Journalists are among the frontline workers who have been out ensuring the public gets its news despite the risks of the novel coronavirus. In many cases, they must contend not only with the health hazards of COVID-19, but also the dangers of covering civil unrest as the protests that have swept the United States over the past two weeks underscore. While all journalists and their crews face these threats, freelancers are among the most vulnerable.
In response to the pandemic, an alliance of news organizations, industry groups and press freedom organizations released a set of safety protocols for news organizations, especially those working with freelancers, during the COVID-19 pandemic amid concerns from journalists and news organizations that they were facing unprecedented challenges reporting safely.
“When COVID erupted we realized this is going to affect everyone, this is a delicate story, and even in the safest environment you will need safety measures,” said ACOS Alliance executive director Elisabet Cantenys, whose organization developed the protocols and has helped arrange access to insurance for freelancers. “I’m shocked at conversations I’ve had with editors where I had to convince them about the importance of safety or safety protocols.”
She hopes that COVID-19 might change this.
“COVID-19 has made the safety conversation unavoidable, and this presents an opportunity,” said Cantenys. ACOS stands for a culture of safety, and she hopes the “silver lining” of coronavirus will be taking conversations about safety beyond just conflict journalism and embedding them in newsroom routines.
Being able to discuss safety needs, and their associated implications for the cost of covering a story, is critical to enabling freelance journalists to work safely, according to industry experts. The novel coronavirus has led to border closures, quarantines and restrictions on movement, not to mention the health concerns associated with a contagious virus, which all impact how journalists can work safely.
“What’s different about this is it affects 100% of our projects and changes the way we work fundamentally as freelance producers,” said Jaron Gilinsky, founder of the Storyhunter platform that connects freelancers with those commissioning work. “There’s nothing like this that I’ve seen since I founded the company [in 2012],” including the Ebola outbreak and the ISIS kidnapping of one of their freelancers. They put out guidance for shooting video in the field after receiving questions from commissioning editors and producers about how to proceed.
All journalists going out on assignment now must consider the health implications of doing so and prepare accordingly, meaning doing a risk assessment is more critical than ever.
Anna Therese Day, a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Frontline Freelance Register (FFR), a membership organization for international freelancers, said that in the early days there was a rush to deploy freelancers to cover the first set of outbreaks. Some commissioning editors rushed to assign stories and put people on planes without thinking through the safety implications or providing contracts with contingencies like contracting the disease or being stranded somewhere.
“When the pandemic started unfolding, I know myself and a lot of other FFR members got a lot of calls to cover this because of our hostile environment training, but what was frustrating about that is there were no protocols to point to for the pandemic and our training doesn’t necessarily translate to coronavirus or a health risk like this,” she explained.
Even media organizations that have security specialists on staff have found that they had to quickly get up to speed on what the pandemic means for their staff and freelancers. They have had to update their advice and help freelancers figure out how to develop situational awareness when the information available about the novel virus from trusted sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) has evolved as experts learn more.
“As security professionals you have to adapt,” said Janelle Miller, global head of security at TIME, who started there just a few weeks before the WHO declared the coronavirus pandemic, and who has no background in health. “You have to do research so you feel comfortable to protect your staff [including freelancers].”
Ensuring that a reporter has the personal protective equipment (PPE), pre-assignment planning and support they need to work safely has become critical for any commissioning editor to consider. Freelancers are at particular risk because they often lack access to PPE and adequate insurance, and may not be paid for an assignment until well after the fact. And what happens if they get sick with the virus as a result of the assignment? How will that be handled and paid for?
The ACOS Alliance safety protocols provide a step-by-step guide to think through and consider the safety issues of COVID-19 pre-assignment, during it and afterwards. From making a communications plan to a basic list of PPE, the protocols are designed to get editors and journalists talking about safety, and thinking about how much it costs to safely cover the story.
Commissioning editors and producers who have not worked with journalists operating in a hostile environment or conflict zone may be unfamiliar with using safety protocols.
“For the most part editors are very responsible and care about the people, the photographers, who are working for them, but they might have limited resources and might not be able to do everything they want to,” said Glenna Gordon, a freelance photojournalist who covered the Ebola outbreak. Any newsroom leader would welcome having a set of safety protocols to help editors and freelancers figure out how to take calculated risks, she said.
As the safety protocols note, ensuring the health and safety of a company’s journalists is not only a moral imperative, it also helps protect one of the organization’s most important assets: journalists.
“Safety is protecting your product, your journalists. You better make sure all these assets are functioning,” said Cantenys.
Courtney C. Radsch, Ph.D., is the advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is a founding member of the ACOS Alliance and has published several safety advisories for journalists working during COVID-19.
The International Center for Journalists — IJNet's parent organization — is working with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism to better understand how the pandemic is affecting journalism, including safety. The Committee to Protect Journalists has partnered on the press freedom aspects of the "Journalism and the Pandemic" project. If you are a leader in a news organization, a journalists or another media worker, ICFJ invites you to take the survey (available in several languages).
The main image was created by the ACOS Alliance to promote the new safety protocols.