Roger Renni from Key Objectives and Dr Kane Mortlock on ensuring safety of field reporters covering COVID-19 (Webinar takeaways)

Newsroom best practice

By Neha Gupta and Simone Flueckiger 


In a WAN-IFRA webinar on Thursday, Roger Renni, Director and Senior Security Consultant at Key Objectives, and Dr Kane Mortlock, Active Paramedic in State Emergency Support, Australia, and Key Objectives Instructor, offered expert advice for journalists working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have to conduct the same planning and risk assessment as we would if we were going into a war zone, covering a natural disaster or a violent protest,” Renni said.

“The dangers and threats of this environment are actually worse. What we’re dealing with here is a threat that, if not managed properly, is not just going to harm the people local to us. It can have a ripple effect.”

Personal safety for journalists

Personal safety is hugely important during a pandemic, especially for journalists who can’t self-isolate and need to continue to report from the frontlines.

Mortlock explained that the moment you leave your house, you should assume your hands are contaminated, and avoid touching your face.

Once you return home, immediately wash your hands before touching anything inside your own living space. If you’ve been in a high risk environment, put your clothes in the washing machine and go directly in the shower.

For journalists who are going to be around people who are likely COVID-19 positive when reporting, wearing a mask will offer additional protection.

When choosing a protective mask, it is important to pay attention to the rating on it, and not to its appearance. For instance, masks P1 and P2 look similar but while the P1 mask only offers protection against low levels of dust, the P2 mask (aka N95 respirator) helps lower the risk of contracting the virus.

“It’s imperative to know what mask you have, to avoid a false sense of security,” said Renni. “If your budget allows it, purchase a P2 mask with an attached valve since it doesn’t trap moisture and increases the lifespan of your mask.”

Both Renni and Mortlock advise against using improvised masks. If a journalist is using an improvised mask and going into the field, they are putting themselves in danger and must do a risk assessment as though they did not possess any personal protective equipment (PPE).

Respecting social distancing measures

Journalists should also follow social distancing guidelines whenever possible. Social distancing refers to the physical separation between people, maintaining a distance of at least 2 meters (6 feet), as well as taking steps to avoid crowds or crowded spaces.

Many countries have implemented such measures in a bid to halt the spread of the virus, but they can only work if at least 80 percent of people follow them, Mortlock explained. If only 70 percent comply with distancing guidelines, they essentially have no effect.

The importance of social distancing

The importance of social distancing

Risk vs reward

Is the task at hand worth the risk a field reporter is about to undergo? As soon as they leave the sterile confines of their house, they should consider the outside as contaminated as a rule.

It’s imperative to conduct a self-assessment to avoid putting your and your colleagues’ lives in danger – Do I have an underlying sickness? Do I fall in the vulnerable age bracket? Is the venue large enough or safe enough to maintain some of the practices or protocols? Can I do the job and maintain social distancing? How many people are going to be at the venue? What are the risks of the environment we are stepping into and what are the precautions in place?

A reporter needs to apply the same amount of research into their safety, as they would to the story they’re about to tell.


If self-driving, reporters must decontaminate, sterilising their hands before getting into the vehicle, be conscious of what they touch inside the vehicle, and as soon as an opportunity presents itself, decontaminate the most touched areas – steering wheel, door handles, seatbelts.

“We need to break away from the very natural habit of touching everything around us,” Renni said. “When we make a conscious effort to do that, we will be able to maintain an awareness of things we’ve potentially contaminated.”

While taking public transport, a potentially hazardous environment, reporters must have the appropriate PPE at hand.

Layered safety practices

Covering the pandemic on field is equivalent to stepping into a high threat environment. A reporter must be abreast of current developments. Complacency has no place in a reporter’s attitude. COVID-19 is not an opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them in hindsight; doing that will ensure the repercussions are devastating, creating a catastrophic ripple effect.

“The more safety layers we can put between us and the threat, the safer we are,” said Renni. “This needs to start at an individual level – not touching our faces, constant awareness that our hands can be contaminated and act as a carrier to disseminate this infection.”

Avoiding personal contact and not invading another person’s space must always be remembered. “We have to learn to change our muscle memory. It’s often when we are not thinking about it, we go back to these habits, that could potentially infect many people,” Renni added.

Reporters must also revise interviewing techniques – use a centralised mic, perhaps a microphone shield and have the good sense to sterilise the equipment once the task at hand is done.

In the newsroom, one must be mindful of infected shared areas. Sterilise keyboards and do not share laptops. Everything must be calculated and there needs to be an accountability plan in place. “If someone has been infected by you, people need to know, before it sets off a chain reaction,” Renni said.

Secondary threats

As with most events, it’s not just the threat itself – in this case the coronavirus – but secondary factors which may also pose threats. Reporters automatically put themselves at risk because of the nature of the job. While covering a story, a reporter must be mindful of meeting the populace.

Two citizen journalists, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, reporting from Wuhan on the pandemic put stories and multimedia footage from inside the quarantined locked down city. Qiushi’s last broadcast was on 2 February. The Chinese authorities, he claimed, harassed him and his social media accounts with a following of more than 700,000 were deleted. Qiushi and Bin, both, disappeared.

Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International, said it was unclear whether Chen or Fang "were taken away by police or placed under 'forced quarantine.'

In Iran, several journalists have been harassed, detained and are getting charged for spreading “rumours” against the state.

Fardin Moustafai, the editor of a news channel, was charged with publishing figures about the disease's progress in the province, which contradicted official information, as reported by Reporters Without Borders.

Two journalists were questioned in Rasht, one of the worst hit cities by the pandemic, by Revolutionary Guard intelligence officials for publishing information about the chaotic state of the city and casualties.

In Tehran, four journalists who are active on social networks were summoned by intelligence ministry officials and the prosecutor’s office for publicly casting doubt on official information about the pandemic.

Managing mental health

Stress, anxiety and depression are very real consequences of fighting and reporting on the pandemic.

If a reporter has been dealing with a potentially traumatic story or environment, are they in the right headspace to carry on with the task? Researching and being aware of the situation a reporter is putting themselves into is essential.

Taking a break when feeling wound up, resting, sleeping and eating on time must be part of one’s schedule. Self-care and self-help are not things to be embarrassed about and trying to strike a work-life balance is imperative.

If a reporter feels the signs and symptoms of coronavirus, they should let someone know and self-isolate. They must also have supplies at hand, to avoid going out while being a potential carrier of the virus.

Resources for journalists

Both Renni and Mortlock pointed out how important it is for journalists to keep up to date with the latest information on the pandemic. Mortlock shared several resources journalists can use to stay informed, such as Wikipedia entries for basic information on the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, sites which keep track of the latest numbers of cases and deaths, and resources highlighting best practice current science.

About the novel coronavirus

At the time of writing, some 500,000 people worldwide were infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, and more than 20,000 had died. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever (99% of people infected with the virus experience it), fatigue (70%), dry cough (59%) loss of appetite (40%), muscle pain (35%), and shortness of breath (31%). It’s particularly dangerous for older people and people with preexisting health conditions.

Due to its rapid spread, many countries’ health systems are already struggling to cope with the number of cases they are seeing. According to Mortlock, the pandemic is in its infant stages, and some 60 to 80 percent of the world’s population may get the virus if we fail to develop a vaccine or social distancing measures don’t succeed in stopping the spread. Assuming the virus has a fatality rate of 1 percent, this could lead to the deaths of some 45 million people, putting it close to the impact of the Spanish Flu.

Journalist Safetymental healthrisk assessment
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