For many people, the global impact of COVID-19 — and the uncertainty it has unleashed — makes it perhaps the most significant life-changing event in living memory.
That context underpins this research report and is the reason why hearing directly from journalists about their experiences — as we do throughout this report — is so valuable.
In this final section, we summarise the key recommendations provided by 25 Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) alumni in the emerging economies and the Global South, specifically related to strengthening journalism and supporting journalists during the pandemic.
These suggestions are primarily pragmatic and focused on the practicalities of producing journalism during a pandemic.
Wider strategic issues related to erosions of media freedom, trust in journalism, concerns about surveillance and support (or lack thereof) from legal systems, and issues of harassment and support from their own newsrooms, emerged in broader discussions with TRF alumni and are featured throughout this report, in the journalists’ own words.
However, addressing these issues was not the top priority when we asked for suggestions of the changes journalists wanted to see. For the purposes of this report, therefore, we will solely share topics TRF alumni explicitly identified as those areas they wished to see a focus on.
Seven overarching themes emerged from their responses:
1. Pandemic-related reporting skills
Given the novel nature of the coronavirus and the global nature of this public health crisis, many journalists did not have previous experience of covering this type of situation.
However, with further waves of the virus expected and more pandemics anticipated, it’s likely that this type of reporting will only become more commonplace. According to Dr Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance: “We’re going to see more outbreaks, it’s inevitable. They might not look like this one, but there will be more.”
Given this, as one reporter in Uganda reminded us: “Journalists should be equipped with skills on how they can cover and report about the pandemic.”
Moreover, these efforts need to go outside capital cities and urban conurbations, to reach a broad cross-section of communities. A wide geographic distribution matters given the pervasiveness of a potential pandemic. As a different journalist in Uganda suggested:
“Skills in writing and reporting about such pandemics should be given to journalists, especially those upcountry because they rarely have such courses.”
- Newspaper journalist, Uganda
And although the next pandemic may look very different from this one, it is nonetheless incumbent on news outlets, journalists and funders to learn from past (and present) experiences. As one senior Sri Lankan journalist reflected, the industry would benefit from:
“Better training on how to respond instead of react.
Many of us learned how to report on a pandemic after we were knee deep in it.”
Within this, there’s a recognition that journalists need to do more than just cover a public health crisis. They also need to understand how to cover it safely.
“Journalists were also among COVID-19 positive patients all around the world. How did we get there? The people who have been advocating for the citizenry to follow health guidelines are now part of the statistics. Where did we go wrong?”
- Newspaper editor, Sri Lanka
2. Advocacy and funding for PPE
To cover a pandemic safely, the requirements for journalists go beyond just training. Access to personal protective equipment (PPE) is also fundamental.
“Let us fight the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) together,” Sadiq Ibrahim, President of the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), said in April. “But as journalists do their part, media employers must also do their part and discharge their responsibility for duty of care and provide PPE to journalists and other media workers in the field.”
Unfortunately, that has often not been the case.
In response, TRF alumni spoke of the necessity for “holding organisations accountable for the physical safety of journalists during the pandemic”, as well as ensuring the provision of PPE.
The latter was a recurrent theme among multiple respondents, with some suggesting that where employers fail, others may need to step in.
“I think a fund or something like that which can offer journalists a chance of being safe while working, for example by paying for testing, offering them PPE, guidance and counselling etc., would make a difference.”
- Radio journalist, Uganda
3. Greater support for freelancers
One group potentially most vulnerable to lack of PPE is freelancers. Across our cohort there was also a wider recognition that freelancers have perhaps been impacted more by the financial fallout of COVID-19 than other journalists.
“Freelance journalists who are used by big organisations have further suffered from financial instability brought by the pandemic; they must be supported.”
- Independent journalist, India
Recommendations to support freelancers proffered by our respondents included more training possibilities, emergency funds for those facing economic hardship, as well as greater opportunities to produce content for larger, international, publications — given the higher rates these outlets may pay compared to domestic media in the regions we focused on.
“Due to COVID-19 some mainstream media organisations closed down and cut staff journalists’ salaries. If some international organisations can support/empower journalists in developing countries (especially freelancers) to write pitches and stories for global publications, that would be a great support.”
- Investigative journalist, Sri Lanka
“I’d like to see more training opportunities for freelancers like me. It would be nice to have the same or a fair number of training opportunities for freelancers — regardless if they contribute to smaller publications — as others who are employed at, or contributing to, a known media outlet.
I don’t know if this is possible, but it would also help if there’s an organisation/foundation per region that could assist freelancers get through their financial crisis during a pandemic, such as extending cash aids or at least connecting freelancers to available projects and clients that could bring in additional income at times like this.”
