Working through Coronavirus for journalists and news rooms

Posted: 16/03/2020

INSI has offered the following advice for journalists and newsrooms, with regards to contuing to cover the story. Current at 13 March 2020.

Key points

  • Do not postpone preparations. The time to be ready is now in order to protect staff and ensure business continuity.

  • Be aware that two weeks ago Italy was working under relatively normal conditions. War-style triage systems are now being used in hospitals in the north of the country, despite it having one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Do not underestimate the difficulties ahead in your own country.

  • In Italy, there are now extreme shortages of essential cleaning items such as bleach and new broadband connections are reportedly impossible to get. Stock up on the safety essentials.

  • Consider encouraging all staff not essential to daily operations to work from home, especially those with underlying conditions or those caring for people with underlying conditions.

  • Have your own clear protocol in place if a coronavirus case is confirmed on your premises. This may well differ from official advice.

  • Pick a crisis management team and experts to call in for specialist advice and set up an easy system of communication – for example WhatsApp or Zoom.

  • Plan contingency cover for staff who may get sick, and rest days for your core team.

  • Communicate face to face to your staff the need to change their hygiene habits drastically, from the moment they leave home to their return home. 

  • Make sure the IT is in place for an extended period of remote working by a large number of staff.

  • Track and record all staff travel whether business or personal. 

  • Record all access to your offices.

  • Identify and ring fence a site for key staff and equipment if offices have to be evacuated.

  • Have standard responses ready for any questions from staff, contractors or visitors so that messaging is consistent.

  • Transparency and communication is vital. Even if there is no new news, keep in touch with staff daily. 

  • Make sure staff know that advice may change from day to day. 

Communication

Health and safety workers need to have their protocols in place but experience suggests that emailing lists of safety procedures is not enough. Staff need to be trained in person and spoken to face-to-face about the importance of taking precautions. 

Habits are obstacles in the way of enforcing new safety practices. For instance, members report that staff need to be constantly reminded about washing their hands as soon as they enter the premises, coming from public transport. Placing hand sanitiser at the entrance to buildings is one clear way of signposting that things have changed. 

If large numbers of staff start working remotely, operational staff may find themselves working in relative isolation in the office or in the field. Staff need to feel the organisation and line managers are looking after them and doing all they can.

Should staff feel abandoned they may stop coming to work, especially if they fear they may be putting their families at risk. 

Teams who are used to working in hostile environments or previous emergencies may overestimate their ability to deal with this situation. Organisations are encouraged to monitor whether protocols are being followed and take action if they are not. 

Make sure staff know who to contact with any queries on coronavirus and where to access the organisation’s information and advice. Date-stamp one central document with this guidance and keep it updated regularly. Remember to let all your suppliers know what safety measures are being taken in your offices and who to contact with questions.  

Set up a crisis management team

Pick experts from your key operational areas. A good mix would include HR, health and safety and editorial executives. Hold meetings at least three times a week. Keep these meetings to the point and as tight as possible to avoid overloading your senior staff. Make sure team members are on call. Consider allowing member of the crisis management team to work from home to avoid illness and assure continuity. Share minutes of meetings as required. 

Working from home

Once implemented, the work from home policy is likely to last for several months. That is why members' views differ on the best timing for this policy to come into effect, depending on the number of infections in the country and the expected peak of the virus. A growing number, however, are asking staff to work from home as of now, except for essential operational staff. Make preparations immediately so that staff are given the proper tools to do so.

Technology access is one of the biggest challenges but do everything you can to prepare in advance, before the situation deteriorates. Members who planned ahead say this is why they are still operational today in Italy. All staff need laptops, VPNs, videoconferencing, group messaging and adequate internet access. Staff should be encouraged to take this equipment home and test it in order to be ready at short notice.

