How the pandemic is throwing international reporting into crisis

The coronavirus has created a devastating cocktail of economic turmoil and heightened risks that throw the fate of foreign reporting into jeopardy.

August 17, 2020

I was in rural Guatemala following the lives of former migrants when the pandemic hit like a sledgehammer.

I’d spent the past two years as a freelance foreign correspondent, covering mostly Colombia and Venezuela. I traveled by airplane, bus and the occasional motorcycle to rural nooks of Latin America often ignored by the rest of the world. I often went alone because, while it’s less secure, I earned a bit more money that way.

Like most freelance journalists, I worked with very little support from the publications that paid me.

When a colleague and I left on a two-week reporting trip to Guatemala in early March, COVID-19 was barely a blip on our radar. Within days, international borders began closing around us and we had to cut our trip short and flee back to Colombia.

When we walked out of the airport, I felt the doors slam shut on the way I used to do my job.

At a time when global coverage has never been more important, the coronavirus has created a devastating cocktail of economic turmoil and heightened risks that throw the fate of foreign reporting into jeopardy.

Reporters, editors and press freedom experts described to Poynter the new reality they face covering the world, and the long-term effects beginning to take root.

International reporting has been beleaguered for years.

As news budgets were slashed over past decades, foreign bureaus were the first to go. We were the ones to replace them: an army of freelancers fighting for work week to week and wondering if our editors knew, or even cared, about the risks we ran.

COVID-19 has only accelerated that deterioration, said Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the press freedom organization Committee to Protect Journalists.

“A lot of freelancers are doubly hit,” he said, “in their pocketbook and in being unable to adequately protect themselves in covering this.”

That’s a reality Mexico City-based photojournalist Luis Antonio Rojas has faced since the pandemic hit his country in March.

Rojas spent years splitting his time between long-form project work following farmers on the fringes of his city, and shorter assignments for international news organizations photographing everything from child militias to migration.

For Rojas, covering the virus as a freelance journalist felt like both a seismic shift and more of the same.

Being a journalist in Mexico has always come with risks. More than 140 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, according to Reporters Without Borders data. Others have been detained or disappeared. Most violence ends in impunity.

Rojas and other journalists formed their own group, Frontline Freelance Mexico, in which they work as a group to confront the risks of their reporting.

“We’ve always been alone, so this (pandemic coverage) is just another hurdle. We’ve always had to care for ourselves,” he said. “This is the same thing. We have to work in high-risk areas without much support and often on our own dime.”

Freelance assignments dried up for Rojas at the beginning of the pandemic as he said news organizations grew more hesitant about sending freelancers into the field. At the same time, Rojas invested in protective gear, knowing editors who might send him on assignment would likely not be able to provide him with the gear he needed.

To continue working, Rojas said he and a writer teamed up and pre-report stories before they had the backing of news organizations, covering Mexico’s virus fallout from cemeteries and crematoriums.

Rojas faces heightened risks because, for photojournalists, there’s no working from home.

“To take better photos, we have to be close,” he said. “Being close as possible helps my photography so that the reader connects, so they can put themselves in the shoes of the other person.”

This is a struggle felt acutely by many journalists working internationally. The core of the job is field work — spending time and building trust with communities who cannot be reached over a phone from news hubs like New York, D.C. or London.

Attached to that work are heightened expenses — paying for cars, fixers, travel and hotels — and prep — spending time assessing hostile environments and building contacts. Safe travel to many regions is either impossible or much more expensive than before.

Here in Colombia, zones like the Amazon and the Venezuela border that have produced some of the biggest headlines over the past year are practically off-limits. Instead, we’ve had to report from our cities, which only tell a small sliver of the regional story.

Vladimir Hernandez, the editor of BBC’s Africa bureau, said that while his team of journalists still goes out on assignment, they’ve cut deployments considerably. His concern isn’t just about the health of his reporters, but also the populations they could bring the virus to.

“There have been a whole lot of conversations about risk versus reward,” Hernandez said. “Most risky stories we’d be doing would be conflict zones before, the level of reward had to be greater than the risk you’d be taking … In this case, it’s incredibly much more complicated.”

Mahoney of CPJ and other press freedom experts worry that the long-term effect of this may be “news deserts” in large swaths of the world.

“You’re going to get whole zones where there isn’t any significant coverage apart from, say, the official handouts and press releases, but there’s no investigation,” Mahoney said.

Journalists in China are feeling the effects of that perhaps more acutely than anywhere else.

In March, the Chinese government announced it would expel 13 American correspondents from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal as the two countries politically clash. In Wuhan, citizen journalist Li Zehua was disappeared for two months after he published videos documenting the beginning of the virus. He said he was detained by authorities.

Betsy Joles, a Beijing-based freelancer, worries about repercussions of her reporting more than ever. Meanwhile, many of her colleagues are scattered around the world, and fear that mobility or visa restrictions may make it impossible to return to China as journalists.

That’s compounded by a waning interest in China by editors, she said. As the virus spread across the world, the initial “deluge” of media requests quickly dried up. When she tried to pitch stories about massive floods that hit the south of the country in July, she was met with rounds of “Our freelance budget has been cut.”

“There’s no one on the ground, basically,” Joles said. “And then it’s frustrating to be on the ground and have to be so scared and worried about getting in trouble that you can’t actually pursue a lot of the stories you want to.”

While those fears were present before the pandemic, governments across the world have used the pandemic to clamp down on press freedom.

In India, officials tried to censor reporting on the coronavirus not preapproved by the government, something the country’s supreme court struck down.

Journalists worldwide have been jailed for reporting critically on the governments’ handling of the crisis, despite calls by nearly 200 press freedom organizations to release journalists jailed before the pandemic due to heightened contagion risks.

Like journalists in the United States, reporters in Haiti, Chechnya, Ghana, Brazil and many more countries have faced threats and attacks as they cover the pandemic.

Mahoney of CPJ also worried that data-collecting technology put in place for disease containment may pave the wave for even more press freedom violations in the future.

Despite mounting uncertainties, editors and press freedom experts did point out one positive thing to potentially come out of the pandemic: collaboration.

Judith Matloff, a foreign correspondent of 20 years and a safety trainer at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, said she’s seen a rise in free web seminars and resources emerge for international reporters.

“You see this in warzones all the time, competition tends to fade away when you’re in danger and solidarity grows very, very strong,” Matloff said.

The Dart Center, Thomson Foundation and more have offered free web trainings geared toward safety and verification. Organizations like The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the International Women’s Media Foundation and National Geographic have established COVID-19 reporting grants or emergency funds geared toward international reporting.

A conversation is growing, Matloff said, both around what reporters can do to protect themselves and how editors can support them.

It’s a response most comparable to the 2014 killing of James Foley, when the freelance journalist was murdered by members of the Islamic State in Syria. Journalists, editors and press freedom advocates banded together to create the A Culture of Safety Alliance, which established a set of best practices for journalists and news organizations in conflict zones.

Foley’s mother also created the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, an organization funding safety training for freelance journalists working in conflict zones like her son.

Matloff and other editors hope that the pandemic will have a similar effect.

“People can band together, share information, share resources,” she said. “That’s what journalists do when they’re in a situation of great adversity, and I do hope that does come out of this.”

Megan Janetsky is a Colombia-based journalist. Find her on Twitter at @meganjanetsky.