Journalists are listed as essential workers during South Africa’s lockdown. As such, reporters are working among all South Africans and pursuing stories related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Media operations across the country have changed the way they work, and implemented measures to keep staff as safe as possible. Keeping South Africans informed about COVID-19 is a major mission, and one that has citizens reaching out to news organisations as a trusted source. As result, news brands’ online platforms have seen a marked increase in unique browsers and page views. [More on this coming up in another story.]
Firstly, though, news teams and support structures need a safe working environment both in the office and out of it. And while many are remote working, reporters, photographers and cameramen work mostly in the field.
At Primedia Broadcasting, buildings in Johannesburg and Cape Town have undergone a process of “thermal fogging” as part of minimising risk.
EWN group editor and chief, Mahlatse Mahlase, and EWN news editor in the Western Cape, Charlotte Kilbane, said the company has also introduced strict studio hygiene protocols including the studios being cleaned after every show.
In addition producers are also preparing the shows at home and coming in to put the show on air. Studio interviews are no longer on offer.
“When people enter the buildings, their temperatures are checked and security ensures that they sanitise,” they said. “We are also not allowing anyone who doesn’t work at Primedia in the building.”
Arena Holdings is offering counselling for staff “given the unprecedented nature of this pandemic”. Large numbers of staff are remote working, and payments have been made to employees who require data in order to facilitate people to working from home.
For those who have to work at the Arena head office in Parktown, sanitisers are available throughout the building and social distancing is practiced with working desks spread further apart. Pool cars are being cleaned and sanitised, and the building itself has been in deep clean, with an even more regular cleaning regime being implemented.
eNCA’s chief operating officer, Jody Jacobs, says a professional company has sanitised all common areas in the building after hours, and would continue to do so. “In a bid to limit unnecessary contact between people, eNCA has placed a ban on all in-studio guest interviews and will conduct those either via Skype or telephonically,” Jacobs said in a communication.
News and technical operations staff have been placed on shift rotation to minimise the number of staff coming in and out of the building, and are operating in four shifts with approximately 55 people per shift.
“This excludes the reporters and camera people out in the field, which is an additional 15 for the day. Access passes have been issued to all essential staff,” he says.
With anchors and reporters working in studios, things such as make up have to be sanitised too.
Health a priority
“Yes, health has become a high priority for us, along with giving South African’s the most up to date information. Only essential news and technical operations staff are currently on duty,” Jacobs says. “Technical operations and make-up staff have been provided with masks to limit the transfer of any respiratory droplets between conversations. Disposable gloves have also been provided.”
Once in the field, all field reporters and camera operators have been equipped with masks and gloves. Additionally, they adhere to the one-metre social distancing rule when conducting interviews.
It’s not just reporters who are at risk. Media operations include print workers, distributors, informal sellers and contractors who deliver subscriptions. Arena has contingency plans in place for printing and logistics.
It has issued gloves and masks for informal sellers as well as delivery staff as subscriber deliveries will continue to function as normal where requested by our clients. “We are in daily communication with our clients, and are offering epapers (identical replicas of the newspaper in pdf format) through various channels to those who request them.
“Due to this, we do not anticipate a significant drop in our newspaper recipients during this time. The impact of the virus on retail sales is not yet apparent and will only be clear in the coming weeks; in the meantime we are working closely with retailers to ensure safe deliveries at all stores,” the company said in a business communication.
At the same time, drivers have been educated about how the virus spreads and what steps to take to prevent it and education posters have been erected to inform staff about the virus and how to avoid contracting or spreading it.
Getting the news
Never has there been such an urgent need for proper, fact-checked reporting. With social networks adding an element of pandemonium to the pandemic with the proliferation of fake news, trusted news brands have never been more important in ensuring the public has the facts at hand.
“Caxton’s Local News Network (LNN) has played a massive role in informing and educating our communities on the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Irma Green, national group editor of Caxton Local Media. “From the onset our main aim was to serve through factual reporting.”
Caxton formed a task team to assist with national news and distributing content. “We have six dedicated teams working on a roster system with two-hour shifts throughout the day until about 22:00,” Green explains.
Each team has a senior editor as team leader, journalists, sub-editors and graphic designers. “They are supported by the two national digital resources who can publish any content onto all our sites and social media pages through the Smashboard platform,” Green ads.
At the same time, they compiled an editorial protocol the aim of which is to inform and educate and not to create more panic and uncertainty. “We’ve updated our protocol three times since the first announcement. It includes fact-checking guidelines, assistance with legal queries etc,” she says.
Green’s local newspapers carry a message to readers:
Dear reader, as your local news provider, we have the duty of keeping you factually informed on Covid-19 developments. As you may have noticed, mis- and disinformation (also known as “fake news”) is circulating online. Caxton Local Media is determined to filter through the masses of information doing the rounds and to separate truth from untruth in order to keep you adequately informed. Local newsrooms follow a strict pre-publication fact-checking protocol. A national task team has been established to assist in bringing you credible news reports on Covid-19.
“We have received dozens of emails from communities with questions about the lock-down and rules and we’ve escalated all their queries to relevant branches or authorities. Our hotline has become a tool for assistance to our readers,” Green says.
Arena’s journalists, in the need arises, have been provided with transport to get them from home to where they’re covering stories, and have been issued with masks and gloves.
Mahlase and Kilbane said with the exception of news desk staff, who are on air on a daily basis, all journalists have been set up to work from home. While the issue of masks remains unclear – government first dismissed their use but as of Wednesday, health minister Zweli Mkhize has advocated their use again – EWN field reporters have been issued with high alcohol content hand sanitizer, and there is a stock in the newsroom to replenish dwindling stocks.
“Our field reporters have been researching and covering aspects of this virus since it first emerged in Wuhan. They are aware of how to practice good social distancing when interviewing people in the field. They carry hand sanitiser and wipes and use them liberally,” say Mahlase and Kilbane.
“We conduct all interviews outside, as recommended by the WHO. Reporters wipe-down their equipment with sanitiser after interviews.
Importantly, we have made it very clear that anyone who is at risk of developing complications e.g. anyone who has an underlying immune/respiratory condition should avoid field reporting if at all possible. The few people in our newsroom who do have underlying conditions have been self-isolating since long before the lockdown.”
Mahlase and Kilbane point out that this is a time when a well-staffed and well-supported newsroom comes into its own. “The level of fake news and misinformation out there about COVID19 is frankly, terrifying,” they say.
“The role of a news organisation is to ensure the truth reaches the nation – whether that is the nitty gritties of the restrictions under the lockdown, the context that makes the ever growing numbers of infections mean something, the human stories of those affected by the lockdown and the spread of the virus, or the fallout from the lockdown, and the spread of the virus.”
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