Journalists need to be protected during the pandemic

Journalists must stay safe now because we are going to need them even more later.

Mexico city
A journalist talks to the camera on Paseo de la Reforma avenue amid the lockdown in Mexico City on April 6, 2020 [Reuters/Carlos Jasso]

Pictures of a CTV journalist trying to observe “social distancing” by strapping his microphone to a hockey stick may have prompted smiles at a very Canadian answer to coronavirus reporting. But journalists’ safety in this time of unprecedented pestilence and economic turmoil is no laughing matter.

The spotlight now is rightly on medical and emergency response staff and caregivers. Their chances of getting sick or even dying from COVID-19 while helping the rest of us are real and growing. Reports of the lack of personal protective equipment in hospitals are horrifying.

In some instances, doctors and nurses have uploaded their own photographs and commentary to social media to show the world the conditions inside emergency rooms. One group nurses in New York resorted to wrapping themselves in plastic garbage bags for protection.

User-generated reports and photographs like these break news. Yet we still want professional journalists to fact check, contextualise and amplify many of them. We 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.

Just as important, they have to return from those newsgathering forays unharmed. If you think our need for sober, eyewitness testimony and hard facts is pressing now, just wait until authoritarian governments, online hucksters, misinformation peddlers and conspiracy trolls have further restricted, distorted or poisoned the well of public health information in a few months’ time.

Those countries that stifle independent news and jail journalists in “normal” times have already been hard at work. China at first tried to quarantine the truth along with the population at the epicentre of the outbreak. As the virus rampaged through Iran, the leadership censored news of its spread with devastating consequences for public health.

Governments from Thailand, through Hungary andEgypt to Honduras are using the cloud cover of the disease to introduce emergency measures that could roll back basic freedoms, clamp down on the press or restrict foreign correspondents.

Even in regions where authorities are not actively suppressing news, many leaders whether through incompetence or indifference do not appear up to the public health challenge.

That is where credible, independent media that focus on the truth of this disease come in. And to carry out this vital function, journalists and media support workers must avoid infection.

Even in the United States well-resourced and safety-conscious news organisations are finding it difficult to keep on-the-ground reporting flowing and their staff safe.

It appears only a matter of time before the virus spreads in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia where many governments are ill equipped to cope. Their populations will need timely and accurate information which sometimes may contradict the official stance. Already underfunded and under threat, the independent media in these regions face even more testing times ahead.

That is why owners, publishers, and editors need to provide the knowledge and the resources to keep their staff healthy. Individual reporters, whether staff or freelancers, must re-learn how to stay safe even when reporting in their own neighbourhoods, let alone further afield. Reporting should be risk assessed, with hygiene and safe practice protocols emphasised continually.

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.

Journalists like those in Italy or Spain are covering a deadly story on their own doorstep yet they cannot really go home or into their offices for fear of infecting family or colleagues. They are under intense psychological strain as well as suffering from physical exhaustion.

We have already seen the newsrooms of big media organisations hit by the virus in New York. They scrambled to anchor broadcasts from other studios and cities and deploy regional teams. They have resources. Media houses in much of the rest of the world do not have such deep pockets.

It is imperative they prepare now for what could be months of struggle.

Some are already doing so. It was heartening to see editors in Pakistan publish guidelines on how to keep reporters from infection.

Journalist groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists for which I work, have rushed out resources and information such as these safety advisories in multiple languages and offered online consultations with news safety experts HP Risk Management, based in London.

These are unprecedented times. No working journalist alive has ever covered anything like this story. Even veterans of war-reporting or Ebola coverage need to reevaluate risk and learn new skills.

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.

We have already seen what censorship, disinformation, and news deserts can lead to in the first phase of this calamity. The public needs trusted news now and will need it even more in the future. 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.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.