As the country braves through the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and lakhs get infected by the virus with hundreds even succumbing to it, journalists are continuing to bring much-needed information from ground zero for their viewers and readers. While this often means putting their own safety aside and exposing themselves to the virus, the journalists pull on a double mask, rub sanitisers on their hands regularly and keep at it day in and day out.
While many of us across the country are working from the comforts of our home, not all journalists have that luxury. For many journalists covering developments around the pandemic, their typical day involves spending hours at hospitals and crematoriums, where the chances of contracting the lethal virus are much higher. For photojournalists and TV journalists, it is imperative to report from the field. It is only their passion for their work that keeps them at it.
As they recover, newsrooms have a tough task of continuing to bring out their editions or running their news broadcast. In cases where their colleagues have tested positive, they even work longer hours to make up for their absence. “If someone is infected, it increases the workload of the others and they have to put in much longer hours than usual. They are working 15 to 18 hours,” said a spokesperson from News24, a television channel where several journalists are infected.
In the past year, many journalists have lost their lives after contracting the illness. Data released by Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) in December 2020 revealed that India had lost 53 journalists to Covid, the second-highest in the world. The numbers have only increased in the second wave. The All India Newspaper Employees Federation said 13 journalists lost their lives in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in just seven days in April.
Republic Bharat’s anchor Vikas Sharma passed away in February. Ashish Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s son and a journalist with many prominent publications, succumbed to the illness last week. Guardian’s Kakoli Bhattacharya also died last week. The Hindu’s photojournalist Vivek Bendre passed away this week.
Last week, an MP from Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar, B. Manickam Tagore, wrote to the Prime Minister, seeking that all journalists be declared as frontline workers and be provided vaccination.
A senior official from a top news broadcasting channel has made the same suggestion to the government. “However if they would have done that, the critics would have said that they are trying to bribe the media. The journalists are putting their lives at risk to gather news. It would have been greatly beneficial if they are vaccinated,” he said.
The News24 spokesperson said that they had also appealed to the government to vaccinate journalists but their pleas were ignored.
S. Srivathsan, EVP & Head, Human Resources, Times Network said they introduced innovative solutions so that they could deliver undisrupted news broadcast service to their viewers and now their employees can work from home.
“Covid-19 is a complex and evolving scenario and with the second wave, the impact has been more intense and severe. During the onset of the current wave, we acted quickly to address the situation through necessary safety arrangements for our employees. While we have few positive cases, our learnings from last year, vigilance, and immediate response time ably prepared us to tackle the situation better this time. We have successfully and seamlessly transitioned to work from home for almost all our non-production staff, including our anchors, who have acclimatised to the situation by reporting with the help of video cameras and live units set up in their homes,” he added.
Technology has done quite a bit to help journalists operate remotely. “Contingency measures for digital business and specially designed system tools, allow us to operate remotely and we have established a connection through secure VPN services to our production centres to sustain news flow. The latest technology, hitherto unexplored for live news television, has been implemented to allow live news production work to happen from remote locations such as homes,” he said.
They have taken some steps for the safety of their employees. “We have standby crews as backups, safety gears and equipment have been given to all personnel and all safety protocols are followed to ensure our employees' safety. Besides this, we have significantly reduced the workforce and minimised their interaction on the field so that we can bring authentic and uninterrupted news in the shortest possible time to our viewers,” he said.
News24 journalists also report to the studio apart from being on the field. The organisation has taken several precautions at the studio to ensure their safety such as ensuring social distancing and providing sanitisation before entering the office.
News24 has also started an initiative ‘Saathi Haath Badhana’ to promote plasma donation by recovered Covid patients for both the employees and the general public.
Abhishek Karnani, Director, Free Press Journal, said they provided vaccination to all their eligible employees and will be tying up with an NGO to provide vaccination to the others once they are eligible for it from May 1. In Madhya Pradesh, they also provided vaccinations to the family members of their employees.
While many of their employees tested positive in the past year, Karnani said they are lucky that they have not lost anyone. “We are lucky that the ones who got infected did not suffer from any complications and recovered. We are hoping we manage to vaccinate them quickly so that it doesn’t impact them and their family.”
While their Mumbai edition did not face a major brunt, the Indore edition was severely hit with many journalists contracting the virus. “Our Mumbai newsroom has been working from home for the last one year. But the Indore office had started coming to the office. The edition was affected but for a few days, the Mumbai staff took care of it. Luckily not too many people got affected at the same time. We recruited more people this month for the Mumbai edition,” he said.
A spokesperson from a digital website based in South India said they do not force their employees to report from the field and have left it to their discretion. “With digital, you either report in front of your laptop or you go to the field. Not everyone is willing to go to the field and we have not imposed it on anyone. We have given them the freedom to decide whatever is best for their safety,” he said.
Their regional offices have been shut since the pandemic began and only their headquarters is open for whoever wishes to work from there. “The videos are being shot on the phone and we are managing the bare minimum reporting over calls. But it is obviously affecting the quality,” he said.
While none of their journalists have been affected by Covid at present, the spokesperson admits that the pandemic coverage has taken a toll on their employees’ mental health. “It is definitely affecting their mental health. The senior management has been sending out encouraging messages to the team. We are giving them the option to work from home and there are no consequences for not going to the field. There are no pay cuts for working remotely.”