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Seares: ‘Coronavirus in newsroom’: 1) Must journalists report to office? 2) Covering Covid-19 patients

TWO interesting recent incidents related to media and the corona pandemic, which must raise valid questions:

[1] In South Carolina, United States, the newspaper “The Post and Courier” has required its news reporters to come to their office in Charleston at least one day a week starting May 4, in the wake of the gradual lifting of quarantine restrictions. Initially, executive editor Mitch Pugh asked for at least 15 hours a week but cut the time when it met some opposition. “Many were angry,” said Tom Jones of Poynter Institute in his newsletter “The Poynter Report.” That, despite assurance of safeguards such as reducing personnel at the office (not more than nine at a given time) and providing each reporter a face mask and a thermometer.

Can journalists refuse the order to report to the office and still keep their job? Tom Jones called the situation “a coronavirus in the newsroom.”

[2] In Lapu-Lapu City, a female official of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) assigned at the city jail, was taken from her home and moved to an isolation facility after she was confirmed to be positive of coronavirus. The scene was recorded on video by SunStar Superbalita’s Allan Tangcawan and live-streamed on Facebook as newsfeed of the paper. BJMP complained in a statement that it was violation of journalism ethics and the law on data privacy, the anti-cybercrime law and other laws it did not name.

What is the protocol on media coverage of such phases in containing the virus as moving the patient to a quarantine facility?

Contract of employment

It is not known if the contract of employment between Post-Courier and its reporters covers refusal of an office order for fear of an epidemic. Or their labor laws in the US, if the feud goes beyond the threshold of exchanging e-mails and is litigated.

It would depend on how the labor arbiter or court judge would view circumstances of the case: Is the office so contaminated that the reporters should avoid it? Though the reporters have been working mostly from home, there must be occasions when they have to go out to the field. Up to how much risk would they expose themselves by spending one day a week at the office?

Efficiency outside newsroom

On the other hand, since the reporters “have been doing outstanding work from home,” as executive editor Pugh told them in a letter, why must they show up at the office at all, except for “collaborative purposes and camaraderie”?

That’s an issue that not only journalists would raise once the community reopens but also employees in other industries. If doing work from home would be as efficient as doing it at the usual workplace, would that undercut any plan to make reporters and editors and other employees come to the office again?

While the standard rule is for management, through the editors, direct assignment and movement of its personnel, the present emergency hoists a life-and-death issue. The reporters didn’t sign up for a shooting war, much more for a rampaging plague where the victim is described repeatedly as blind or attacked by an invisible assailant.

But since they are workers in an “essential” service, as affirmed by IATF and local government leaders, why can’t reporters stay in their office for a few hours a week?

Matter of privacy

On the coverage of the April 30 transfer of a BJMP female officer from her house in Lapu-Lapu City to a quarantine facility, confidentiality wasn’t violated if the patient was not identified.

Not enough of her was shown in the video for anyone to recognize her, said photographer Tangcawan who joined a team led by City Hall crisis manager Nagiel Banacia , which didn’t keep out media from the scene. A news report by another media outlet, carrying a photo of the team, referred to the patient as a 40-year-old BJMP female officer.

Ivy Patdu, deputy commissioner of National Privacy Commission, once told media, “If you’re collecting information for purposes of journalism, for a story on a matter of public concern, then you don’t need even to ask consent of the data subject. That is freedom of the press.”

The ‘F’ word

Editors don’t have to use the “F” (freedom) word. Their primary concern is whether consumers need to know the story. Coverage must have been intended to tell the public, as it did, that authorities were being vigilant in enforcing the containment measure, thus there should be no panic since the Covid-confirmed patient was being segregated and her contacts being traced.

To be more efficient, however, the authorities may do well to outline the protocol and make the rules on media publicity clear. There was an IATF flip-flop, remember, on whether the virus-positive subjects must be identified. And the police cordon of the “infected” house and contact tracing of friends and neighbors usually attract so much attention that they negate the supposed “hush-hush” rule.


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