PH journalists wade in ‘uncharted waters’ as COVID-19 shakes the country

As the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spreads across the country, people contend with a Luzon-wide ‘enhanced community quarantine’ (ECQ) that orders them to stay inside to quell the spread of the virus.

Reporters now carry the burden of both informing and keeping a check on the powers that be while taking care of their own health amid the crisis. 

At a time when there is a lack of transparency from the government, media practitioners are seeking to clarify policies that have upended the lives of millions in the country.

Lack of transparency 

Journalists play a crucial role in keeping people informed, as they are hard-pressed to deliver information about COVID-19 from government officials reluctant to answer questions.

Since most government press conferences are now held online, journalists working remotely are ordered to send in their questions prior to briefings. 

Most of these questions are left unanswered. 

“There is also no opportunity for follow-ups and clarifications, unless officials reply or return your calls which these days are a rarity,” Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) health reporter Jovic Yee said.

For instance, Yee cited how the Department of Health (DOH) failed to mention the reason behind the Philippines raising the COVID-19 crisis to Code Red Sub-Level 2, March 12. 

The public was left uninformed as to why the COVID-19 crisis was escalating amid class suspensions and travel restrictions.

The DOH only announced five days later the evidence of community transmission. This means there is an increasing number of local cases — that can no longer be traced — through chains of transmission. 

Yee added the presence of community transmission could have been a crucial piece of information which could have clarified reasons behind enacting lockdowns and stricter social distancing measures.

As most reporters work from home, they are unable to quickly probe disorganized government officials while the crisis happens. 

Newsroom contingencies in place

Major Philippine media networks adjusted to the pandemic to protect the safety of their reporters without compromising their coverage.

PDI transportation reporter Krixia Subingsubing said having an employee union helped them adjust almost immediately to the ECQ guidelines. 

This includes a work-from-home option and shuttle services that pick up and drop off employees at their office.

“It’s during such times that I’m thankful to be in an employee union that looks out for your best interest, especially knowing that most other Filipinos—even fellow media people—do not have the luxury of being able to [work from home] or do not have safety nets amid the possible loss of a month’s wages,” Subingsubing said. 

Other media companies have implemented similar working arrangements that allow journalists to work from home. 

ABS-CBN science and environment reporter Kristine Sabillo said their newsroom had set out guidelines that specifically prohibit hospital coverage for their protection.

“Those who decided to still pursue field reporting but did not want to come home to their families because of the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the field were accommodated in hotels,” she added. 

The bulk of their reportage is now done online, which includes interviewing officials, gathering information and monitoring social media pulse.

This has rendered them struggling to ‘disconnect’ from the constant barrage of COVID-19-related updates. 

Reporters are still expected to go online beyond their working hours in case something needs to be covered. This was observed in recent press briefings which took place late at night or in the wee hours.

Such is the case when President Rodrigo Duterte held a briefing past midnight of March 20, wherein he warned local government units (LGUs) to follow the national government’s orders in handling the COVID-19 crisis.

Journalists covering Malacañang have to endure long hours of waiting for these press briefings to start. These often go beyond schedule, with Duterte’s latest address aired to the public at 11 pm instead of 4 pm last March 30. 

Heightened fears for reporters on the frontline

Prior to the ECQ, reporters who were exposed to people who tested positive for COVID-19 feared they had caught the virus too. 

Rappler reporter Mara Cepeda was covering a hearing at the House of Representatives on March 11 when one of the resource persons had tested positive for the new coronavirus. 

However, Cepeda and other reporters only got the information the evening of March 17.

“The risk for us reporters is that we don’t know, if in the course of our work, we were exposed to some with the virus,” she said. 

Though Cepeda has been on self-quarantine for more than a week, she continues to report about the COVID-19 crisis from morning until evening at home. 

Even with field work suspended, covering the pandemic has been nowhere near comforting for her. 

Cepeda said she had cried many times out of fear she might have brought the virus to her parents who were more vulnerable. 

“I know we tell people to stay calm, but it’s different when you’re there. There’s an extra conscious effort to be calm. You’re looked up to as the person who should know about the information firsthand,” she added. 

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines Chairperson Nonoy Espina cautions working from home “does not insulate you from stress and trauma.” 

Round the clock coverage, Espina added, could expose reporters to even more stressors since they are likely more exposed to social media. 

[THUMBNAIL] COVID Journalists 2 (1)
Feelings of anxiety or stress during a pandemic can worsen due to constant exposure to news updates. Source: / Graphics by Renz Joshua Palalimpa
Filipino journalists like Cepeda are stretched thinly due to the COVID-19 crisis, requiring them to constantly monitor updates from the government while keeping tabs on social media. 

Despite the heightened fears that come with the job, Cepeda believes doing stories about the plight of the less fortunate in a time of a pandemic is what she is ought to do as a journalist. 

“Wala naman kaming choice kahit mahirapan pa kami. Hahanap at hahanap kami ng paraan para makapagsulat, makapag-record, at makapag-produce ng balita. Because that’s what the people need: clear, accurate news so they’ll know the things they need to prepare for,” she said.  

Why the news should not stop for the pandemic 

People depend on the media to know about the quickly-changing situation brought by the pandemic.   

When the pandemic and the lockdown present new problems every day, journalists are game changers in keeping the public informed in crucial times. 

“The swift delivery of accurate information to the people is vital not only in informing them about the quickly-changing situation but also in providing them the knowledge to cope with the crisis,” Espina said. 

When the Lung Center of the Philippines sounded the alarm on a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPEs), Sabillo helped amplify their call with an online article and tweets that have since gathered more than a thousand retweets

Perhaps this is only the beginning of a series of events that journalists have to stay on top of, amid thousands of struggling Filipinos during a lockdown enforced without stable government support. 

“When this started, we weren’t asking too many questions about how the government is preparing for this. Now we are seeing negative effects of our lack of preparation and we are able to ask more questions,” Sabillo said. 

The pandemic is far from over as DOH experts say cases are expected to peak in two to three months if not quelled

Still, for journalists like Sabillo, even the bad days the pandemic has caused are enough to fuel them. 

“When you see people suffering – from workers forced to walk several hours just to get home through the lockdown to health workers dying because of the lack of PPEs – you simply choose to help out the best way you could. And for journalists like me, that is by digging for and writing about the truth,” Sabillo said. 

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