How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the media


In the 3 months since the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the Philippines and the month and a half that the island of Luzon has been under lockdown, journalists have been working to get accurate information on the COVID-19 pandemic out to the public. 

Some have been writing their stories in isolation. They watch press conferences via livestream, conduct interviews through the phone, and join Zoom sessions with experts to help shed light on this new disease. 

Others don masks and venture out into the field, making sure to keep a safe distance from others and showering as soon as they get home, lest they infect family members. 

They’ve been anxiously waiting for the lockdown to be lifted as their companies struggle to pay them amid budget cuts and declining ad revenue. 

In the case of media giant ABS-CBN, thousands are in danger of losing their jobs due to a cease and desist order (CDO) by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), a move that was denounced as a “grave abuse of power” by lawmakers and a blow to press freedom by human rights groups

Meanwhile, journalists who are critical of government face possible arrest and those without government-issued IDs can be prevented from covering news outside their homes.

At a time like this, being able to deliver the news from a place of safety is almost like a luxury – others are not as fortunate. 

Frontliners

Bea* has been working for 5 years at a local broadsheet and is able to write and file her stories from home, but she’s concerned about her colleagues who have no choice but to leave their houses to get their work done. 

“Not everything can be done under a work-from-home setup,” she said. “Newsroom people still go to work to close the pages. Photographers need to be in the field to do their job. Workers in the printing house need to do manual labor.”

One of the people in her newsroom had to be driven by her father from Laguna to their Metro Manila office just to get her job done. 

Others don’t eat during work because most of them live in dormitories with no kitchen, which makes preparing a packed lunch difficult. Most restaurants are closed, and they can’t line up for hours at grocery stores because of their work schedules. 

They’ve already forwarded their complaint to their union and management, said Bea, but she isn’t sure if their concerns have been addressed.

“It is sad that journalists were not even considered ‘frontliners’ when, in fact, they are taking risks to inform the public, on a daily basis, about COVID-19,” said Diosa Labiste, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) Department of Journalism, on possible salary cuts for the media.

“Journalists are expected to verify information, speak to sources and make events intelligible. The free-for-all posts on social media cannot be similarly rigorous,” she added. 

The Department of Health and other government agencies have been holding online press conferences since the Luzon-wide lockdown or enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) began on March 17, which has made verifying information difficult. Reporters are asked to send in questions hours before the briefings start and they’re not given the opportunity for follow-up questions.

It's a subtle, if not sure, way of screening tough questions that government officials aren't ready to respond to, explain, or elaborate on.

“Of course, we could always send a message or call our sources, but let’s face it, most of the time, they would not respond,” said Bea. “I am actually thankful for TV and radio stations who would ask the right questions to these hard-to-reach sources. There were plenty of instances that I had to cite their interviews in my stories.”

ABS-CBN off-air

Bea has lost some of these sources because of the NTC-ordered shutdown of ABS-CBN’s television and radio broadcasting operations.

The Philippines’ largest media and entertainment group went off-air on Tuesday, May 5, resulting in an uncertain future for 11,000 of the network’s employees and depriving Filipinos who watch their channels – 38% of the Philippine TV viewing population, as of January – of a source of news and entertainment. 

The shutdown on May 5 has been met with criticism, with rights groups, media workers, labor groups, and lawmakers denouncing the move as a threat to media freedom and an abuse of power.

When the network was asked to cease operations, there were at least 14 bills pending in Congress for their franchise renewal or extension. The NTC had promised in March that they would grant the network provisional authority to operate.

It’s no secret that President Rodrigo Duterte did not want the network’s franchise to be renewed because of alleged swindling and unfair election coverage. However, their supposed  breach of laws and franchise terms were ironed out in a Senate hearing in February, during which CEO Carlo Katigbak apologized to the President.

Days after the CDO was implemented, ABS-CBN’s journalists were reportedly harassed at quarantine checkpoints by authorities who said they couldn’t cover the news anymore because their franchise had expired. The Philippine National Police has since clarified that they are still allowed to pass through. 

At home, journalist ABS-CBN Jacque Manabat faces another challenge in dealing with unsupportive friends and relatives.

“It’s really hard to explain it to our family, the friends, and sometimes we have friends and relatives who don’t really know the real story. I think that’s the struggle,” she said. “There’s an emotional struggle, in a way. But yeah, we march on.”

Threats to media freedom

Since the lockdown began, there have been reports of media personnel, artists, student journalists, and private citizens being threatened by police, evicted from government offices, and arrested for being critical of the government.  

