Journalism in the time of COVID-19
On January 30th 2020, the Philippines confirmed its first case of COVID-19, and had 314 persons under investigation (PUIs).
The early days
Multiplatform Reporter Kristine Sabillo has been covering COVID-19 for ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs since the first confirmed case. At this stage, when confirmed cases of the virus in the Philippines remained low, Kristine and her team relied on statements from the Department of Health (DOH).
From late January until the early days of February, she covered DOH press conferences, World Health Organisation (WHO) briefings and interviews. Her team worked together to count and keep track of PUIs and those who were being contact traced.
“The focus then was learning more about the virus and how it was being contracted,” she explained. “Our stories were mostly educational, reminding people not to believe fake news and to stay healthy.”
This focus gradually changed as the numbers of confirmed cases rose. Her coverage today goes beyond monitoring the number of cases and suspected cases, branching out to issues surrounding testing, the lockdown, the lack of medical equipment in the country, the science behind the virus and how it is transmitted, along with dozens of other issues surrounding the virus and its implications. Due to the multifaceted nature of the beat, reporters covering the virus need to understand and pick up on things quickly.
“A staff member at DOH recently told me that I could already pass off as a doctor after our COVID-19 coverage because of all the medical discussions we've had to listen to,” Kristine said.
While her experience thus far has been educational and exciting, she also admits that it has been scary and frustrating at times. She likened her experience covering COVID-19 to a crash course on medical reporting. Prior to the pandemic, ‘incubation periods’, ‘reproduction numbers’, and ‘droplet infections’ were terms she never thought would have been thoroughly discussed on news websites.
The Philippine government announced a strict lockdown of its capital, Manila, on March 16th.
On the first day of the lockdown, Kristine, along with other media frontliners, braved the streets for field work. This was her first and last day on the field during the lockdown as she was soon placed under a precautionary 14-day quarantine after she interviewed a health worker who had been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.
“It turned out that health workers in that city are not required to go into quarantine because they cannot afford to send their people home,” Kristine explained. “Their excuse is that they are wearing face masks when they do contact tracing. To do away with the required quarantine period, health workers are made to work four days in the field and another four days in the office so they can rest."
Since then, Kristine has been working from home, which she has learned comes with its own set of demands and struggles. She writes six to 10 articles for ABS-CBN News Online daily, solely on COVID-19 and the issues surrounding it.
Working from home has come with its own set of notable moments for Kristine, including a radio interview she picked up from DZMM on how the Lung Center is running out of personal protective equipment (PPE) suits for its frontliners.
“The online article and my tweets were widely shared, prompting people to donate,” she enthused. “There are good days and there are bad days.”
Protecting media frontliners
Since the lockdown, newsrooms have seen new challenges when it comes to operations. Kristine shares that at ABS-CBN, a number of reporters are currently in quarantine, and some struggle to make their way to work due to the lockdown. Most communication, be it internally or externally, is carried out online, and ABS-CBN has given its employees, including TV Reporters, the option to work from home.
“I am thankful that ABS-CBN is quite generous with its employees,” says Kristine.
Beyond this, the newsroom has set guidelines to protect media frontliners, including the barring of hospital coverages. Due to their increased risk of contracting the virus in the field, journalists who have decided to continue pursuing field reporting and do not wish to return home to their families are also accommodated in hotels. Shuttles are employed to drive essential employees to work.
Covering news out of Manila
For Rob Gumba, a Reporter for SunStar Davao, his assignment to local business stories drew him to cover the impact the disease had on small and medium enterprises. Seeing as they comprise the majority of businesses in the area, the measures the government had to implement for safety meant temporary closures of establishments, suspension of work, cancellation of events, and community quarantines, causing their sales to decline.
“I empathise with their situations. I somehow felt how tough it is for them, but they also understand that what the government is doing is for everybody’s welfare,” he shared.
As a Reporter, Rob gets updates on the increasing count of PUIs. “We always do our best to clarify information so as not to incite panic or alarm. We are also closely monitoring pertinent government measures and bring to proper authorities any complaints or concerns from the ground, which I think have helped refine their actions.”
A new form of newsgathering
With lockdowns and compulsory social distancing measures implemented, journalists have to find alternatives and adhere to safety measures to gather news.
“The current situation taught us how to strategise [when it comes to] newsgathering, especially in interviewing sources and verifying information,” he explains. “It was also advantageous that our City Government has set up a radio station where we get our stories and leads. Sources update the people through the radio station, and we are also able to ask them questions through text messages and chats.”
Similar to local businesses in the region, media outlets follow the same guidelines set by local government units. Rob shares that he is allowed to work from home alternately with his colleagues. In a continuous effort to practice safe distancing, journalists are also encouraged to do interviews over the phone, online or employ work-from-home arrangements.