Coronavirus and the ensuing lockdown has forced people, including certain government employees, to work from home. Press conferences have been cancelled and offices of the political parties have been temporarily closed. Videos and tweets by the government and concerned authorities have taken over press conferences to give out messages to the media and the public. This one-way communication makes it difficult to hold the government accountable or raise questions to the government by the media.

With government employees working from home and certain essential government departments working with a skeletal staff, the officials are too busy to answer the questions put forth by the media. “The people in power, state government, Central government and political parties know that in this situation even if they don’t answer questions, it’s hard to hold them to book because it’s a pandemic”, says Pheroze Vincet, special correspondent of The Telegraph from Delhi. 

Even though the media comes under essential services, the lockdown has impacted the working of the media with journalists unable to question authorities. According to a  Washington Post report, some form of social distancing has to be practiced till 2022. Vincet says, “If in the long run this (social distancing) goes on, we will have to find new ways for citizens to hold people in power to account. The media hasn’t figured out an effective way to do it yet.”

Reporters have been going out to cover stories but in Mumbai alone over 50 journalists have tested positive for Coronavirus. To avoid the risk of getting Coronavirus, though some reporters have been working from home, Vincet says that it is easier for sources and authorities to avoid phone calls and not reply to the messages by reporters for confirmation on the news. In a press conference, spokespersons have the right to refuse questions, but since this  reflects badly on them, they are ‘forced’ to answer.

Fr the journalist, the present circumstances offer an easy way out – the official did not respond – but that is not of much value to the reader who would ideally want to know more facts from the authoritative source”. Vincet admits, “Most of us have not been able to actively provide complete news to our readers during the lockdown, in the manner in which we had been doing in the past”.

There may be a solution when we come closer to the state elections. The state governments may be more open to talk to the press and rectify any mistakes they have made. But at the present moment, this is small consolation.  

Another disadvantage with making phone calls from home is that t just cannot compare with a journalist going out and reporting from the field, actually meeting people to  absorb things better and grasp the situation, rather than getting a few quotes on the phone. Journalists, who are still moving out to cover their stories are finding it difficult to find public transport as there are no busses or trains and taxis are difficult to come by. Social distancing is also not possible in all the places that journalists go to as in the case of slums. 

“A free media functions better in a prosperous society”, reflects the special correspondent. If the economy is not doing well then there will not be many advertisements in the paper and people may not even have money to buy a paper. With the economy in free fall, the media industry is also bound to suffer in the coming months and is already facing the brunt of a poor economy.

The circulation of papers has been affected as agents and delivery boys, fearing for their lives, are not lifting the papers. The number of copies of a paper have been scaled down throughout the country. People who are not able to get a hold of the physical copy are turning to the website of the paper or the electronic version of the paper they read, in turn increasing the online subscribers. 

KC Vijayakumar, the sports editor of The Hindu, believes that this shift is not all negative as, “The physical paper has more limitations in terms of space but online there is no limitation for space. A lot more content goes there.” But essentially, the print version is a major form of the newspaper’s revenue, though online is also picking up. 

Sports editors like Vijayakumar are also finding a ‘vacuum’ with sports events cancelled and no live events taking place anywhere which leads to scaling down the number of sports pages in the newspapers “because there is not enough content and most of the content is very depressing”, with events being cancelled and rescheduled.  The sports pages are also becoming a “grey zone where we are also carrying stories of athletes contributing to charity and the like”, says Vijayakumar. 

Though media, being an essential service still manages to function, the lockdown has brought in various obstacles to the journalists. Social distancing seems to be here to stay and these obstacles need to be solved in order to facilitate a smoother operation of the med

Nitya Narasimhan

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