Covering COVID-19 Pandemic: The Social Relevance of Media Studies and a Parting Advice to Aspiring Journalists

INTERVIEW by Ma. Socorro Martinez-Victorio—WITH or without pandemic; with or without Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), members of the media will always be on the forefront just to fulfill their main responsibility to the citizens: That is to provide them with accurate and reliable information on the incidents or situations happening in their respective beat. These incidents are not limited to health crisis only but can be natural and manmade disasters, war, massacre, civil unrest, military and police operations, political bickering, court room dramas, business and sports conflicts that one way or the other, a journalist’s safety is at stake while performing that responsibility.

But with the health crisis now wreaking havoc not only in the Philippines, but all over the world, are members of the media have enough preparation in covering the issues related to COVID-19 pandemic without compromising their health? Or are they ready to cover this pandemic, which considered as their first-ever coverage of that magnitude in their lifetime?

Unlike other frontliners, like the medical (doctors and nurses) workers, military and police who have their official oaths to practice their respective profession faithfully and devote themselves to the welfare of those committed to their care whatever the circumstances may be, the members of the media do not have their formal oath to do their responsibility of providing accurate and factual information to the people but still they do their job religiously, faithfully, with fervor and without fear, whatever the circumstances may be.

With this COVID-19 pandemic, this responsibility of the media is now put to test as no one knows who will be afflicted. When, where and how you will be afflicted since based on the declaration of many international and local medical experts “the enemy is invisible.”

From all of these developments regarding the pandemic, different media entities (print, broadcast and online) in the country, particularly those based in Metro Manila, started implementing strategies on how to effectively provide accurate and factual information about the health crisis while keeping their field reporters safe from the virus.

In this article, I interviewed four journalists.  These journalists, one from broadcast while three others are from print newspapers, are all covering the beats that are in the forefront of formulating contingency measures on how to beat this virus. These journalists were also placed in the same situation wherein in the course of covering their respective beat, there were officials or people whom they interviewed, encountered or had close contact were tested positive for COVID-19.

According to Ms. Sherrie Ann Torres, reporter of ABS-CBN covering Senate and special reports, since the first report of COVID-19 case in the country last January, their network has already formulated plans on how to effectively implement the special coverage of the pandemic in order not compromise the health of their staff and reporters while on duty. Torres, however, refused to reveal said strategies so as not to compromise the safety of the network. But for her personal protection, Torres said that she always sees to it that she is physically and emotionally-capable in covering her beats.

“First, I see to it that I am physically and emotionally-capable of covering my beat assignment—during that time (when the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country)—at the Senate, since there was still a session. Later on, my area became anywhere because I opted to do more of a sort of special assignment type of stories. I also kept myself abreast with the latest information about COVID-19 as well as how to protect myself against the possibility of contracting the virus as I do my coverage,” Torres disclosed.

Torres added that even though there were no positive cases yet in her area of coverage at that time (latter part of January), strict precautionary measures were already being implemented within the Senate premises during that period.

Another Senate beat reporter, Cecille Suertefelipe of Philippine Star also said that since the first reported COVID-19 case, they were already always on the lookout for related stories from different beats and its innate among reporters to expect bigger development of certain stories. Alongside with the monitoring of these related stories, Suertefelipe said, is the preparation on how to keep herself safe from being afflicted with the virus.

Suertefelipe’s colleague, Ms. Tina Mendez, Philippine Star’s Malacanang beat reporter, corroborated the former’s statement that all of them were instructed to continuously monitor developments especially when the outbreak in Wuhan, China was confirmed by the World Health Organization and that their health beat reporter was particular on reporting the background and developments based on facts, without exaggerating to avoid causing panic on disease.

Mendez further disclosed that on the onset of the COVID-19 in the county, they were advised by their editors to be extra careful during the coverage when it comes to their safety. “Aside from being extra careful about my safety, I also personally read background articles published by credible news sites and medical journals to educate myself about the disease,” said Mendez.

Though the areas being covered by Torres, Suertefelipe and Mendez are equally important in terms of providing information regarding COVID-19-related issues, the health beat is the most challenging beat to cover at this moment since it is not only the safety of the reporter is at stake but also the kind of information that he or she will be reporting in the midst of the proliferation of fake news in social media.

