Media & Covid-19 experiences of female journalists

Media & Covid-19 experiences of female journalists

Date: June 22, 2020
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By Thabani Mpofu,

Bulawayo, 22 June: Many stories have been written on the heightened and grave health risks faced by the health professionals, care givers, and other essential workers. But little attention has been given to the writers of these stories, the journalists, who are the eyes and ears of the public.

Covid-19 pandemic presents difficult new coverage dilemmas with journalists and editors having to keep up with rapid developments while at the same time minding challenges of protecting themselves and families from being infected.

Whether they report in self-isolation, from behind a desk in newsrooms or in communities, this is a front line, like no other. Infact, their frontline is anywhere and everywhere.

Coronavirus is the story of this century. Even the most experienced journalists in the newsrooms today have never covered a story like this. Real challenges have arisen with safety concerns and coping mechanisms of journalists in general and female journalists in particular topping the list.

One of the things that we have learnt is that coronavirus is not going to go away anytime soon, so we must quickly learn to live with it. As we prepare to live with Covid-19, let us care to listen to the triumphs and tribulations of the female journalists, our heroines.

Unlike their male counterparts, female journalists carry a three-fold burden. They are the main care givers at work and in their homes; are at greater risk of infection; and are subject to emotional, physical and socio-economic harm.

Female journalists, the women behind the Covid-19 stories, are no exception. As COVID-19 snakes its way around the world, it has started exacerbating gender inequalities hence the need to listen to experiences of female journalists.

“My first thoughts were that we are going to drop like flies considering our collapsed health system. I thought that if the US and Britain were struggling to contain the disease, what about poor Zimbabwe. “I was even more worried after broadcaster Zororo Makamba died; it was the conditions under which he died that put me in panic mode. All of a sudden you start thinking about what would happen to your kids if you die from Covid-19,” said Faith Zaba, the editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent.

Like most mothers looking after their children, Zaba too first thought about the plight of her children in the event that she becomes part of the COVID-19  statistics.

Coincidentally, in Zimbabwe Covid-19 announced its arrival with the death of broadcaster, Makamba, perhaps a strong message that journalists too are at high risk.

“At first I thought Covid-19 is one of those not so deadly diseases that can be managed well if people practise hygiene and adhere to all the useful information being shared by experts,” recalls Thandeka Moyo-Ndlovu, an experienced and award-winning gender and health reporter with the daily Chronicle. “However, after closely following the havoc it wreaked in the first world countries, I realised I was not safe and I knew that being a journalist was going to make matters worse as the job demands interaction with the masses. I have been feeling insecure since then and can readily accept another job right now,” she said, perhaps speaking for many female journalists.

The Herald Managing Editor, Ruth Butaumocho said when she first heard about coronavirus she quickly dismissed it as one of those elitist and Eurocentric diseases.

Lulu Brenda Harris, a reporter with the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE) an online news platform, said she thought there was nothing to panic about since China had advanced medical technology but grew alarmed when the virus started spreading out of control.

Covering pandemics and other health crises are one of many ways that journalists put their own safety on the line. Just like soldiers in war, journalists too, risk their lives to gather information to empower people and ensure communities are safe.

“Many terrible thoughts went through my head. Psychologically I was a mess because I have what they describe as aggressive hypertension. What was terrifying was what was being shared about the fatal effect Covid-19 has on people with chronic illnesses such as mine. I felt the odds were against me. I remember even updating my will. Daily devotions from my Methodist Church of Zimbabwe home group helped me a lot,” revealed Faith, one of the most experienced senior female journalists in Zimbabwe.

COVID-19 has indeed brought a number of new norms for the journalists – it affects their emotional and physical health, changes their roles and schedules, digital challenges are now a reality, and it demands various coping mechanism.

The situation is even worse for female journalists, who before Covid-19 hit the world they were already faced with numerous gender barriers in their line of duty.

“I no longer have time to rest due to the pressure at work. The worst part is I do health reporting so all pressure is mounted on me and sometimes I have been forced to do stories that directly expose me to COVID-19,” said Moyo-Ndlovu.

As the global statistics on Covid-19 continue to balloon, reporting on the pandemic is a marathon and not a sprint. Unlike a natural disaster that hits and subsidises, coronavirus keeps on hitting and journalists need to stay fit and healthy, to get safely to the finish line.

Covid-19 response strategies including lockdown and physical distancing while proving to be effective in the fight against the pandemic, have complicated the work of journalists in general and female journalists in particular.

“I have found myself working longer hours and more than I do when I am working from the office. When you work from the office at the end of the day you leave your work at the office and go home. There is a balance between work and home life. But now there is no such separation,” said Zaba.

With schools still closed in Zimbabwe, women spend more time looking after children. Butaumocho noted that when the Government implemented level one lockdown that called for physical distancing and decongesting of workplaces there were a lot of socio-cultural changes that occurred in the newsroom.

“A lot of cultural changes took place at our workplace both negatively and positively; negatively in the sense that as management I found myself with a lot of work to do. It meant that I had to work long hours because now we have a skeletal staff at our workplace,” said Butaumocho, a former gender editor of the same publication.

She added that with time the journalists started experiencing a lot of problems due to fatigue, anxiety and fear for being infected.

