BANGKOK — The coronavirus outbreak is reshaping the way we live and work – including even the way the epidemic is reported.
As more industries adopted the policy of social distancing, those working in the media said they are also adjusting to the new norm, albeit at a slow pace. The usual practices of media scrums and crowding sources for quotes are now frowned upon, while reporters are juggling the balance of informing the public without putting anyone in harm’s way.
“With the nature of our job, we can’t avoid people. So the best thing I can do right now is to play it safe to protect both ourselves and others,” TNN 16 news anchor Suphitchaya Chanyarat said in an interview Monday.
“In this kind of situation, we can’t just be greedy without thinking of the safety of society,” Supang Siriduch, a Government House beat reporter for Manager, said on the phone. “Members of the media are humans, and humans are under social law.”
Concerns for health safety are also being raised by several media watchdogs, who fear that journalists’ daily habits – meeting multiple people, talking in public, and forming a large crowd in enclosed spaces – may end up putting themselves and the public at risk in the time of pandemic.
In a new set of rules issued by Government House on Monday, reporters must have their temperatures taken and hands cleaned with alcohol. They can only interview and photograph officials at designated spots. Running after officials for a quote is prohibited – a rule that makes it harder for journalists to obtain unscripted remarks from politicians.
“The media wait in designated spots for meetings to finish, and we have to wait 30 minutes away from the meeting rooms,” Supang said. “In these waiting spots, the media are still pretty close to each other, but everyone has a mask and we’re using lots of hand gels. … I feel safe to an extent, but I have to take care of myself for others.
Similarly, reporters at Parliament were asked to hold interviews only at the press conference area on the first floor.
Some reporters also adopted the practice of standing two meters away from people they interview.
“During interviews, such as with executives, the filming team arranges it so that the interviewee and I are two meters apart,” Suphitchaya the news anchor said. “Since it’s a multi-camera show, none of us are out of the frame so it works.”
Some media outlets, such as Nation Group and PPTV, said they responded to the crisis by requiring their field reporters to wear masks and carry sanitizing gel.
A number of news agencies also followed the national trend of working from home. Khaosod English’s parent company Matichon Group, for instance, has authorized online-based departments to work remotely.
But field reporters by nature are unable to perform their jobs without being on the ground. Even though tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting is scheduled to take place via video conference, Supang and other politics beat reporters said they are still assigned to cover Government House in person.
Reporters interviewed for this story say they rigorously wear masks and wash their hands when they are out pursuing stories.
“My team always wears masks and carries hand sanitizers when in the field,” Khaosod field reporter Surat Sappakun said. “We can’t tell who is infected or not, so the best thing to do is to protect ourselves. If one of the members in the team is infected, the whole team is affected.”
Even then, many sources don’t feel safe speaking to reporters while the coronavirus is spreading throughout the capital.
“Our work is twice as hard during the outbreak,” Surat said. “Everyone is paranoid of each other. It’s more difficult to interview our sources in person. We have to call them or shout out questions during news conferences instead.”
Hathairat Phaholtap, editor of Isaan Record’s Thai edition, said she was recently forced to cancel an assignment for her reporters, who were supposed to visit a mine in Kalasin province and talk to local communities about the environmental impacts.
“We had arranged everything, bought all the tickets. Then the locals there said, ‘Please don’t come.’ They were worried about coronavirus,” said Hathairat, who’s based in Khon Kaen. “We’re reporters so we want to be on the location and meet people, but we need to protect ourselves and others.”
As a precaution, the editor said she’s instructed all her reporters to avoid meeting people altogether, but if interviews are necessary they must be at least two meters away.
The Worst is Yet to Come?
Even as the number of confirmed infections continues to rise nationwide – over 700 cases in the latest count – some media agencies are preparing for a long-term disruption caused by the epidemic.
A person in charge of administrative affairs at the public-funded Thai PBS news station said his agency is already hunkering down for the dreaded possibility that Bangkok goes under a lockdown.
“Face masks and hand sanitizers are standard issues these days,” Adul Pornchumpol said. “We are finding an accomodation and stocking up supplies for our news crews to prepare for the lockdown.”
He added, “We have to build up their confidence that the organization they are working for is taking care of them at times like this.”
Hathairat, the Isaan Record editor, also said she’s preparing for more local outbreaks after thousands traveled back from Bangkok to their homes in upcountry provinces.
In a bid to stem further panic, the Thai Journalists Association also urged domestic media to refrain from vocabs like “shock,” “scary,” “mass death,” and “numbers shooting up” when reporting on the coronavirus.
“These headlines aim to cause drama and get ratings but don’t benefit society. This extends to facial expressions when reporting on the news which can cause worry among people,” wrote the author of the guideline, NIDA communication expert Warat Krujit.
Additional reporting Tappanai Boonbandit