Journalism in the Time of Covid-19
“Journalists are also human beings and not immune to infection”
ITANAGAR: As the world copes with the pressure of controlling the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to provide accurate information has grown exponentially. However, it is the availability of that accurate information that has become a rare commodity.
The novel coronavirus which first emerged towards the end of 2019 and initially drew little attention from world leaders has since infected more than two million people and has claimed the lives of over 1.5 lakh people globally.
In India, over 13,000 people have been infected and over 500 deaths reported.
As the pandemic shows no sign of slowing down, keeping people informed about the spread of the disease, official government measures taken to control its spread, and dispelling misinformation about COVID-19 - has become essential.
Across India, instances of healthcare and essential services workers being attacked in small and big towns have been reported over fears that they may help spread the virus.
Writing and reporting about these instances and keeping people informed about government measures have journalists confronting a situation that most of us prepare ourselves throughout our careers- ensuring that information that reaches people is accurate while hanging on to our wafer-thin job security.
Some news media outlets with a national reach taking austerity measures such as layoffs and pay-cuts for their staff have already been reported. But while bigger newspapers, TV channels, and digital outlets with corporate backing may weather the storm, journalists in smaller outlets are tackling even bigger challenges than just pay-cuts.
The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism recently launched a study on the implications of the pandemic for journalism aimed at mapping the impact of the crisis on journalism and how journalists are responding to it.
“Along with the human toll of COVID-19, there is also a deadly blow to a growing number of news outlets,” a message on its website by ICFJ’s Global Director of Research, Julie Posetti, said.
“If journalism is to survive the pandemic, we will need quality research to help inform the recovery,” her message read.
But in places where structurally-sound infrastructure and limited resources and knowledge about health reporting, research has become a major obstacle across the Northeast for regional newspapers and channels that have a greater presence in their states.
Adam Halliday, former correspondent for the Indian Express who now runs his Aizawl-based Mizo-language weekly, The Frontier Despatch, said that it has become more difficult than usual to gather information since most government offices are closed or running on minimal staff.
However, he said that there have been some benefits with regards to reporting.
“It's become necessary to interview as many people who might have knowledge of the story you are covering and that necessarily adds more perspective to the story as compared to a few pages of written text,” he said.
Another positive that Halliday has noticed is that the lockdown seems to have “given new life and urgency to the government's information machinery”.
For Farhana Ahmed, a journalist with the Assam Tribune based out of Lakhimpur, her dependency on the government for information has grown significantly.
She said that it is difficult to get accurate information unless released by the government authorities.
Almost no news outlet in the region has journalists that follow one specific beat and reporters are required to write about every subject under the sun. Ahmed said that not being a health reporter per se means that there is a possibility of giving misinformation about the pandemic at the local level.
Imkong Walling of the Nagaland-based The Morung Express said that acquiring information from government sources has always been difficult even before the lockdown. It was compounded by the fact that physical interviews are no longer possible.
For Walling and others, mobile phones and the internet have become necessary tools for their reporting.
However, not being able to meet people does affect reporting.
Nellie Manpoong of the Itanagar-based Arunachal Times said that being physically present cannot be replaced with listening to someone on the phone, especially when it came to human interest stories.
“If you cannot connect with the person you are writing about then I don’t think it makes for a very good story, so this pandemic is certainly making it difficult to get stories without stepping outside,” she said.
One journalist based in Shillong, Meghalaya, said that he is missing interviewing people on the ground and in far-flung areas who have been affected by the confinement.
Itanagar-based Irani Sonowal Lepcha who works with the digital portal EastMojo said that acquiring “facts, figures, and information from authorised officials” has been a difficult task during this lockdown.
On the ground, there is also the issue of personal safety that journalists have to think of.
Northeast Live’s Itanagar correspondent, Indu Chuku, said that she had to procure gloves, masks, and sanitizers on her own.
This has been the case with almost all journalists and news crews in the region where media houses have not been able to provide their staff with personal sanitizers. And while print media journalists are mostly working from home, those in local news channels and online portals have to take to the streets for visuals and ‘bites’.
Tallo Yaku, who works for an Itanagar-based cable news channel, Capital News, said that her office is still open for studio recordings and the staff have to interview people (while maintaining social distancing measures).
For Jun Taki who began his vlog, Arunachal Express last year, and works for another English-language newspaper, Eastern Sentinel, the lockdown combined with the pressures of putting out “up-to-date latest developments” is putting “tremendous strain” on freelancers and vloggers.
“Covering the virus is important from a public service point of view but as a journalist I feel that media outlets should interact with their reporters to put some sense of safety,” he said, and advocated for counselling for journalists.
“Journalists are also human beings and not immune to infection and family members will likely be concerned. This can be dispiriting for many,” he said.
Reporting aside, the lockdown is also having an adverse economic impact on news media outlets in the region.
Many of the media houses have gone on a ‘digital-only’ versions of their newspapers and magazines, effectively killing off whatever little income that was generated from advertisements.
The most-circulated newspaper in Arunachal Pradesh, The Arunachal Times, has reduced the number of issues printed as circulation outside the state capital has stopped.
In Nagaland, many of the papers have gone down a similar route.
Tasungtetla Longkumer, the manager of the English-language daily Nagaland Page, said that in Nagaland the people stopped taking newspapers fearing that the virus could spread from them. After a while, even the hawkers stopped taking them.
Since the lockdown, advertisement revenues have already dropped and the papers in the region with their relatively low circulation figures are counting on government-issued advisories to generate some income during this period.
Longkumer said that this period is forcing her to re-evaluate what path the paper takes from here onwards to sustain it.
The fractured state of the revenue landscape has also hit regional outlets.
Lepcha said that it was “disheartening” to learn that some of her colleagues were asked to leave the organisation during the lockdown.
“Which means they will not be able to take another job during times like these,” she said.
For Halliday, the fact that print copies cannot be distributed and subscription fees cannot be collected has done little to deter him and his team from the focus of delivering news.
“The most important part of our work- informing the public with accuracy -remains undisturbed,” he said, adding that subscribers now receive PDF copies of the magazine.