Health beat is always considered as a sensitive beat since it deals with diseases, illnesses or medical breakthroughs and misreporting these will definitely cause panic to the public.

A health beat reporter from one of the leading broadsheet newspapers disclosed that one of the challenges that she is now facing was how to deal with fake news. The health beat reporter, who requested anonymity, claimed that there were so many unverified, unvalidated and misleading posts in social media and their hands were full validating and correcting them. As for her personal preparation in covering the pandemic, she said that she is somehow prepared in this kind of coverage and knew what to do since it is not her first time to cover an epidemic or pandemic.

“I did not make many preparations because I already covered previous outbreaks like SARS, MERS-CoV, bird flu and the H1N1 pandemic. But since COVID-19 is more contagious than these diseases, I became more conscious about my safety. Like, I would not just go to a hospital to interview people. Of course, the standing policy of my office in any coverage is to stay safe,” she narrated.

But when the ECQ was declared, not only the said journalists observed safety measures but as well as all the other media entities and the areas they are covering. They also need to comply with the strict safety measures being implemented by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), a task force organized by President Rodrigo Duterte to respond to affairs concerning COVID-19.

Torres said that from Day 1 of ECQ, her team has been wearing the facial mask. “I also use gloves and goggles whenever necessary. Part of my daily preparation too, is to brief my teammates (Desk, Cameraman, Assistant Cameraman) about the assignment that we will be doing that day, where are we going, who are we meeting and how we will execute the day’s assignment,” she added.

“The day before doing the story, I also do research if the area has suspected COVID-19 cases, as a protection to my team. If there is one, I immediately consult my superiors if we should still pursue the story,” Torres disclosed.

For the health beat reporter, she said that because of the ECQ, the DOH started doing virtual presser as part of the implementation of the social distancing. “So it was big adjustment for me. On the other hand, my office had to impose an earlier deadline for our stories. DOH has been closed to media since the start of the ECQ last March. But contrary to what others believe, working from home in this time of COVID-19 is demanding if you are a DOH reporter. The DOH holds virtual presser one or two times a day, 7 days a week. There are also many health-related personalities and organizations speaking about COVID-19 and I have to cover them,” she narrated.

Mendez, on the other hand, said that following the declaration of state of public emergency, the Malacañang Press Corps, where she is a member, took the lead in reporting the developments on the policy decisions of the IATF. “There were almost daily— day and late night—press briefings done at the Press Working Area, which we covered without hesitation. During these times, the members of the media were not spared from the strict security and health protocols implemented in the Malacañang Complex area.  All guests, including the members of the media, were asked to fill-up health declaration forms, body temperature check, etc.,” Mendez revealed.

Mendez, however, said that amid the strict security and health measures, the exemption for the journalists under the ECQ facilitated easier access during checkpoints. “It was, however, a different situation for some who have to take public transport to go to work,” she added.

Indeed, whatever situation that every journalist has to cover, safety must always be on their mind while doing their responsibility. These safety precautions being practiced by the said journalists became more stringent when the COVID-19 cases in the country have been escalating and that in the course of their coverage in their respective beat, they learned that some of the officials or people they covered, encountered or had close contact were tested positive for COVID-19.

Mendez further narrated that journalists were initially allowed to cover even if Malacañang officials held virtual pressers, until a cabinet secretary tested positive for COVID-19. “There were efforts to discourage the media from doing personal interviews due to the health risks. Also during the ECQ, our office provided us some pointers ensuring health protocols are maintained during coverage.  The office also gave us vitamins and face masks during the first part of the ECQ,” Mendez added.

Suertefelipe, meanwhile, disclosed that when she learned that one of the resource persons of Senator Sherwin Gatchalian in a Senate public hearing on March 5 was found COVID-19 positive, she took upon herself to observe self-quarantine for 14 days. When asked if she did not feel any fear at that moment, Suertefelipe said, “I was worried. I immediately checked the timeline of my Facebook account, as I usually put on FB live reporters’ interview with senators. And there I found, my FB live showed I was at Gatchalian’s left side. I called the office and informed them. But prayers helped dissipate my worries.”

She added that COVID-19 is different from death threats she received while covering the police beat. “Journalists say ‘lima singko ang death threat when covering police beat,’ but at least you know where the death threat is coming from, and COVID 19 could be anywhere around us.”

