“Newsgathering has been hit by unprecedented challenges at a time when the whole news media info system was already under significant pressure,” says Antonio Zappulla, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF). “Quite simply we are living in a different world than we were exactly 12 months ago.”
Zappulla’s remarks were made at an event to launch TRF’s new report on The Impact of COVID-19 on Journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South, a study which explores the challenges faced by journalists around the world and how they’re navigating the difficulties of reporting in the COVID-era.
At the heart of the event was a wide-ranging discussion featuring insights from four experienced journalists – working across four continents – who shared some of the lessons they have learned during the past year.
Based on that in-depth conversation, we have identified nine takeaways that journalists, wherever they are located, can apply to their work.
1. Understand the Science
With COVID-19 shaping and influencing almost every journalistic beat, it is essential for journalists – and not just those covering science or health – to understand the context of the COVID crisis.
“People are writing about the virus, so it is very important to understand the very basics of what the virus is,” suggests Natalia Bushkovskaya, a freelance health correspondent based in Ukraine.
Zanji Sinkala, an investigative multimedia journalist from Zambia agrees. “A lot of us, we're really just pushed into this whole scientific arena, like researching and understanding all the scientific jargon,” she says.
2. Dig Deep into the Data
Alongside this, when covering infections or deaths attributed to the virus, “a key thing is just to focus on what kind of methodology is the authorities using,” says Juan Garcia Hernandez a reporter for the digital newspaper Economía Hoy in Mexico City.
“Once you what kind of methodology they are using to create their data, you can search for different sources to complete this methodology or to just verify [it].”
At News Diggers, the independent newspaper where Zanji Sinkala is based, their reporting has highlighted how “the government keeps saying one thing, and then there's another thing that's happening.”
Without a grounding in the science, there is a risk of failing to ask the right questions, taking data and statements at face value, or misrepresenting the story - potentially creating false hope and/or panic.
3. Diversify your skillset
Being able to do this, may require journalists to do things differently.
Monica Jha, an independent journalist based in Bangalore, India explained how she spends “extended periods of time on the ground” to “write deeply reported narratives with rich details.” “That's my niche,” she says, and “this became impossible during the pandemic.”
This is just one reason why Jha advises that It is “extremely important for journalists to diversify generally” and to “pick up new skills.” “Learn more about how to find and use online resources, mostly data, for stories,” she recommends.
This matters, Jha notes, because “there are a lot of online tools and there is a lot of data, even in countries like India where we don't think our government puts out a lot of data in usable format.” “But we can pull it out,” she says.
4. Be persistent
Reporting during COVID has been made harder for many journalists as a result of reduced access to officials and the ability to physically report on stories.
“Throughout the pandemic, it was kind of hard to reach out to sources or reach out to government personnel,” admits Zanji Sinkala, “because they were taking advantage of the fact that there were limits on physical gatherings, [as well as] being able to pursue them at their offices.”
“So we were really just limited to the internet or limited to phone calls,” Sinjaka adds, commenting how “a lot” of officials “were taking advantage of that” to avoid answering questions.
To address this, “never stop asking,” advocates Natalia Bushkovskaya. “Just ask, ask, and ask [again] in different formats,” she recommended, noting how journalists may need to use a myriad of techniques to get the story.
5. Slow Down
The old journalistic maxim of “it’s better to be right than first,” is more important than ever during a pandemic.
“Sometimes in the African arena, everyone just rushes to produce,” says Zanji Sinkala, painting a picture familiar to newsrooms around the world. “And sometimes there could be some misinformation, it could be fake news.” To negate this, “I had to take a step back,” she recalled.
Although this approach has sometimes been necessary due to (seemingly deliberate) delays in sources responding to her queries, Juan Garcia Hernandez implied a further benefit to taking this approach: the need for “extra effort” to go beyond the government line.
“The government has started daily [news] conferences and they have just an overload of information on COVID,” Hernandez says, “but everything is just the official version.”
As a result, although outlets might only want you to cover the briefing, “you have to investigate and you have to do a little bit by yourself to find the ways to really verify if what the authorities are saying is true or not,” Hernandez counsels.
6. Protect your Mental and Physical Health
Slowing down also matters, due to the risk of burnout that many journalists are facing.
“I learned that many challenges can be met if you want to,” Natalia Bushkovskaya says, reflecting on her experience of the past year. “But you also have to be very careful with yourself, because I and my friends, my colleagues, we experienced quite high level of burnout. It was quite difficult and it is very, very important not to dive too deep. You have to remember to look after yourself. It's very important.”
Monica Jha identified another important perspective, the need to protect yourself – and your physical sources – from COVID. For Jha this is especially important given that much of her work is focussed on rural India, communities without access to PPE or the types of digital technology that make Zoom reporting more viable.
“I carried many, many bottles of sanitizer and face shields and masks, not just for myself, but also for the people that I meet,” she explained, noting how they also “tried to conduct all my interviews outdoors.”
7. Broaden your portfolio
To prosper, “it is very important not to restrict yourself,” Natalia Bushkovskaya advises, recounting how she decided to go freelance during the past year. “It was quite risky to do it during the pandemic,” she admits, “but I just realized that maybe I will be able to do this.”
“The best way to stay in freelance and be financially safe is to diversify sources of work as much as you can,” she suggested.
Monica Jha, who’s been working as a freelance long-form multimedia journalist since she quit her newspaper job seven years ago, concurs.
“If you are freelancing, don't depend on one or two publications,” she said, sharing a cautionary tale from the start of the pandemic where several long-form stories she produced went unpaid.
8. Find your tribe
“Journalists must organize themselves,” argues Monica Jha, noting that “the industry in general needs to take better care of their employees.”
It's even more important for freelancers to do this to avoid exploitation and find better opportunities,” she says, “and to support each other.”
This matters, not just in terms of ensuring that employers treat employees better, but also because many of the best stories to emerge from the pandemic have been produced collaboratively.
These kind of collaborative efforts are getting better results,” Juan Garcia Hernandez says.
“Journalist networks are really important in terms to protect ourselves and also to produce deeper and more bigger publications with enough information,” he suggests.
9. Be an advocate for great journalism and why it matters
“The most important thing, COVID-19 pandemic taught me that I can do better,” says Natalia Bushkovskaya. “I really had to learn to work with data better, to communicate with experts better.”
“I also felt more responsibility,” she explains, “because people were very frustrated and they were ready to believe any information they could see.”
“I think it can't be emphasized enough, journalism is being attacked,” says Zanji Sinkala, talking about growing encroachments on media freedom witness in the past year.
“So I feel that … support for journalism should be echoed everywhere. The government should understand there are people watching, the international community is watching.”
“It's really been challenging,” she admits, “but I believe that we just have to keep releasing the truth.”
“I know that it's going to be dangerous,” Sinkala acknowledges. “I know that our lives may be in danger. We may be threatened. But we shouldn't stop. The intimidation is always going to be there. The internet trolls, all of that is going to be there,” she says.
“It's about standing for the truth.”
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, and the author of TRF’s report “The Impact of COVID-19 on Journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South.”