Under the Bayanihan to Heal As One Law, passed on March 25, spreading fake and alarming information is punishable by law. Those who violate the law will be punished by either two months in prison or up to P1 million in fines, or both. (READ: Bayanihan Act's sanction vs 'false' info the 'most dangerous')

The provision has also been called the "most dangerous" feature in the law by lawyer Terry Ridon, former chair of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor, and President Rodrigo Duterte's former government corporate counsel (GCC) Rudolf Jurado.

"It’s the penal provision which is the most dangerous. It is vaguely worded," said Jurado.

This was also denounced by media groups and individuals as a threat to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. 

According to a report on the state of press freedom in the Philippines by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All Network, 60 people nationwide had been charged by government officials on the basis of this provision by April 20.

"A common message has spread in social media and echoed by some officials, asking that others refrain from criticizing government, because they probably couldn’t do better and that in a time of crisis, citizens should just follow what government asks them to do," they said in their report. 

More restrictions

An earlier memorandum also required media personnel traveling within Luzon to secure an identification card from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO). 

Groups have called on the PCOO to rescind the order and in a statement on March 19, 41 individuals and 15 media organizations called the rule “unnecessary, unreasonable, and unconstitutional.” 

Alex*, a photographer for a digital news outlet, said that there were initial concerns at his company about how the IDs restricted who could cover the pandemic and how it might cripple news coverage.

Though they've come to understand it as a safety measure, he's still concerned about how it might affect the stories they tell.

"I still personally find it worrisome, though, that this kind of set-up could allow for censorship, and that, in the lack of media and journalists on foot to presently vet and verify events, fake stories might be fabricated more than ever, particularly in our political landscape, where this was a problem even before the pandemic began."

Fighting misinformation

There has, indeed, been an increase in the amount of misinformation on COVID-19 circulating on social media and even coming out of the mouths of public officials. 

"The role of the media now is to be one of the information frontliners," said Jenny*, who has been working for a TV network for almost two years now. "We are fighting a battle not just between the virus and people, but [between] the virus of misinformation and people."

She added in a mix of English and Filipino: "Not to romanticize what we are doing, but it's important that our fellow citizens know more than just the facts, it’s the people’s stories. What are people doing? How are they coping with this quarantine? That's the job of journalists today."

Like Jenny, journalists all over the world have stepped up to fight what the World Health Organization has called an "infodemic:” an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” 

The International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, which Rappler is a part of, has formed the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, which is composed of more than 100 fact checkers from more than 70 countries. Together, they’ve checked over 3,500 false or misleading claims made online and in real life by public officials.

When the pandemic began, they observed, people were spreading hoaxes about the origin of the virus, and then they later developed into falsehoods about how the disease spreads and cures. At present, hoaxes are about religious groups, politicians, and the impact of COVID-19 on a country’s health system.

Who spreads these false claims? The alliance has observed that they’re often shared by well-meaning family members, but others come straight from politicians or are being politicized.

“Members of the alliance have checked quotes from and about presidents, prime ministers, congressmen, governors and mayors. False information has been found in all points of the political spectrum throughout 74 countries,” they said. 

Across the world

Even though the world needs accurate information now more than ever, the media industry has also suffered blows, especially newspaper companies.

In the US alone, Poynter Institute has listed 3 TV companies, 11 radio companies, 10 magazines, and 11 digital media companies that have experienced layoffs, furloughs, and closures due to the coronavirus – a total of 35 companies.

These numbers, however, are nothing compared to the number of local and national newspapers, weeklies, and alt-weeklies in the US that have experienced the same: the staff of at least 88 newspapers have been affected by COVID-19 as of April 30. The list continues to be updated. 

Sales for national newspapers in the UK also fell by 30% in March, while major towns lost their only print newspapers because they’ve had to stop printing due to the challenges of delivery and a lack of advertising. 

In South Asia, where the press freedom situation is deemed problematic to difficult by Reporters Without Borders, media companies took weeks to procure personal protective equipment for their staff amid layoffs, salary cuts, and forced leave without pay. The 2019-2020 South Asia Press Freedom Report, released on May 3, said that 16 media workers have lost their lives and a total of 219 violations to press freedom were recorded due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Budget cuts and threats to job security have affected both old and new media companies. 

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s English-language newspaper that was first published in 1903, cut senior management pay and asked their staff to take an unpaid leave for 3 weeks due to a drop in revenues. This was, in part, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed has implemented 5% to 25% pay cuts in an attempt to forestall layoffs. CEO Jonah Peretti said he wouldn't take a salary until the coronavirus crisis is over.

