Journalists & the COVID-19 pandemic

Even as journalists work under increased responsibilities of keeping the public informed of pandemic-related news and other essential happenings, they face several challenges while covering COVID-19 crisis. As the findings of a global survey conducted by the International Center for Journalists’ (ICFJ) points out, not only do journalists encounter technical challenges while reporting, but also face an increase in online harassment compared to pre-pandemic times. Further, news media’s advertisement-led revenue model has further cracked under an economic lull, which led to unceremonious layoffs of journalists and media workers by organisations.

Challenges faced by journalists while covering the pandemic

Besides facing threats to jobs, journalists were also at the receiving end of governmental restrictions. The International Press Institute has been tracking media freedom violations around the world since the spread of COVID-19. At a time when free flow of news is more necessary than ever, government authorities ramped up censorship and restrictions in covering policies, welfare schemes, and the effect of COVID-19 on public. Supriya Sharma, Executive Editor, Scroll.in, said in a panel discussion that when the number of cases started to increase in India, the government held “one-way” press briefings where authorities refused to answer essential questions from journalists.

Reports of authorities tampering with data, ignoring the public health implications it could cause also surfaced. Allison McCann, a reporter and graphics editor for The New York Times’ said that she and her team have found that certain countries appear to be “obfuscating” the COVID-19 data they release by choosing not to test for the virus or releasing incomplete data. In an attempt to stifle criticism, certain autocratic countries such as Russia, the Philippines, the UAE, have attempted to control information and suppress critical independent media in the name “fake news regulation”.

ICFJ’s report pointed out that 20 percent of around 1,400 survey respondents experienced an increase in online harassment during the pandemic. Women journalists, in particular, have always been subjected to online harassment in the form of death and rape threats for voicing out opinions. To further delve into the issue, ICFJ and the UNESCO have launched a global survey to assess the extent of online violence against women journalists in the context of COVID-19 and #BlackLivesMatter.

Work, health, and livelihood

The pandemic has impacted arguably every aspect of people’s lives. For many journalists across the world, livelihoods came under risk due to sudden job losses. Cyril Sam, an independent journalist, has been tracking layoffs and salary cuts by Indian media houses. Legacy new organisations such as The Hindu and The Indian Express asked journalists to submit their resignations immediately, without a heads-up, warning or performance reviews.

According to ICFJ’s report, about 70 percent of the survey respondents found it difficult to cope with mental health issues while covering the COVID-19 crisis. Another survey conducted by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and University of Toronto also showed that a majority of journalists struggled to cope with the emotional demands of covering the pandemic.

COVID-19 also took away the lives of several journalists throughout the world. While a list could attempt to quantify the death of media professionals, the real loss brought by the pandemic stands immeasurable.

Also in this Dossier:

Panel discussions by media experts on the role of journalism during a pandemic

Best Practices, Guides, and Resources to work during COVID-19 crisis

Pandemic and the Media

(Researched and written by Geetha Srimathi Sreenivasan)