources (links to our blog, tools and webinars)
- PEN America online harassment field manual
- COVID-19 safety guide for journalists produced by the Chennai and Kolkata press clubs
- PowerPoint presentation by Ida Jooste
- PowerPoint presentation by Snehasis Sur
- BBC’s COVID-19 advice for staff