Bad for business

In the Philippines, the broadsheet Bea works for has been getting less advertisements in recent years, but she and her colleagues have noticed that the situation is getting worse as the lockdown progresses. 

More of their pages are without ads, she said, and at one point, the main section of the paper only had one.

“Printing a newspaper during these times bleeds our companies’ coffers dry – i.e., the cost of printing a newspaper is greater than the income we earn. There were sources who said our circulation was down to a few thousands,” she said. 

The circulation of newspapers has been difficult due to the lockdown, as land and air transportation remain restricted and most establishments where newspapers are delivered remain closed. 

“But our company said we should continue delivering news, as this is our ‘civic duty,’” Bea said. “Props to them, really, but bravado alone won’t make money flow. Broadsheets are a business after all.”

In a way, Bea and her co-workers are lucky because they haven’t experienced pay cuts and they’re still given a transportation allowance even though they have a work-from-home setup. 

She knows someone from another publication, however, who had their transportation and communication allowances cut. “Paano kami magtatrabaho kung wala kaming internet, pantext, at pantawag sa mga sources namin?” Bea’s friend asked her. (How can we work if we can’t pay for our internet, can’t pay to text, or call our sources?)

However, some reporters still do field coverage because they have to earn to survive, said Labiste. 

Reporters should be given a universal subsidy by the Department of Labor, she said, and media associations should distribute food packs, cash, and safety equipment for freelancers, contributors, correspondents, stringers and editorial support staff. “It is an irony that the media sector has forgotten its own ranks when they called for donations for the pandemic,” she added. 

No work, no pay

Employees of TV networks in the Philippines have not been spared from financial difficulties, either.

At ABS-CBN, Manabat and her colleagues were assured they would receive their regular salaries and benefits for the next 3 months under the CDO. Even before the order was imposed, they were sometimes paid early and were given vitamins, masks, and other personal protective equipment. They would be picked up and dropped off at home by company cars if they had to go to the office or be in the field.

What happens after those 3 months is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, Joshua*, who works at a different company, is not a regular employee and is worried about the coming weeks. 

He stays in their newsroom for most of the week and goes home on his days off, which entitles him to hazard pay. He has also clocked in overtime hours. He says he hasn’t seen compensation for either of these reflected in his last paycheck.

He also can’t afford to get sick, lest he be forced to go on sick leave without pay. This, he said, was the company’s policy for talents and probationary employees.

Hiring producers, writers, researchers, and other employees as talents or contractual workers is common in the media industry.

The talents of GMA network have been vocal about how they’ve been treated during the Luzon-wide lockdown.

According to a member of the Talents Association of GMA (TAG), GMA pays its talents based on whether the content they've produced are aired. If they are given a cash advance during the months of quarantine, it's considered utang or a loan – they must pay it back once they're able to work again. 

Sidney*, one of the talent and project employees affected by the temporary suspension of broadcast operations in GMA News TV, said the network explained to them that the available budget was dependent on the shows and the advertisements that aired, which stopped because they went off-air. "Since operations were suspended, they told us they didn't have the money to pay our salaries. If they did, they explained the company will operate on a deficit."

New realities

Even Bea and Jenny, who haven't had problems with their salaries, admit that reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult because of their limited movements.

Journalists have been trained to report the news through legwork and beat reporting, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted newsgathering into a digital exercise, which veteran journalist Howie Severino calls “the new normal.”

"The advantage of print is we are supposed to be slow in our approach because we should be able to tell what the other platforms failed to cover. And that entails going out in the field and meeting people, talking to them and even staying by their side for hours if the deadline permits," Bea said.

Though she can't do that under the lockdown, her editors still expect the same in-depth reporting from her and her colleagues.

Jenny said that she had a hard time, especially at the beginning of the lockdown, when she didn't have a crew to help her take videos or photos, which is essential for a visual medium like TV.

Despite everything, Jenny said she feels a sense of responsibility: "Because this is a global event, everyone can feel it, regardless of class, regardless of gender, and in situations like this, isn't it right that we should be even more responsible in doing what we do?"

Meanwhile, Severino, a documentary filmmaker for GMA News and Public Affairs, has turned his experience as a COVID-19 survivor into content for the network's website and for their program, “I-Witness.”

His experience gave him the will to live, and it's now his unique responsibility as a journalist and survivor to speak about it. – with reports from Aika Rey/Rappler.com

*Real names have been changed to protect their identity and privacy.

Vernise Tantuco

Vernise Tantuco is on Rappler's Research Team, fact checking suspicious claims, wrangling data, and telling stories that need to be heard.

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