With journalists across the world testing positive for the virus, how much are Indian reporters at risk?
In this COVID-19 pandemic, there are certain professions that cannot stop working. This includes healthcare workers, police, armed forces, and journalists.
For us journalists, new information, advisories, and statistical updates become a public service. I must admit there is an adrenaline rush to it like when we cover wars and conflict. But in that buzz and the welcome reminder that journalism is first and foremost a public service, we must not forget the importance of cutting out sensationalism and sticking to verified facts.
Looking for glory and praise for doing our jobs is detrimental to the profession. A doctor does not look for glory when he’s trying to save a patient’s life. He’s just focused on his job in the most ordinary way. Despite the noise of glamour-drenched anchors and editors, our job as journalists is to function like soldiers. Seriously, quietly.
But, stop. Unlike soldiers whose default mode is to be prepared for combat and facing death, and doctors who are aware of the high possibility of contracting contagious disease leading to suffering or death, most reporters do not join the profession with that mindset. It is a given that when you join the armed forces, you will be risking your life. A journalist doesn’t exactly think or believe that they will be expected to die for the profession. While it is an essential service that is the first line of defence for democracy (especially important in the times we are in), that level of sacrifice or fervour is expecting something that most reporters haven’t signed up for. That’s the reality.
It is factually incorrect to say that this is not the plague of the 19th century and people died then because there were no antibiotics. Coronavirus, in fact, puts us in exactly the same situation as the plague. There was no cure for plague then and there is no cure for coronavirus at this point. It is a virus and antibiotics, as we all know, do not work on any virus. Desperate research is going on all over the world to create a vaccine and find a cure.
Two ABC News journalists in the United States have tested positive. Six CBS employees have tested positive, including Seth Doane, a CBS News correspondent who lives in Rome. Australian journalist Richard Wilkins, who interviewed Tom Hanks’s wife Rita Wilson (who has the illness), has tested positive. One journalist at the Times (UK) has tested positive. Larry Edgeworth, who worked in production on assignments for NBC News in New York, died on March 19, 2020 after testing positive. Four journalists are in quarantine after interviewing the son of the person who died after testing positive for coronavirus in Kalaburagi, near Bengaluru.
Despite all of this, Indian journalists like others around the world have shown quintessential courage. Listening to owners of news organisations who ostensibly reassure their journalists that if they die there would be other journalists to cover this story must be disconcerting indeed. I trust it was not meant with malevolence but simply a bit of solecism.
Owners and editors will send out reporters to cover the coronavirus story. The reporters must go out in the field but equip themselves with all the protective measures required. So, what should reporters do?
Preparation is everything. Obviously, wear a mask and change it as soon as it gets damp. Remove it from the elastic bands and do not touch the mask itself. Put the new one on touching only the elastic bands. Your employer should provide you with a supply of N95 masks.
Carry a hand sanitiser with you at all times. Wash your hands as often as you can with soap and then use the sanitiser. If there is no water, carry wet wipes and then use the sanitiser. Wash your hands afterwards as soon as you can. Sanitisers should have at least 70 percent alcohol content. And don’t forget to sanitise your mobile phones.
If a politician is giving a statement, agree amongst yourselves to record him from at least six feet away. Try to stand without huddling, not letting your clothes touch another’s. Is it possible? I don’t know but we are in new territory, and by agreeing to new rules we can protect ourselves. Better yet, convince the netas on your beat to conduct digital press conferences, with questions from journalists taken up live. There’s plenty of technology available today to make this happen.
Do not touch the mics at all. If possible, wash the mics and disinfect them on your return. After which hands have to be washed and sanitised. All equipment, especially tripods, should also be washed and disinfected.
Avoid clip-on mics. Use directional mics as much as you can. Inform your employer that these are a basic requirement.
If you are in a contaminated facility, do not place your equipment on the floor. Do a hand-held shoot.
After an assignment, remove your clothes immediately. Bathe immediately. Wash your clothes in hot water and soak in disinfectant. Keep one pair of outdoor shoes that you remove at your door when you get home. Wash them whenever you can. Keep a separate pair of indoor shoes.
If you are using public transportation, use sanitiser on your hands as soon as you get off. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE.
Try and stick to locally-sourced cooked food while on assignment.
Wear a mask in your office. You have no idea who has been exposed or where they’ve been.
At a press conference, try to get everyone to sit leaving one seat vacant between two people. If that’s not possible, stand maintaining a distance.
Take time out to snack on fruit, maintain a healthy diet and do not skip meals no matter how pressing the assignment may be.
Try and get as much legwork done on the Internet and phone. For the next few weeks, at least, we must avoid as much exposure as possible.
This has to be accompanied with your newsroom maintaining extreme hygiene. Sanitising surfaces twice a day with disinfectants is a must. All laptops, desktops, machines, and surfaces should be disinfected.
Last but not the least, report to your office and immediately self-isolate if you experience onset of coronavirus symptoms.
It takes just one moment of carelessness to undo all your precautions. Following these rules is not paranoia. It is quite simply sensible. Do not be intimidated or embarrassed by those who scoff at safety precautions. It’s your life and your family’s. Do your job brilliantly. Play safe and you will be fine.
IJNet has compiled a list of tips for reporting on COVID-19 with advice from journalists who have covered the disease.
The Society of Professional Journalists has compiled a toolbox of resources for covering coronavirus.