Journalists world over are under enormous pressure to report this biggest story accurately and safely. They must ensure that they report truth, not opinions, and science, not speculation. But coronavirus has disrupted the traditional journalistic practises.

“It’s hard to easily find news sources during the lockdown. Sometimes I rely on WhatsApp for my responses and news gathering but people cannot give you full details online and you find yourself dealing with ghost sources. At the same time the few people I get to see are a reminder that I am ever exposing myself to Covid-19, it’s a challenge. I sometimes have to chase Government officials whose comments determine my knocking off time. This is hectic!” noted Moyo-Ndlovu.

Zaba, one of the few female editors in the country, concurred and added that convincing news sources, most of whom prefer anonymity, to agree to be interviewed over the phone, something which they are not comfortable with, is not a mean task.

“Just imagine trying to do an investigative piece over the phone and at a distance. It is not easy but we cannot afford to compromise our brand, we have to maintain the high quality,” she added.

As the coronavirus gathered momentum, newsrooms too went on lockdown and enforced social distancing leaving a skeletal staff.

“This means more work and pressure from editors who want their stories done and multi-sourced either way and that is so stressful. I have to work extra hard, longer hours and of course find time to breastfeed my baby although I sometimes knock off very late and start work early,” explained Moyo-Ndlovu, a mother of a five-month-old baby.

According to Zaba, who has been working from home, covering Covid-19 is even worse for female editors.

“It is more difficult for the female journalists and worse still for a female editor. My day starts with sweeping the house. I then sit on the computer and start editing. In between I have WhatsApp and Zoom meetings. I also have to deal with resource issues for the reporters and the rest of the team.

“I sometimes forget to eat breakfast. I have been having more of brunch (breakfast and lunch combined). In between I have to cook for the kids and wash dishes. I have been struggling to separate work and home life. The kids have been suffering as I am unable to spend enough time with them,” she said adding that there are days when her children have come to her bedroom at midnight and ordered her to switch off the computer and go to bed.

“There are days I have had to work until 2am. Sometimes I envy my male colleagues because unlike us, they can be totally focused on their work without other distractions. I sometimes I feel like I am working on batteries.“I push myself because I can’t afford to fail. If I fail, I would have let down my female colleagues and closed the door on them. Failing is not an option for me,” she said.

In the middle of editing stories and managing the newsroom from a distance, Zaba like most female journalists, has to think about feeding the family.

“With everyone at home, it’s more expensive to feed the family. On the technological side, data is now very expensive and so are voice calls,” she said adding that her social life is almost zero.

With schools closed, Zaba like many other mothers has to ensure that children have access to the internet to participate in e-learning.

Despite all these challenges, Butaumocho said female journalists have measured up to the task right from the start of Covid-19 coverage.

“They were there in time; they would even stay longer hours and even go home as early as 1am. Remember this was the time when press conferences would just mushroom from everywhere. I am happy to say that, of course there could have been other peripheral challenges, but female journalists rose up to the occasion,” she noted.

Harris showed commitment and dedication in the coverage of Covid-19. “I often joke that gender does not count as journalism involves me working on the frontline, a role and responsibility I have to do diligently. I am a risk taker, news has to be reported despite the risks such as fear of exposure to infection due to many contacts we interact with and this was the same sentiment coming from home,” said Harris.

Surely these are unprecedented times for many journalists with many lessons learnt.

“One major lesson is that I don’t have to burn fuel every day to drive to the office; I can just be as effective working from home. You don’t need physical meetings because virtual ones are just as effective. We all have been stampeded into embracing the fourth revolution, which is a good thing,” said Zaba as if to describe the new normal for journalists.

According to Butaumocho, Covid-19 has taught journalists to appreciate the importance of research, multi-sourcing and robust use of technology.

“We now appreciate the importance of learning to use the ordinary technology. I remember in our newsroom at some point we had to urgently convene on Zoom and guess what, a lot of people didn’t even know what Zoom is all about. But since that time people have learnt to experiment with a lot of technological initiatives,” observed Butaumocho.

Before Covid-19, several media monitoring results including the Gender and Media Progress Study (GMPS) have revealed that health reporting is usual treated as a less important news bit and often assigned to female journalists. But coronavirus has turned it into the story of the century.

“Covid-19 has taught me that health is not a health matter, it is economic, political, social, scientific and biological. It has a bearing on countries, governments, people and social life notwithstanding the economic cost it comes with it,” said Harris.

While most people may be physically locked indoors or their movement restricted, they are still being fed real-time information about the Covid-19 situation, thanks to journalists who are tirelessly working out on the field.

They are taking considerable risk to their own lives to empower us with information to fight the pandemic. But often their work goes unnoticed as people thank doctors, nurses, other health workers, security personnel and the Government for their dedication, efficiency and swift-decisions.

True, journalism is not about glamour, popularity or celebrity-status; its role and purpose is to deliver accurate and verified information that the people need to make informed decisions. But spare a thought for members of the fourth estate and female journalists in particular. They deserve acknowledgement at least for covering the world’s deadliest disease.

Thabani Mpofu is the chairperson of the Journalism and Media Studies department at the National University of Science and Technology. This article is part of the GL News Service Gender and COVID-19 news series.

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