Embracing the ‘new normal’ — figuratively, of course
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reports in relation to Inquirer.net’s 23rd anniversary. This article deals with the news team’s coverage of news events in the time of COVID-19)
MANILA, Philippines — Seeing a throng of journalists huddled over a source being interviewed is not an extraordinary sight during a news coverage. One could actually feel the energy pulsating from each of the reporters documenting what might be history unfolding before them.
And then the coronavirus pandemic happened, inevitably changing the landscape of news gathering.
Suddenly, the jostling and hustling for choice positions to get the best quotes from a resource person during a coverage was a thing of the past. The “new normal” ushered in the period of Zoom, Google Meet and other video-conferencing sites. Take for instance the hearing on the application for legislative franchise of media giant ABSCBN that led to the denial by a panel of the House of Representatives. Arguably the biggest news story of the year — apart from the COVID-19 pandemic, that is — the voting on the matter was mostly done via videocon.
And the journalists? They were covering the momentous event, but certainly most were keeping their distance from the hustle and bustle at the House.
Not as serious at first
When news about the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was first reported, many did not think it would be as serious as it is is now. According to the Agence France-Presse, there were more than 39.7 million cases of the novel coronavirus officially diagnosed as of October 18, of which at least 1,111,152 since the outbreak began in China in December 2019. In the Philippines, total number of cases as of Oct 17 was at 354,338 with active cases at 52,432. The global health crisis had resulted in a number of jobs being brought home, and more people still became jobless because of loss of income due to subsequent lockdowns. For those who were lucky to still keep their jobs, change is something that they have learned to embrace, and INQUIRER.net reporters are no exception.
Consuelo Marquez was covering the Health beat when the first case of COVID-19 in the Philippines was announced.
“That’s where it started. People got scared. When we went out the main office of the Department of Health in Tayuman, you could see people buying face masks and that was the day that alcohols went out of stock,” Marquez said.
“At first I was afraid because one of the first few cases were in San Lazaro, very near the DOH. I was just thinking at that time that at least, there has not been any local transmission. So I was just telling myself that maybe it’s not that serious yet,” she added.
Christia Marie Ramos, who covers the Senate beat, recalled how a normal day looked like in the upper chamber pre-pandemic: reporters would usually cover Senate hearings and the session through the monitors available in the media office. Should they need to clarify an issue or get a comment from a specific senator or resource speaker, reporters would personally approach them after the hearings and sessions.
But in March, Ramos said she was asked to go on quarantine after a resource person in one of the hearings that she covered tested positive for the virus. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, who she had interviewed at the time, announced he was going on self-quarantine.
“At first, I did not expect it to be as serious as it is. I did not even leave my boarding house initially because I was thinking it would only last for a month and the quarantine would be lifted. I never thought that we would still be in our homes six months later while daily cases rise by the thousands,” Ramos said.
Later on, she further recalled, the Senate media center was closed, and at one point, the Senate was even placed under lockdown and sessions were temporarily suspended as part of health measures.
“The biggest change in the coverage was really the access to the senators. At first, we were still figuring out how the new set-up will turn out to be because the Senate was no longer accessible to the media and at that time the cases were rising among Senate staff,” Ramos said.
Transitioning to online
The scene in the House of Representatives was no different.
One of the first previews of how the sessions and hearings would be conducted in the lower chamber was the technical working group meeting of the House’s Defeat COVID-19 Committee (DCC) health subcommittee which was held via videoconferencing back in April.
“In my experience covering the House, it was probably the first time where everything was conducted online. People were in their homes and people were still really trying to figure out how the software works. Some kept getting logged out of the meeting due to poor internet connection,” reporter Neil Arwin Mercado said.
“From my end, it was a struggle at first because we want to directly ask our sources our questions. It’s not just what they say that matter because sometimes you also have to hear their tone or facial reaction. It’s something that might be missed if the question is asked through text,” Mercado added.
Press briefings also began to transition online as reporters seek to find means to communicate with their sources and government officials. Currently, most press briefings — including the health bulletin updates of the Department of Health and the regular briefings of President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque — are being held online.
Stories that matter
The health and politics beat became the focus during the pandemic as the public awaits updates on the pandemic as well as the policies that the government are implementing in response to the health crisis.
Palace reporter Darryl John Esguerra, who also covered the Health beat, highlighted the importance of keeping the public informed and communicating the stories in such a way that would be understandable to the masses, a task that lays a heavy hand on the shoulder not just of government communicators, but also of the media.
“It’s a technical topic. The role of health reporters today is to laymanize the terms — how they can affect the public and how important these issues are to the people. Terms such as vaccine, clinical trials, and so on — we should be able to explain these to the people,” Esguerra said.
Esguerra said he took that opportunity to learn about coronavirus by reading articles and papers and doing in-depth research on the health topic at hand.