- Freelance journalist, Philippines
4. Improving access to equipment
Outside of COVID-specific apparatus, multiple journalists also identified the challenge of access to professional equipment.
One Kenyan journalist encouraged TRF and other media development organisations to consider how they can “support alumni journalists with necessary media equipment such camera, recorders, laptops… depending on needs”.
Meanwhile, several TRF alumni in Nigeria recommended journalists be provided with equipment (perhaps by entities other than their employers, although this was not explicitly stated).
Another alumnus, interestingly also based in Nigeria, echoed these themes and also addressed the hidden costs journalists can incur, especially when working from home.
“Journalism is an online profession so support should be in the area of provision of the latest gadgets and tools for journalists. Also, giving them [an] allowance for data to support their work.”
- Editor, news agency, Nigeria
5. Training and development
TRF alumni offered recommendations on a broad range of further areas where they felt more training and development was needed.
This ranged from “how to identify fake news and dealing with the infodemic” through to “having the tools and weapons to fight the rising dictatorship consolidating its powers over the media” and “online training programmes that can achieve globally-recognised certifications”.
Aside from access to equipment, several journalists also noted the importance of enabling journalists to unlock the potential this affords.
“It is important for journalists and the media organisation to stay updated with the developing technologies and also give training to their employees on the same.”
- Senior newspaper correspondent, India
There was a recognition of the benefits of remote training, a method which has grown in popularity and take-up during the pandemic, as well as calls for more grants and training related to areas such as “solution stories”, “digital skills” and “mobile reporting”.
Besides these suggestions, a couple of alumni also indicated the need for support that can help to diversify the business model. As one Indian journalist stressed: “We have to find ways to sustain free and fair journalism without being beholden to government or corporate houses.”
“As a journalist working in the written press, it would be essential to put in place measures which would allow the press to be viable, the newspapers to sell themselves. This can go through various supports, through capacity-building in order to move more towards digital.”
- Business journalist, Cameroon
6. Emphasis on mental health
Our respondents shared their views on the imperative of ensuring “more humane rosters and a robust medical insurance in place for journalists”, as well as “psychological and financial support”, where appropriate.
As we note in this report, one welcome byproduct of the pandemic is a greater willingness in some quarters to talk about mental health and journalism.
“How do we make sure that journalists are supported so that they emerge out of this experience unscathed? Focus on mental health. The importance of mental health and wellbeing cannot be stressed enough. I know over four journalists in my close circle who had to seek the help of a professional to get through this.”
News editor, Sri Lanka
7. Financial protection for journalism
Lastly, we also saw a brief discussion about the role of funding and support for journalism in a pandemic. Efforts to offer some potential stability to the sector could not only help address mental health challenges, but also tackle wider information needs.
If the public purse is being used to support key industries during an economic downturn, should journalism also be included in this mix?
“Media houses and owners should facilitate journalists in periods of pandemic. Governments should recognise the importance of media especially in fighting COVID-19 through sensitising the masses, and aid media and journalists in doing their work… Finally, as the government considers stimulus to other sectors for economic recovery, the media should be part of beneficiaries.”
Newspaper reporter, Uganda
Building on many of the wider topics explored in this report, these seven thematic areas showcase ideas and suggestions that come straight from the newsroom.
Solutions to some of these issues exist. In other cases, they do not. All of them, if we are to listen to the needs expressed by our sample of journalists working at the coalface of the pandemic, merit further consideration and possible expansion.
As a result, we hope that these ideas — like this wider report — offer food for thought to media development agencies, funders and advocates for journalism around the world, as we work together to support journalism in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.
This is an extract from a new report on The Impact of COVID-19 on Journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South, published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. You can read the Executive Summary here, as well as chapters related to Reporting from the Frontline, Combatting the Infodemic, Encroachments on Media Freedom, the Financial impact of the crisis on journalism and 19 examples of how journalists around the world innovated to cover COVID-19.
The full report can be seen below.
About the Author
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism, a Professor of Practice, an affiliate of the Department for Middle East and North Africa Studies (MENA), and a Research Associate of the Center for Science Communication Research (SCR) at the University of Oregon.
Alongside holding the Chambers Chair at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC), he is also 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 a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).
An experienced digital analyst, consultant, journalist, and researcher, Damian has worked in editorial, research, policy, and teaching positions for the past two decades in the UK, Middle East, and USA. This includes roles in all media sectors (commercial, public, government, regulatory, academic, and nonprofit/civil society) and all platforms (print, digital, TV and radio).
Follow him on Twitter @damianradcliffe