During disasters, journalism serves as a conduit in communicating information from public officials and experts to the broader public. Amidst one of the biggest crises that whole world has ever seen, journalism has become more essential than ever as reporters serve as the lips, ears, and eyes in the battle against an invisible enemy – the COVID-19 virus.
As American editor Thomas Griffith said, “journalism is in fact history on the run.” In this long run, journalists are confronted with bumps – both big and small –while carrying with them the news that needed to be delivered to the public. With the changing media landscape amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing in relevant news now comes with even deadlier risks and damaging tolls. Hence, in this article, we will be exploring the impact of the pandemic to the people who have been delivering our news 24/7 – the journalists.
The Changing Landscape
The pandemic has brought upon massive changes in reportage and the journalism field in general. The global health crisis has demanded not only a fraction of attention from the media, but a full and continuous reporting around the world. These changes, however, mostly exacerbate the already harsh condition of the reporters.
The most notable change in the field is the environment through which the reporting takes place. Mildred F. Perreault and Gregory P. Perreault in their study regarding COVID-19 journalism, explained that journalists are part of a larger ecology in which their work influences and is influenced by the environment. In the same study, they discovered that journalists found it difficult to report during the pandemic and sought to reduce the forces that were obstructing their job as they attempted to stem the flow of misinformation. With restrictions in place and abounding health risks, reportage has become tricky and challenging. To address this, journalism turns more towards digitization.
With the shift to remote work, journalism has become heavily reliant with digital technology, making more use of digital tools and online communities to report and engage audiences. There is also evidence of stronger engagement and collaborative reporting with audiences in the midst of the pandemic. This includes increased reliance on user-generated content (UGC), more frequent collaboration on verification within online communities, and tapping more heavily into the expertise of audiences, subscribers and members, according to the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). In the sense, the audience has also become more proactively engaged in the content.
However, newsgathering still pose risks. The COVID-19 pandemic has become an unprecedented and a seemingly unending cycle of news story which also places the journalists in riskier situations. True enough, some journalists have been put in life-threatening assignments pre-pandemic, but the virus adds another layer to these pre-existing dangers. According to the Press Emblem Campaign during the World Press Freedom Day, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 1,208 journalists around the world. "The situation is particularly alarming in India: in the past two weeks, at least 50 journalists have succumbed to the virus, on average 3.5 every day,” PEC said.
As the pandemic continues its course, the journalism industry will become even more essential to the society. However, the harsh environment and the numerous struggles faced by each reporter will inevitably make it hard to gather and report news. Thousands of employees work from home during the pandemic, but many journalists are forced to return to their studios, newsrooms, or out in the field which makes them more vulnerable to the virus.
A journalist from Myanmar, who refused to state his identity for security reasons, told the correspondent their experience as a journalist amidst the pandemic. “I had to take a photo to keep my legs short. It’s my job and I do my work. That’s all. There’s no need for pity,” the journalist said.
They also expressed their fears of contacting the virus while doing their job. “I spent the night worrying about what my parents and children would do if I contacted the Covid,” they added. They also expressed dismay with the lack of financial compensation and safety equipment when they are on assignment. “I just only got a mask. Other accessories like disposable gloves I buy myself.”
For these reasons, the journalist resigned from the job. Stating that it isn’t worth the risks of possibly infecting their family. Akin to a typical Asian household, the journalist had to live with the family even though they are earning their own wages. “It’s been a while. After Covid became so widespread, I stopped taking news because of my family.”
The Physical and Mental Toll
The above-mentioned interview is just one of the many narratives from the journalists who work on the field, but it paints the reality of the struggles that reporters had to face during the pandemic. Evidently, a large-scale global survey of journalists in seven languages conducted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University found that journalists covering this devastating human story, at great personal risk, were clearly struggling to cope.
"Our report demonstrates that journalists are working in a severely pressured financial, physical and psychological environment during the pandemic," wrote researchers Emily Bell, Julie Posetti and Pete Brown. "This will be the most enduringly difficult professional period many have experienced during their careers."
According to the survey, seventy percent of the respondents rated the psychological and emotional impacts of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis as the most difficult aspect of their work. A similar number (67%) identified concerns about financial hardship as a significant difficulty, while the intense workload was ranked the third biggest challenge, ahead of social isolation and the risk of actually contracting the virus.
The Fight Against the Infodemic
Aside from the mental and physical toll, journalism is also confronted with another challenge. Establishing credibility through news stories must be contended against the rise of misinformation during the pandemic, or as the World Health Organization labels an ‘infodemic’.
Fear and anxiety are natural reactions especially when battling with an invisible and unknown enemy. It is also within these fears and uncertainties that unreliable information thrives which lead to an insurmountable surge in misinformation especially across the internet domain. Debanjan Banerjee and K.S. Meena in their article explained that the repeated and detailed content about the virus, geographical statistics, and multiple sources of information can all lead to chronic stress and confusion at times of crisis.
“Added to this is the plethora of misinformation, rumor and conspiracy theories circulating every day. With increased digitalization, media penetration has increased with a more significant number of people aiding in the “information pollution.” With this emerging problem, the role of the journalists also encompassed correcting misinformation and debunking myths. This entails producing coverage on accurate health data and public health updates.
On a similar survey conducted by the ICFJ, the survey found that journalists are confronted with a barrage of misinformation during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, regular citizen and political leaders and elected officials are cited as top sources of disinformation.
Added to the mental and physical toll bought about by the pressures during the pandemic, journalists also have to contend with an information ecosystem that is much too tolerant to disinformation and misinformation. While it is clear that their role has become more relevant than ever, their condition had become more stifling and difficult.
In the face of adversity, it is important to address the concerns and campaign for a safer work environment for the journalists who provide inklings of clarity for these uncertainties. After all, while we are sheltered in the safety of our homes, these journalists are out in the dangerous field, providing us with information that aid in our safety and well-being.