“You should really research. One time, I had an article about the mutation of the virus. I think I spent 7 hours just reading studies just so I could understand them and write them accurately. It’s challenging,” Esguerra said.
“Asking questions to experts also helps,” he added. But there are struggles along the way, said Esguerra.
“Transparency (in governance) is so important. In the first few cases, the health department’s case bulletins are very detailed. It includes the data of the patient such as the age, address, sex, where they are currently admitted, and so on. But when the cases rose, it’s gone,” Esguerra added.
The pandemic also saw the rise of modern heroes — the frontliners; the COVID-19 survivors who donated convalescent plasma to other infected patients; the ordinary Juan Dela Cruz striving to rise above the crisis. And then there were those whose struggles are made doubly hard by the economic crunch, or those who lost their battle with COVID-19.
Mercado recalled his conversation he had with a relative of an overseas Filipino worker who succumbed to COVID-19. The relative was crying as she was narrating the story.
“There were times when you ask yourself: Who am I to speak on their behalf? Am I giving their stories justice when I could not even talk to them in person? Sometimes, you can’t help but feel disconnected,” Mercado said.
“The least one could do is give light to their stories and show that it is happening. People are struggling, people are trying to survive in this pandemic. We have to remember that the real fight is out there,” he added.
Mercado likewise highlighted the importance of digging deep into the issues and their implications to the society.
“It’s interesting to see how the politics comes into play with the pandemic, how religious traditions clash with the health protocols, how this pandemic exposed the huge gap between the rich and the poor and the privilege that goes along with it,” Mercado observed.
Adjustments amid the quarantine
In Ramos case, she has been doing her coverage from her hometown in Malolos, Bulacan. When she was informed to go on a 14-day quarantine, she was spending the weekend with her family.
However, when Duterte placed Metro Manila, and eventually the entire Luzon on enhanced community quarantine in March, Ramos could no longer return to Manila to cover her beat. She has stayed in Bulacan since, and has also moved out of the place she has been renting in Makati to cut some cost.
“News coverage from home is definitely more convenient than going on-field, but you miss the feeling of covering from the field. But of course you have to think of your safety. As multimedia reporters, the transition to utilizing the online platform was not that hard,” Ramos said.
“But definitely you miss the interaction with your fellow reporters, your interaction with your sources when you interview them face-to-face,” she added.
Such is the case of Cathrine Gonzales, who is covering the Manila beat. Like Ramos, she also opted to return to her hometown in Cavite to be with her family as the new work system took effect.
While she gets to spend time with her family in the middle of the pandemic, Gonzales said there are also challenges to being holed up in a space.
“It’s been tough too because we don’t want to be confined in a single place as we work but we have to adjust,” Gonzales said.
Gabriel Lalu, meanwhile, adjusted with his work schedule after he was re-assigned to cover the stories during the night.
Pre-pandemic, Lalu would drive from Antipolo City to Quezon City for his coverages in the Office of the Vice President and Sandiganbayan. He used to leave home at around 7 a.m. but under his new schedule amid the pandemic, his work begins at 4 p.m.
In June, Lalu also went out to cover the situation in the streets as Metro Manila transitioned from modified enhanced community quarantine to general community quarantine. Lalu said he had to wear protective equipment as part of health protocols.
“It was scary. It was an adjustment but I think it’s something that all of us would take especially during this pandemic,” Lalu said in talking about his experience covering outdoors.
Fighting the fight
Reporters began to adjust to the new normal, with news coverages mostly happening online. But the pandemic became a bone of contention in the issue of press freedom, particularly during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in May when members of the media were not allowed to physically go to Batasan Pambansa to cover the event, as part of health measures being implemented.
That situation made news reporting, said Esguerra, “harder, especially that the people needed information now more than ever. It (pandemic) has made it harder to reach our officials.”
Marquez said the role of journalists become more crucial especially since a huge chunk of the public are restricted to their homes and rely on the news for information.
“If people need information to know what is happening outside, such as the government’s protocols during quarantine, it’s our role as journalists to ensure that the information are verified by the officials,” Marquez said.
Lalu, meanwhile, underscored the importance of showing the public the real picture, as to not make them complacent in the pandemic.
“We reporters need to be careful on what we will publish… There are instances when a report makes the public feel that all is well and we can now go out. The media plays a big factor so we have to be careful so we don’t give misleading assumptions that everything is alright, that it is now safe,” Lalu said.
Ramos said that while the pandemic is the focus right now, it is also important to ensure that accountability is still in check.
“Pandemic is the focus right now but it’s crucial also to report out issues that may not be pandemic-related but may still affect the lives of the people,” Ramos said. “We just owe it to the people to report the stories they need to know. In this time, it is important for the journalists to really stay true to their jobs.”
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