Same with Suertefelipe, Mendez voluntarily subjected herself to 14-day quarantine when one of the resource persons she personally covered in late March reported that he was going into voluntary quarantine after being tested for COVID-19.

Torres and the health beat reporter, on the other hand, both said that they felt sad when some of the people they know got infected with the virus.

“Sadness comes first whenever I hear a source getting infected by the virus which I followed by offering a short prayer for such person. Then, I immediately report it to my Desk to know if I need to subject myself to self-quarantine or not. I also recall the people that I’ve encountered during that period for possible contact tracing. I also informed my family about any such incident and subject myself to self-quarantine,” Torres said. “Fear or apprehension will always be there especially if you are constantly going out to gather stories. But the sense of obligation to inform the public, give the voiceless the platform to send their messages across and hopefully, drumbeat support or assistance for them is my primordial concern,” she added.

While the health beat reporter said, “It hit me hard when a doctor died because I knew her for so many years, she was accommodating, reliable and was really passionate about her advocacies.”

It cannot be denied that the hands of the journalists are full in this kind of coverage not only thinking about the stories they need to deliver but also the need to maintain their composure and their emotional state amidst the different challenges they face.  This pandemic did not only change the perspectives of these journalists in terms of their safety but also changed the landscape of media coverage which added to the challenges that each and every member of the media has to face in their everyday coverage.

Following reports of infections from virus of the officials and people that these journalists are covering, there was a big shift in the coverage which called the “virtual presser” wherein authorized officials are giving the latest information about COVID-19 being aired live on television, radio and even in FB live streaming. The questions being asked by the journalists are being sent through text, or through the FB account or messenger. Virtual Presser is an interactive online video platform where journalists can ask government officials on the nation’s pressing issues relevant to COVID-19 and other related issues.

Aside from these avenues, a new application, Zoom is now widely being used even the television networks wherein TV anchors and radio anchors can broadcast even outside their studios in order to observe social distancing.

Torres lamented that this new landscape of media coverage also added to challenges she faced while doing her task as a reporter. “First is how to use the technology to gather information amid the crisis, which we were able to adjust with later on. Second, the availability of government sources who could grant interviews via video conferences,” she claimed.

Mendez have the same sentiments on this so-called “new normal” coverage saying that “while the conduct of virtual pressers was a welcome development, it limits the opportunity for reporters to ask follow-up questions.  Many times, reporters needed to submit questions ahead of time to facilitate the “Q & A” portion of press briefings.” “Even going on video-conferencing has become a challenge for those who are not very tech savvy reporters. During these times, the journalists’ skills in getting information and access to public officials are critical in getting ahead of the competition,” Mendez added.

“As in any crisis, the role of the media is important in getting the truth out, and in helping the people understand what the crisis or pandemic is all about. Despite the high risk of exposure to COVID-19, it is the moral and solemn duty of every journalist to serve the people by providing factual information and observe fair reportage of events,” Mendez explained.

For her part, Torres claimed that this COVID19 episode is the most dangerous coverage by far. “But without journalists telling those stories, helping spread information to bring in some sense of order, and calling out the insensitivities or shortcomings of the people in charge, the world would be in a much, much chaotic situation, that humanity cannot afford and survive with,” she added.

For their parting advice to aspiring journalists, the journalists interviewed said that “they (aspiring journalists) should be ready for challenges and have a lot of courage.

“Journalists—young and old—should live by the mandate to provide a fair and true reportage of events to the public.  We should overcome challenges even to a point of risking one’s life or health because our role as journalists is critical especially during a pandemic like this one,” Mendez concluded.

“Be ready for the challenges and constantly pray because it takes a lot of dedication and sacrifices. The profession also requires a lot of courage,” Torres said.

For the health beat reporter, she said that future journalists must be responsible in whatever they write so as not to cause undue panic and fear because there are already so many fake news in social media.

Suertefelipe, on the other hand, said that aspiring journalists must always be ready, diligent, flexible and careful. “Remember, no story is worth dying for. You have to live and tell the story.”

With all the foregoing challenges and experiences that these journalists had faced or still facing as of this moment in the coverage of the pandemic, they still did not back down in doing their main responsibility and instead vowed to do the same in the near future.

The Media and Communication Department of Trinity University of Asia is Offering Bachelor of Arts in Broadcasting and Bachelor of Arts in Communication.