Journalists’ safety is paramount in COVID-19 pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, essential services workers including journalists are now in real danger of contracting the virus.

“Journalists are used to working in areas of conflict. They are trained to face danger but this is a threat we haven’t encountered before,” said Des Latham, a South African journalist with digital and broadcasting experience.

“The irony is journalists experience war zones or protests, then return to base where they are usually safe. However in this instance, that’s when they’re the most dangerous when it comes to fellow workers as they could be carrying the virus into their newsrooms.”

Latham has been training journalists for fraycollege’s online course on how to stay safe in the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. He said journalists need to realise how “insidious” the COVID-19 causing SARS-CoV-2 actually is.

“I have been telling them that the virus is so tiny. If a strand of human hair were to be blown up to the size of a football field, the virus would occupy four inches in a corner - it’s that tiny,” Latham said.

Physical protection

Latham said journalists need to be “situationally aware” of their surroundings and reduce the chance of bringing the SARS-CoV-2 back into their work and homes.

“As a journalist, it is easy to forget careful practices while on the field, and in the moment. But that is where mistakes can happen,” Latham said.

Latham said reporters need to “reverse” their journalism practice to be more cautious when returning from reporting in the field. He said it is all about being highly aware of your environment and planning your reporting.

“This means having distance between sources and not meeting in groups. Think of where the doors are in the place you’re going to. Is anyone coughing?”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) maintains that hygiene practices such as the regular washing of hands and physical distancing measures are preventative steps of acquiring the virus. Find WHO’s tips here.

Latham, a trained paramedic said journalists need to be mindful of how they handle gloves and masks and especially of how they wash their hands.

In the video above, Latham demonstrates how to carefully take off a mask without touching it to avoid infecting yourself.

“We touch the tap before and after we wash our hands, not mindful that we’re putting the virus back onto us,” he said, recommending that we should close the tap with tissue to create a protective barrier between our hands and the tap.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) has distilled safety information. Source: (MWFA) Twitter page

Digital Protection

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ safety advisory provides tips for journalists to digitally protect themselves during the pandemic.

“Journalists who are reporting on the spread of COVID-19 are also at risk of being exposed to malware and scams as criminals target people with misinformation and sophisticated phishing campaigns linked to the virus,” the advisory says.

Find CPJ’s comprehensive digital security advisory here.

Latham said hackers and scammers are taking advantage of the fact that people are forced to work from home and online because of social distancing measures.

“I am aware that journalists are being targeted and we are naturally curious but we are also proactive,” he said, adding that reporters should be highly suspicious of any digital information that arrives by email.

Latham said journalists should not open any mail that they did not ask for, even if it seemingly looks like it came from a reliable source.

This is because hackers have been weaseling into people’s devices during the pandemic using the name of reliable sources.

In March, hackers created malware pretending to be the Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracking map.

“A malicious person created a Windows-based application containing malware whose display is practically identical to the Hopkins dashboard,” said Esri, the geographic information system company that hosts the university’s map, in a statement.

“If you come across someone offering a coronavirus dashboard where you need to download software to view it, don’t use it!” the statement added.

Mental Health Protection

“We are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis in which reporting plays a crucial role both as the carriers of important messages of safety to the public as institutions of accountability for local and national responses and as the vehicles of witness,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University.

He was speaking as a panellist at a mental health webinar organised by the International Journalist’s Network (IJNET) earlier this month.

Shapiro said this pandemic is going to challenge both the craft and personal capacities of journalists who are “trauma facing individuals”.

“It’s important to know [...] we all cope differently but we need to know and think about honestly how as journalists how we cope well with things and how we don’t.

“If you have preexisting vulnerabilities whether those are medical diagnoses, psychiatrical or psychological diagnoses or histories of struggles you need to be thinking about what has helped you in the past,” Shapiro said.

International media trainer and co-panellist Sherry Ricchiardi said many journalists do not realise that they need help to cope with trauma that they have experienced both on a professional and personal level.

Ricchiardi said journalists should open up and share feelings about what it is they have experienced to aid their healing journey.

“We are at times our best healers with a little help from our friends,” Ricchiardi said.

Ricchiardi said few newsrooms have protocols in place in dealing with mental health.

“They have protocols in place for safety training and other kinds of issues but often nothing for mental health,” she said.

For mental health protocols to be effective in newsrooms, Ricchiardi said top management has to buy into the idea.

To watch IJNET’s full webinar, click here.

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