Urgent need to protect front-line journalists during pandemic period

  • 1 month ago
World Press Freedom Day,
This month’s World Press Freedom Day has driven home the fact that journalism today has been more vital and more at risk than ever before.
These are unprecedented pandemic times for most journalists across the globe facing challenges while reporting the (COVID-19) outbreak accurately and safely.
No working journalist alive has ever covered anything like the COVID-19 story before in their professional careers and even veterans of war-reporting or Ebola coverage need to re-evaluate risk and learn new skills.
This month’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) has brought with it another reminder that during crises like the corona pandemic, newspapers are the primary source of crosschecked information, considered opinions and critical analyses. On WPFD, Summer Lopez, a senior director of PEN America commented, “Now more than ever, truth-tellers play a vital role in maintaining free expression and free societies. Journalism has never been more vital and has never been more at risk.”
Journalists are at heart storytellers who are not allowed to let their imagination interfere with the plot. And when the story is a pandemic, a disaster unfolding in mysterious ways in a society where authorities try to hide facts and throttle the media, their job gets tougher.
Although, the spotlight now is rightly on medical and emergency response staff and caregivers, front-line journalists also need to be protected during these pandemic times.
Pictures of a CTV journalist trying to observe ‘social distancing’ by strapping his microphone to a hockey stick may have prompted smiles but journalists’ safety in this time of unprecedented pestilence and economic turmoil is no laughing matter.
The fast-moving COVID-19 stories are presenting newsrooms with a once-in-a-generation test to interpret the scientific data, tell the human stories and hold political leaders to account. 
The world wants professional journalists to fact-check, contextualize and amplify many of them. They also expect original reporting and that means writers and broadcasters taking risks. As in a war or natural disaster, they have to go to the front lines even if in this pandemic those lines are anywhere and everywhere.
Individual reporters, whether staff or freelancers are trying to re-learn how to stay safe even when reporting in their own neighbourhood, let alone further afield. Reporting should be risk assessed, with hygiene and safe practice protocols emphasized continually. That is why owners, publishers, and editors need to provide the knowledge and the resources to keep their staff healthy.
Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said that independent media acts as the first line of defense against the pandemic by providing steady and reliable information about the virus and government responses. “We need to salute those journalists and bloggers that are trying to hold power to account because people’s lives depend on it,” he added.
Disaster reporting guidelines advise journalists to use the right terminology and not lose sight of the context in which things are said and done while at the same time stay safe and protected from the deadly COVID-19 virus.
To provide journalists with the help they need, the Thomson Foundation (TF) has teamed up with a range of specialist partners to produce a series of free, online courses on its Journalism Now platform. The courses cover –Safety while reporting the story, Verification of facts and Content production.
Sara Loane Communications Manager, TF in her post titled - The challenges of covering coronavirus: how we can help has remarked, “These are unprecedented times and Thomson Foundation will continue to work with journalists around the world to ensure they are able to carry out detailed research and preparation and get their reporting right. The challenge for journalists is ensuring their stories are based on truth, not opinions, and science, not speculation.”
Even in developed nations well-resourced and safety-conscious news organisations are finding it difficult to keep on-the-ground reporting flowing and their staff safe. And that is where credible, independent media that focus on the truth of this disease comes in to carry out this vital function - journalists and media who support workers must avoid infection.
Stress levels are high both among reporting staff, but also their families. Virtual peer support networks and mental health resources need to be considered - if journalists are going to be able to stay the course. They are under intense psychological strain as well as suffering from physical exhaustion.
Print reporters can minimise some risk by reporting on the phone. Photographers and broadcasters do not have that luxury and are particularly exposed. Freelancers have their own problems, not least financial. A few report having too much work while others have seen strings dry up.
Journalist support groups, including the International Women's Media Foundation and Internews, are trying to put together a fund to help cash-strapped freelancers.
No one yet knows what economic havoc the pandemic will wreak on the news business, but some small outlets are likely to go under as advertising tails off and costs mount. 
For the media, the coronavirus is a marathon not a sprint, and journalists need to stay fit and healthy to get safely to the finish line. It is imperative they prepare now for what could be months of struggle.
Finally a poignant thought - journalists must stay safe now because the world is going to need them even more later - once the pandemic subsides, a vaccine is found, lockdowns open up and it becomes BAU (Business As Usual)!