COVID-19 pandemic: Guidelines to ensure safety of journalists

By Faiswal Kasirye

Malaysia recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus on 25 January 2020. The cases remained low until mid-March when they started to increase rapidly to the extent that the number climbed to more than 2,626 cases by the end of March with 37 deaths where most of them are linked to a religious event held in Kuala Lumpur in late February until early March.

A number of people have been tested and some confirmed having the virus and the others were sent home to their loved ones free of the deadly pandemic virus.

Most of the journalists who covered the outbreak and the spread of this virus are always advised by the Ministry of Health to isolate or quarantine themselves if found with symptoms of the virus. The reason behind this is that they are always interacting with different people while covering the news as well as meeting with their families when they head back to their homes.

As we all know, journalism is a public service and it is vital to the public therefore, it is a job that doesn’t stop. Journalists are covering press conferences and conducting field reporting and they continue to meet different kinds of people in their duties. The question that is left unanswered, however, is that how can journalists protect themselves from contracting this deadly pandemic?

Following the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s effort, Malaysia’s Ministry of Health published guidelines for all businesses in the country, including the media. The guidelines recommend virtual meetings and canceling non-essential trips and the movement control order (MCO) where the government encouraged both its government and private employees to work from home. The MCO was implemented as a preventive measure of the government of Malaysia towards the COVID-19 pandemic on 18 March 2020,  throughout the country.

A number of Malaysian media outlets are implementing preventive measures while at the same time intensifying their coverage of the deadly virus. The largest media houses like the star, Malaysiakini and the others have always encouraged their employees to work remotely if possible in the bid to prevent them from getting close to the possible carriers of the virus since its outbreak. However, for videographers and photojournalists, their job always gets harder because it requires them to be present at the scene of news where and when it is happening.

For journalists who remain in the newsrooms, they are also encouraged to maintain distance between themselves, including between newscasters and interviewees even during live on air. As soon as they get to work, they are advised to clean things in their work stations like computers and laptops, chairs and the rest with at least 80% sanitised, thereafter wash their hands and then start working and do the same before leaving and repeat every day until the deadly virus is defeated and the MCO lifted.

Field reporting guidelines

According to the New Straits Times, recently, Sabah Journalists Association (SJA) president, Datuk Muguntan Vanar said that journalists, photojournalists and video journalists were at risk of contracting Covid-19 while working in the field, therefore recommending that face-to-face interviews should only take place if strictly necessary, and that their health should be put first.

Covid-19 situation is changing so fast by the day to the extent that journalists and news organisations must keep up-to-date with the advice of their relevant governments and authorities, both in terms of how that might impact on the media’s movement, as well as checking the WHO guidelines and those of their relevant health services, just to make sure that they are safe together with their families.

Additionally, journalists must be made aware of their own health constantly and if they get any symptoms of the virus, they ought to inform their employers and must follow policies put forward by the government and their respective media houses. This adds up to the saying that goes, that there is no story that is worthy a journalist’s life.

The guidelines penned down by WHO and the Ministry of Health Malaysia are more applicable to the digital outlets that are used to working remotely than for photojournalists and videographers. Additionally, visual journalists are advised to rely on interviews via video conferencing during this pandemic if necessary, and that if that fails, they choose a location with fewer people and ensure that no one has a cold or flu as they are the symptoms that pose real danger to the journalists.

As the virus continues to spread to the furthest places in the country, open spaces are no longer considered safe since the virus was designated as pandemic. There are some emerging studies about the viability of the virus in the air, which have so far concluded to being two to three hours. However, the question lingering in all our minds should be how much of the virus in the air has impact? The answer is yet to be reached at. Therefore, journalists should always choose places where there are few people that may turn out to spread the virus.

With the coming of citizen journalism, everyone is now seen as a journalist especially with the ever changing technological advancement in the world. The public can now at any time film or capture news using their gadgets and thereafter send it to the different news outlets for publication. This in one way or another that saves the plight of journalists as some news is generously covered by normal people especially in remote areas where the journalists cannot reach.

As for street interviews where one cannot ascertain if those being interviewed are carriers or not, always endeavor to wear a surgical mask, all in the bid to defeat the spreading of the virus. Health practitioners encourage us to use the masks for a period of two hours, but as we all know, it is hard to conduct a meaningful interview on a topic like COVID-19 to spend two hours interviewing the same person. So, for each person that you interview, endeavour to use a different mask. This is according to the WHO guidelines to journalists covering such epidemics.

Covering epidemics like COVID-19 requires a big team of journalists. But as for the present case, it is prudent that those interested in having a wide coverage of the same have to consider a small team of probably two people who might be ideal for covering epidemics, which reduces the likelihood of the widespread infection of the virus especially now that it is spreading fast and has been declared a pandemic.

As for the equipment, reporters are advised to use two microphones, one for themselves and one for the interviewee. This will always help to ensure that no one extends the virus to the other, that’s why they always need to clean all the equipment with a sanitiser after use. As for the on-the-ground teams covering this pandemic, all the equipment is supposed to be disinfected.

More so, below are a few tips for journalists during their daily coverage of news activities during this pandemic.

Prevention against COVID-19: Tips for journalists

  • Work from home if you can.
  • While in the newsroom, clean your work station every day with at least 80% sanitisation.
  • Always wash your hands regularly and sanitise as well.
  • Conduct one on one interviews only if necessary.
  • Keep a social distance of at five feet from those you are interviewing.
  • Use two microphones and sanitise them with sanitised disposable towels.
  • Clean all equipment with sanitised towels.
  • Always consider sending teams of not more than two people.
  • Choose places with low foot traffic to avoid an influx of people that would jeopardise your health.
  • Wear a surgical mask regularly while conducting random interviews with people on the streets and always dispose it off immediately after use. ***

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