Journalism in times of COVID-19
MANILA, Philippines — In the war against the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Philippine media organizations are taking unprecedented steps to ensure the well-being of employees while delivering timely updates to a public hungry for information.
“We are in uncharted territory. I don’t think anything like this has happened since World War II or martial law,” Felipe Salvosa II, head of the journalism program of the University of Santo Tomas, told the Inquirer in an interview.
“The maxim ‘no story is worth your life’ is still true especially in a pandemic,” said Salvosa, who is also an editor of independent news site PressONE.Ph.
Television networks ABS-CBN Corp., GMA Network Inc. and TV5 have revamped programming while employees were told to work from home whenever possible after Luzon island was placed on enhanced community quarantine.
Adjusting to crisis
ABS-CBN News Channel and dzMM are pooling resources for a single broadcast, a company spokesperson said.
GMA News TV was briefly taken off the air but resumed on March 21. It will simulcast with dzBB on GMA’s primetime newscast “24 Oras,” the company said in a statement.
“This is different than previous assignments in that the danger is invisible,” broadcast journalist Jeff Canoy of ABS-CBN told the Inquirer. “But it’s also a time where there’s a lot of confusion. So verified information needs to be more visible to the public. Journalists are called to serve at the frontline.”
The scope of news coverage and delivery has also changed in several ways.
News teams may attend important government press conferences but hospitals and other COVID-19 hot spots are off-limits.
Health kits are provided and teams are told to keep a daily log of activities and people they meet—important for contact tracing.
Finding a balance
Roby Alampay, former editor in chief of BusinessWorld and founder of podcast producer Puma Public Productions, said media should be allowed to find the right balance between following strict safety rules and delivering the news.
In this new era of news coverage, the internet is a powerful ally.
CNN Philippines shifted to broadcasting live updates on social media after the Worldwide Corporate Center in Mandaluyong City, where its office is located, was closed for disinfection when an employee in the building contracted COVID-19.
Rappler, one of the country’s largest online news platforms, has implemented a strict work-from-home policy.
GMA News Online noted a “substantial increase” in viewership in its digital platform, said Jaemark Tordecilla, GMA Network assistant vice president for news and public affairs digital media.
But restrictions to physical coverage also has its downside. For online press briefings, the government’s narrative is often amplified while other questions are ignored, a reporter covering updates on COVID-19 said.
Media companies are also hurting as advertising revenues continued to decline with big corporations diverting resources to their own employees or donations to COVID-19 health care frontliners.
Reduced revenues coupled with logistics challenges under the quarantine has forced some publications to move their operations online.
Broadsheets, such as Manila Standard and Malaya Business Insight, have suspended their print editions and went online.
The country’s largest tabloid, Abante, will also go online as daily street sales plummeted, general manager Gil Cabacungan said on Twitter.
Mindanao Times stopped printing on Friday and moved online, editor in chief Amalia Cabusao said.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer also implemented work from home while offering the digital version InquirerPlus free of charge for 30 days.
InquirerPlus is a mobile app that can be accessed through the internet.
“We know readers will have all this slack time and need information. We want to fill that gap,” said Rudyard Arbolado, Inquirer chief operating officer, in an interview.
“Journalists cannot surrender their obligation to report the extent of the outbreak and the quality of government responses,” Salvosa said. “We need more reporting during pandemics, not less.”
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