Mumbai: 53 of 167 TV Reporters Test Positive for COVID-19, Say Media Houses Not Doing Enough

TV journalists say they do not have a choice about whether or not to go out reporting.

Mumbai: On April 20, around 53 of 167 television journalists in Mumbai who recently underwent tests for COVID-19 tested positive. Most of them are young reporters and camerapersons, who have been spending several hours every day reporting on the unprecedented impact of the novel coronavirus on people and the economy.

But are the reporters really happy to be serving from the ground, that too without adequate protection or medical insurance covers? The plain answer, in almost all cases, is, “Do we even have a choice?”

A young journalist, who has two children and ailing parents at home, was one of the first ones to be informed on April 20 that he tested positive. On receiving the call from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the journalist says, he immediately sent a text message to his bureau chief to inform her about the result. “The only response I got was, ‘Take care and don’t step out for a few days’,” he said. This response, the reporter says, he got after working over a month without a single day’s break, and telling the bureau chief every day not to force reporters to be on the field.

Another journalist, who has spent over half a decade in the profession, says the coldness and detachment shown by editors and news channel owners towards reporters, who are literally putting their lives in danger, is disheartening. “There is nothing heroic in going everyday on the field without proper protection. I have been telling my bosses that I can manage most of what I am reporting right now from home and that the quality of reporting would in no way be affected, but the editors are unwilling to listen,” the 29-year-old reporter said.

Hyperactive news channels, with a constant hunger to better their Television Rating Points (TRPs), have been pushing journalists to report from the ground, even in cases where the reporter is clearly reluctant. In most cases, the reporters are on their own, with little to no support from the organisation.

In some cases, the television channels have issued advisories, segregated teams and strictly banned the two segregated teams from inter-mingling. But reporters say such measures are meaningless. “These advisories only ask us to take care. It doesn’t tell us how. Also, we are not provided with any personal protection equipment from our organisation,” a trainee reporter said.

One senior journalist told The Wire that she had been working at least 12 hours every day on the ground. “The stories that I know I can handle from home, I have been asked to go out on the field and report. Every channel has this insatiable hunger to get the ‘best visuals’ from the ground. But they aren’t understanding something so basic – every time you send a reporter and a cameraperson out on the field, you are not jeopardising their lives, but also of those many people they meet, interact and live with on a daily basis,” the reporter said.

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Another woman journalist with a national bilingual news channel says when she recently sent a long email to the editor explaining why she wanted to be exempted from ground reporting assignments for a month. The editor replied with five words: “That is not an option.” The next day, the reporter was sent to Dharavi, a prominent coronavirus hotspot in Mumbai with 168 hospital cases and 11 reported deaths so far.

“These are not ordinary times. Every time I go on the field, I don’t drink even a sip of water, I don’t get to use a toilet. I starve myself and I am only praying that I don’t end up meeting or interacting with someone infected. After working for long hours, I am completely exhausted – both physically and mentally,” she said.

This reporter was one of the 167 persons who had undergone tests, and she tested negative. “But it is just a matter of time. Both me and my husband are reporters, we are both stepping out everyday and the chances of us getting infected are very high,” she added.

Recently, one of the leading news channels put out a promo featuring all its “star” anchors and editors. In the promo, the anchors spoke of the “difficulties” faced on the field and how they have been doing a great service to ensure the country stays both informed and safe. But these anchors and editors seldom step out on the ground, and rarely so in the past month, a reporter said. “It is the field reporter who is at the forefront taking risks. But the editors are busy dramatising and valorising their own work,” the reporter said.

Mumbai, with over 3,000 cases and an overburdened medical infrastructure, has been finding it difficult to attend to every patient. On testing positive, the BMC called up every reporter and checked on their condition. Since most of those tested are so far asymptomatic, the BMC has suggested they self-quarantine.

But in a space-crunched city like Mumbai, self-quarantining might not be an option for many. A 32-year-old journalist from a leading Hindi channel was one of those tested positive. He lives in a one-BHK flat with his wife, child and mother-in-law. “We have just one bedroom and one toilet. How are we to even ensure that others don’t get infected? I am particularly tense about my mother and my young baby,” the reporter’s wife said. The family, like most other reporters, was negotiating with the BMC asking them to make isolation wards available for those tested positive regardless of the symptoms.

In difficult times, the journalists say, they expect their news editors to be more accommodating and understanding of their situations. But instead, they are told how the channel has not been doing well and a possible salary or job cut is on the way. “They are feeding on our fear,” she says.

Since India went into lockdown, the media industry across platforms has effected job losses and pay cuts. Despite advisories by the labour ministry and appeals from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to not terminate services, reduce wages or send employees on forced leaves, several media houses – electronic, print and online – have taken knee-jerk decisions.

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With jobs scarce and the threat of termination looming, pressure on ground reporters has only increased. In the process, many are left with no choice but to report from highly contaminated zones, even putting their own lives in danger.

The National Alliance of Journalists, the Delhi Union of Journalists and the Brihan Mumbai Union of Journalists have jointly filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Supreme Court accusing media employers of taking arbitrary decisions of laying off employees in such difficult times.

The petition is for those who have lost jobs but not for those who haven’t lost their jobs and are pushed to work in inhuman conditions, said a television reporter.

The TV Journalist Association president Vinod Jagdale had seen this coming for a long time, he said. Fully knowing that most TV channels won’t do enough to ensure their reporters are safe, Jagdale wrote a letter to Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray to set up a camp for journalists. “Reporters, camerapersons and photographers have been relentlessly reporting on the ground and the state should ensure their safety. A separate arrangement should be made for them immediately,” Jagdale wrote in the letter. Within days, a camp was set up and 167 persons underwent the test, Jagdale said.

Vinod Jagdale’s letter … by The Wire on Scribd

“Already a couple of us had tested positive. I knew most of us are going to fall sick and a collective effort needed to be made immediately,” Jagdale told The Wire. Following the Mumbai TV Journalist Association’s initiative, several other journalist unions in other districts too have started similar testing camps for journalists.

The Mumbai Press Club has appealed to the state chief minister to extend Rs 50 lakh insurance cover – which that has been provided for other workers categorised under “essential services” – to journalists as well.

Besides Mumbai, two journalists in Chennai too had tested positive for coronavirus earlier this month. In March, a journalist from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh also tested positive for COVID-19.

Only after the Mumbai cases were reported did information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar say that an advisory is being issued to newspaper and media establishments. “It is shocking that more than 50 journalists of electronic media, particularly camera persons, have been found COVID-19 positive in Mumbai. Every journalist should take proper care,” Javadekar posted on social media platform Twitter.