Staff should check they have supplies of:

  • Prescription medications, a thermometer, fever-reducing medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, cleaning supplies, including soap, hand gel (60 percent+ alcohol), sanitising wipes, non-perishable foods and fluids

Staff who have travelled to high-risk locations, including Italy, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Iran and South Korea, must take particular care. They should:

  • Stay at home for 14 days, take their temperature every morning and every night and report the readings to their supervisor, not go out to restaurants or to shops but order everything online, inform their supervisor if they start to feel ill, or have a temperature, and then contact the health authorities by phone. 

  • Isolate themself from any others they live with as much as possible. Be aware that isolation and quarantine guidelines may vary from country to country and may change quickly. UK health authorities, for instance, have just scrapped the 14-day self-isolation guidance (regardless of travel) and, as of 13 March, only advise that people with symptoms self-isolate for seven days.  

Travel

Restrict all travel to essential business only such as covering critical news stories and make sure it is signed off by senior managers. Staff should not attend any conferences or business gatherings, including work dinners, unless they are expressly approved by senior management. 

Keep teams that are deployed to cover the coronavirus story directly to a bare minimum. Use a call-in system for teams reporting on the coronavirus, as you would in an hostile environment, so that managers can monitor the team’s activity and risk assess on a rolling basis. Ideally, teams that are deployed to cover the coronavirus story directly should not swap out to limit the number of people potentially exposed. Closely monitor the stress and exhaustion levels of those teams.

Keeping sites clean 

Deep clean shared workspaces, however, ordinary cleaning by contractors isn’t sufficient. Teams inside organisations must do additional cleanings throughout the day including handles, meeting room chairs and all the places where people put their hands.

Ensure staff know the location of hand sanitiser and make masks available on request. Discourage outside visitors to offices and newsrooms unless they are business critical. Any non-staff visits should be approved by managers. 

How Italian newsrooms are operating

As a result of social distancing rules, crews in Italy are working out strategies to continue to operate safely. They are allowing space in meeting rooms for staff to sit a minimum of one metre apart. As much broadcasting as possible is being done outdoors, particularly interviews.

Microphones are positioned in advance to avoid close contact between crews and reporters or guests. The EBU recommends the use of disposable covers for all microphones including hand mics and tie mics as they may be contaminated with saliva droplets. When single use covers are not available, crews are encouraged to change foam covers after each interview, place used ones in a sealed bag and wash in bleach overnight.

Italian authorities need the media to communicate with the population, so journalists are still being allowed into official press conferences but seats are being placed far apart and only one pool camera is being allowed in.  

Coronavirus in the newsroom

Governments’ official advice as to what to do when you have a confirmed case among your staff is inconsistent between countries so have your own plans firmly in place for when someone tests positive.

Seeing management acting decisively following a case has been well received by the staff, though these preventative measures will inevitably create a great amount of work across the company and involve additional expense. 

Emotional impact

Widespread lockdowns, self-isolation, cancellations and restricted movement will inevitably have a psychological effect on staff and their families, whether they are covering the story or not.

Keeping up with the science, staying current, is one way to gain a sense of control. Remember that misinformation is widespread.

Managers should employ the same watchful waiting with staff as they would after any other potentially traumatic event. On risk assessment, mental health professionals advise learning lessons from previous epidemics: do not send someone out to cover coronavirus who has been affected by SARS or Ebola, for instance, or someone with low immunity/existing health conditions, or someone who might be triggered after suffering previously from a potentially traumatic event.

Make clear to staff that the new rules are there for a new reality and are to avoid putting them at unnecessary risk. Psychologically, the positive side of following the rules is that you can easily determine whether you are at risk or not. 

Imposed quarantine can drive people to desperate measures while voluntary quarantine may be associated with good compliance and have less emotional impact, particularly when explained well. Evidence shows quarantine has no long-term psychological effects if you stick to the rules and treat yourself well during that 14-day period.

Keep in touch regularly with staff working from home who may feel more isolated otherwise.

Please contact [email protected] for assistance with managing your news room or if you need additional support.

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