Keep going…

May 10, 2020

Two months into the coronavirus-related restrictions, many journalists are feeling burnt out

Like it or not, journalists are humans, not super humans. They witness and report, analyse and assess lives and struggles, miseries and deaths. They feel the pain but can’t let it affect their work. The data stream might be overwhelming but they have to keep going and get the news that is fit to report. Two months into the coronavirus-related restrictions, many journalists are feeling burnt out.

Still, they are expected to keep going… not feel the pain, be objective, be super human.

Covid-19 is the biggest and the longest running story recently. It has made many reporters and editors uncertain about their work. Many have had to adapt to new ways of working, changing within days habits formed over decades. Some of them are working from home. Those forced to visit areas affected by the virus are constantly learning ways to reduce people-to-people contact without affecting the quality of reporting. Travel between cities and countries is severely restricted.

Many of them have never been prepared for anything like this. Reporting is required not just on what’s happening at the ministry of health and at diagnostic laboratories but also what is going on at the prime minister’s office, between the Centre and Sindh and in China, the US and the rest of the world. A whole bunch of things are happening at the same time, all the time. “It definitely leaves you a bit numb,” says Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera’s online correspondent in Pakistan.

“There’s this constant pressure to produce either coronavirus-related stories or to think out-of-the-box and dig out non-coronavirus stories,” says a female journalist associated with a foreign media house. Previously, she would be rarely at her desk but recently she has been restricted to the office premises. “Even ‘lives’ for TV are mostly done from the office building. It’s either from the rooftop or the main parking lot. And it is just me telling the story, not helping somebody share their experience.”

The media are replacing in-person interviews conducted in plush offices or in congested streets with online ones using one of the web conferencing apps. However, they worry about the effectiveness of low-resolution images and breaking voice. “You can make phone calls and access information through social media or other means, but it does leave you wondering whether you are being true to the story, if you are not there,” says Hashim.

“You can make phone calls and access information through social media or other means, but it does leave you wondering whether yo’are being true to the story, if you are not there,” says Asad Hashim.

As a reporter, he says, one’s first instinct is to report a story, “any story”, from “as close to where it is happening as possible.” In the context of an epidemic that would mean meeting with doctors and patients, travelling to neighbourhoods that have been locked down due to the outbreak and evaluating whether the government is reaching out to those most in need. “I still do embark on short reporting excursions, taking precautions, but they are hardly a substitute for the real thing. It’s almost impossible to have a meaningful conversation through a face-mask, and definitely impossible to hit at anything beyond the superficial when having an interaction that, for safety’s sake, can only last for a few minutes before you move on,” he adds.

Those reporting the essential stories of doctors, patients and undertakers are putting a lot at risk. “Their employers have neither provided them personal protective equipment (PPE) nor have they trained their employees in covering events or news in such times,” says Nasir Jamal, a senior journalist associated with Dawn.

This disregard of safety has caused many TV journalists to get infected with Covid-19 . As many as 40 across the country have tested positive for the virus and three have died. “Even then their employers have not developed adequate SOPs. And the less said about workplace hygiene, the better…” he adds.

Journalists covering sports, fashion and entertainment have perhaps been affected more by social distancing restrictions than their colleagues covering other beats. “There hasn’t been any sporting activity since the Pakistan Super League in mid-March,” says Khalid Hussain, Editor Sports at The News.

Hussain says sports will never again be business as usual. He hopes for a new normal. “Once national and international sporting action resumes, and it will resume sooner than later, we will have to find new ways to report them, alongside new restrictions and SOP.”

The fashion and entertainment industry in Pakistan has been badly affected by the pandemic, and for journalist reporting it, work has come to a standstill. They were looking at two fashion weeks in April, launch of the lawn season, Ramazan and Eid collections, and at least two major film releases this Eid. “It’s all static now,” says Aamna Haider Isani, Editor Instep. “I miss the buzz. I miss the feeling of progress and achievement — because while the pages are still being published, most of our coverage is corona-related. It tends to become monotonous and depressing.”

And this when people are watching and reading news in a way unlike anything before Covic-19.

As coronavirus news continues to evolve in real time, journalists continue to reel under intense pressure. “I think this pandemic will last for a long while yet. We are all going to have to adjust, and readjust, to changing realities as the numbers increase and our understanding of the virus improves,” says Hashim.

The writer is a staff member

Journalists and coronavirus