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Covid-19 has driven journalists to “reinvent decades of working practices in days”: Why this is important for publishing’s future

“Doing good journalism in the era of Covid-19 has been likened to war reporting,” says Antonio Zappulla, CEO, Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF). “Journalists have been risking their lives to document the frontlines of a battle against an invisible enemy. They placed themselves at the epicentre of the disease to bring us the information we needed in order to protect ourselves.”

The challenges faced by journalists as a result of Covid-19 must be understood and addressed in order to safeguard a diverse and healthy media ecosystem and freedom of speech. From user behaviour to news consumption, to the approach adopted by social media platforms, this pandemic has set significant precedents.

Damian Radcliffe, Professor of Journalism, University of Oregon

“Additional, important and untold dimension”

“Whilst much of the turbulence in the profession has been well documented since the beginning of the pandemic,” adds Radcliffe. “It became clear over the past few months that there was an additional, important and untold dimension to this narrative: the way the Covid crisis affected journalists and the media industry specifically in the Global South.”

The TRF has published a report that attempts to fill this gap. The report, “The impact of Covid-19 on journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South,” has been authored by Radcliffe. It is based on interviews with 55 journalists – all alumni of training programmes run by the TRF. These first-hand insights cover the challenges faced by journalists in those regions, the strategies they are using to adapt to changes and solve problems, and the kind of support they require.  

“These fears now look somewhat overblown”

While the pandemic has been hard on publishing, it has not been as destructive as some industry insiders initially predicted. It has certainly not been an “extinction-level event” for the media industry around the world. 

“These fears now look somewhat overblown,” writes Radcliffe. “But, whatever the outcome, it’s clear the news industry that emerges on the other side of this crisis will look very different from the one that went into it.” 

Covid-19 has had a twin impact on journalism: not only has it presented a unique set of challenges for journalists, but it has also accentuated and accelerated several major structural issues that predate the pandemic. 

Damian Radcliffe, Author, The impact of Covid-19 on journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South

The challenges faced by journalism and the publishing industry before Covid and exacerbated by it include attempts to curtail press freedom, declining revenues, and the ubiquity of fake news which has also affected trust in journalism. 

Problems arising out of the pandemic include digital dependency due to work from home arrangements, job/income loss, and health problems (both mental and physical) due to anxiety and various restrictions. 

Source: The impact of Covid-19 on journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South

“Indelible mark on the working practices”

The rapid spread of the pandemic forced publishers to overhaul their working practices with unprecedented quickness. It created many complexities for journalists as well as newsrooms across the world as “outlets scrambled to address issues related to workflows, tools and technology, training, management, newsgathering and engagement both with each other and their audiences.”

News organisations had to reinvent decades of working practices in days.

Hannah Storm, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network

“Not surprisingly, given the all-encompassing nature of the pandemic, it has left an indelible mark on the working practices of a wide variety of journalists,” writes Radcliffe. “Social distancing while reporting, working from home (where possible) and using new equipment, platforms and formats to do it, have all become part of the ‘new normal’.”

“Opportunities to venture into unexplored digital platforms”

The challenges triggered by the pandemic have also highlighted the creativity and resilience of journalists. Several of them interviewed for the report say that it has given them the opportunity to embrace new tools, skills and storytelling techniques. 

It has also driven them to lean into technology and learn new skills related to data and health reporting. These adaptations will likely continue to be beneficial beyond the pandemic.

For example, Tom Trewinnard, Co-founder and CEO, Fathm, a digital journalism consultancy, said in April, “the coronavirus crisis will eventually end, but the distributed newsroom is here to stay.” He was referring to newsrooms that work in a decentralised manner using digital tools to communicate and collaborate.

There is the opportunity to go in-depth and also opportunities to venture into unexplored digital platforms that are more accessible and more cost-effective. There is also the opportunity for solidarity and collaboration. [And] the opportunity to avail of various learning events on the internet as one stays home and works from home. 

Special correspondent, Philippines, TRF Alumni 

Many have attempted to develop new methods of storytelling and distribution so that readers can receive important public health messages in a variety of formats. In this vein, explainer videos and infographics have been highly popular. 

Animation and explainers videos have been used by publishers, as well as health organizations and professionals. These include Vox, the WHO, Stanford University’s School of Medicine, Canada-based YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE, and the Indian medic Dr G Bhanu Prakash

“How we can get our credible news onto WhatsApp”

Other innovative methods used to communicate vital public health messages and engage readers include an online ‘true or false’ quiz based on coronavirus. It was created by Meduza, a Russian and English-language news provider based in Latvia. 

Some outlets have explored different delivery mechanisms. WhatsApp, with 2B users worldwide, has been used to distribute daily updates on the pandemic and address rumours and misinformation in the Ivory Coast.

The Continent, a Pan-African weekly newspaper had published 16 editions by mid-August and disseminated to 8,000 subscribers in 48 African countries using WhatsApp. 

WhatsApp was almost always the source of fake news and that’s when we realised that we had to start thinking very seriously about how we can get our credible news onto WhatsApp. 

Simon Allison, Co-founder, The Continent

“The PDF publication features news from across the African continent and is easily shared and read on mobile phone screens,” explains South African journalist Pontsho Pilane. “The articles are short, on average about 250 words, and a news edition is distributed mainly on WhatsApp every Saturday.” 

Source: The impact of Covid-19 on journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South

In Brazil, Agência Mural, a nonprofit that produces news, data and analysis about the outskirts of the Grande São Paulo metropolitan area, has created a daily 8-minute WhatsApp podcast called Em Quarentena (Quarantined).

“Continuing to harness these possibilities will be important”

“These examples demonstrate that for all the trials journalism faces as a result of Covid-19, journalists remain creative creatures seeking to cut through the noise and communicate with audiences,” writes Radcliffe. “News outlets are continuing to produce important, impactful and inspired stories, offering journalism and news products that offer real value to the communities they serve.”

“Continuing to harness these possibilities will be important if we are to go on informing and engaging audiences as Covid fatigue kicks in and potentially shapes both our media habits and everyday behaviours in a detrimental manner,” he adds.

The external pressures on journalism are great, but so are the internal pressures on journalism to adapt and evolve. Covid-19 has further reinforced this.

Damian Radcliffe, Professor of Journalism, University of Oregon

The full report is available here:
The impact of Covid-19 on journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South