Covid-19 Crushed Media, Gave Governments Excuse to Silence Journalists — Study
The Covid-19 crisis period has been one of the most trying times for journalism and journalists globally, a research study revealed.
A study written by renowned media scholar Damian Radcliffe–a Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon in the United States–shows that journalism especially in the global south has suffered structural and administrative challenges, alongside targeted attacks from governments.
Titled; The impact of COVID-19 on journalism in Emerging Economies and the Global South, it was published by Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF).
Over 50 reporters from different regions of the world shared their experiences on practicing journalism in the era of COVID-19 in developing countries.
They cited resource constrains, infodemics and misinformation, adapting to unique challenges of covid-19, and arbitrary attacks as the key challenges facing the sector.
Reporters sampled said that as they take the risk to document the frontlines of a battle against an invisible enemy, governments are using the pandemic as a convenient cover to narrow their space.
“The pandemic has been weaponised to kill free speech. COVID-19 has provided a convenient excuse to usher in a range of reporting restrictions on a sliding scale of severity – from limiting access to data, right through to punitive restrictions and even threats to life,” Antonio Zappulla, the TRF Chief Executive notes.
Journalists faced travel restrictions while working during the time most countries imposed lockdowns, they said.
Meera Selva, a journalist from Philippines is quoted in the report as saying “the President’s office banned all journalists from travelling to areas in lockdown without a specific identification card issued by his communications office.”
Further, reporters said that governments relied on policies and legislative measures put in place to curb the flow of fake news and unsolicited information to stop media organizations from publishing information critical to them.
The pandemic in its ugly form also left an indelible mark on the working practices of a wide variety of journalists. The report says 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’ and has remained a big challenge to reporters.
“The speed of the shift to remote working presented complexities for many journalists and their newsrooms. Across the globe, outlets scrambled to address issues related to workflows, tools and technology, training, management, newsgathering and engagement both with each other and their audiences” the report reads in part.
Alongside this, the coronavirus crisis has also unleashed a wave of misinformation, particularly online, which has posted a great challenge to the industry.
“Keeping up with, and counteracting, misinformation was already a huge undertaking for journalists, social networks and consumers,” the report indicated.
COVID-19’s influence on incomes, job security, work habits and locations, doubts about the effectiveness of public health advice and policies, alongside the spread of fake news, and concerns about an unclear future, impact on everyone, journalists included.
“These anxieties do not look likely to ease anytime soon, and many journalists reporting on the coronavirus will continue to see their personal experiences of the pandemic closely entwined with the stories that they are covering. Because of this, it’s more important than ever for journalists to look after their physical and mental health,” the author recommended.
On resources, global economic shutdown has severely reduced the advertising revenues that many media outlets depend on. As a result, “worldwide, countless independent news providers are being forced to scale down, lay off reporters or close altogether”.
“This situation can be further compounded in emerging economies and the Global South where TRF alumni have suggested that advertisers may be more likely to use their marketing budgets as potential leverage over content. Moreover, with many newsrooms under increasing financial pressure as a result of the pandemic, there are also legitimate fears that these types of pressures may escalate, and even become more commonplace,” the report reads.
The study indicates further that freelance journalists are facing deeper challenges related to their personal safety – especially regarding PPE – and to navigating increased access restrictions to many locations as a result of lockdowns.
On Job insecurity is the report relates the looming financial crisis in newsrooms to great economic recession of 2007 which caused shockwaves to the advertisement revenue of most media organizations.
The Great Recession (from December 2007 onwards) saw large numbers of job cuts in newsrooms. Meanwhile, the decade-long migration of advertising revenues to digital platforms like Google and Facebook has impacted on the traditional business models of many news outlets.
“Shifting revenue and delivery mechanisms for news have meant, to an extent, that the sector appears to be in a state of constant flux. Restructures (such as pivoting to digital or increasing efforts related to video, social, etc.) have become a way of life for many journalists, creating instability and job insecurity in newsrooms around the world,” the report reads in part.
Experts are now suggesting that media organizations and journalists and the practice of journalism must refocus in order to remain relevant in the trying times.
“These efforts reflect the ability of journalists to creatively communicate vital public health messages and meet audiences where they are. They also stress the importance of traditional media, in particular radio, as a means to reach large audiences in parts of the Global South,” it reads.
Despite the challenges, Professor Radcliffe says there are tangible examples of resilience and valuable reporting.
“These efforts are often playing out against a backdrop of reduced freedom of the press, growing unease among some potential sources about talking to journalists, as well as a financial landscape that has resulted in major job losses and pay cuts,” he notes.