Battle-worn PH media also face unknown in COVID-19 fight
MANILA, Philippines — A news channel went off the air while its building was disinfected, skeleton crews now man once-bustling media offices and printing presses are going quiet as newspapers around the country are temporarily moving online.
In the war against an unseen and deadly foe such as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), media companies are taking unprecedented steps to ensure the well-being of employees while delivering timely updates to a public hungry for information.
“We are on uncharted territory. I don’t think anything like this has happened since World War 2 or Martial Law,” Felipe Salvosa II, head of the journalism program of the University of Santo Tomas, told the Inquirer in an interview.
He said journalists must learn how to evaluate risks while media owners should ensure safety and supply the appropriate personal protective equipment.
“The maxim ‘no story is worth your life’ is still true especially in a pandemic,” said Salvosa, who is also an editor of independent news site PressONE.Ph.
Television broadcast giants ABS-CBN Corp., GMA Network Inc. and TV5 have revamped programming while employees are told to work from home whenever possible.
This comes after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered an enhanced community quarantine in Luzon. The Philippine government is battling the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory illness that has infected over 275,000 people globally and killed over 11,000, including 19 in the Philippines.
ABS-CBN stopped airing the popular Umagang Kay Ganda morning show in favor of radio news program DZMM. ABS-CBN News Channel and DZMM are pooling resources for a single broadcast, a company spokesman said.
GMA News TV was briefly taken off the air but resumed on March 21. It will simulcast with DZBB on GMA’s primetime newscast 24 Oras, the company said in a statement.
“This is different than previous assignments and that the danger is invisible,” Jeff Canoy, a veteran journalist with ABS-CBN, told the Inquirer.
“But it’s also a time where there’s a lot of confusion. So verified information needs to be more visible to the public. Journalists are called to serve at the frontlines,” he added.
Safety guidelines include what events to cover and how to handle their gear.
“Do not place equipment like cameras or laptop computers on the floor. We know that the virus can live on surfaces, so if you need to put down equipment, wrap them in plastic bags,” a portion of ABS-CBN’s guidelines read.
News teams may attend important government press conferences but hospitals and other COVID-19 hotspots are off-limits. Health kits are provided and teams are told to keep a daily log of activities and people they meet— important for contact tracing.
Roby Alampay, former editor-in-chief of Businessworld, said media companies should be allowed to find the right balance between following strict safety rules and delivering the news.
“What’s important is for the limits not to be dictated by government,” said Alampay, who is now CEO and founder of podcast producer Puma Public Productions.
In this new era of media coverage, the internet is a powerful ally.
CNN Philippines shifted to broadcasting live news updates on social media after the Worldwide Corporate Center in Mandaluyong City, where its office is located, was closed. An employee working in the building earlier tested positive for COVID-19, prompting management to disinfect the premises.
Rappler, one of the country’s largest news online platforms, has implemented a strict work from home policy but that has not stopped its journalists from covering crucial announcements, a company employee said.
GMA News Online noted a recent “substantial increase” in viewership on its digital platform, said Jaemark Tordecilla, GMA Network assistant vice president.
Restrictions to physical coverage have a downside for independent media organizations. For online press briefings, the government’s narrative is often amplified while other questions are ignored, a reporter covering updates on COVID-19 said.
Media companies are also hurting as advertising money, a crucial revenue stream, dries up. Big corporations are diverting resources to their own employees or donations to COVID-19 healthcare frontliners.
On March 19, Coco-Cola Philippines said P150 million meant for commercial advertising will instead go to COVID-19 relief and response efforts.
A number of media outlets have guaranteed pay to their staff during the quarantine while others are less fortunate, with employees noting delayed compensation.
Less advertising coupled with logistics challenges under the Luzon quarantine has forced some print publications to move their operations online.
Metro Manila-based newspapers such as Manila Standard and Malaya Business Insight have suspended their print edition.
The Abante Group, the largest tabloid in the Philippines, will also go online as daily street sales plummeted due to the government’s quarantine efforts, general manager Gil Cabacungan announced on Twitter.
Mindanao Times, the longest-running community paper in the southern Philippine island, stopped printing on Friday and moved to online channels, editor-in-chief Amalia B. Cabusao said in a statement to the Inquirer.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, which also implemented work from home schedules for its staff, is continuing to distribute its newspaper while offering the digital version InquirerPlus free of charge for 30 days.
InquirerPlus is a mobile app that can be accessed on smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops.
“We know readers will have all this slack time and need information. We want to fill that gap,” Rudyard Arbolado, Inquirer chief operating officer, said in an interview.
Other major broadsheets such as the Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin continue to publish their print editions.
The news never sleeps and it has the ability to recalibrate in times of crisis.
“Having balanced the risks, journalists cannot surrender their obligation to report the extent of the outbreak and the quality of government responses to government functionaries,” Salvosa said.
“We need more independent reporting during pandemics, not less,” he added.
Edited by JPV
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