How Asian newsrooms were disrupted and responded to COVID-19

Illustration by Georgia Scott

Many Asian news operations drew on their experience of the SARS epidemic in 2003 — from basics such as how to keep reporters safe and the importance of hand sanitisers and face masks to the science behind fast-spreading viruses and crowdsourcing information from scattered news sources. 

At the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reporter Linda Lew spoke to the newsroom’s trainer, as well as her colleagues who had reported on the SARS epidemic, before heading off to report on the virus in Wuhan on January 3. Her colleagues advised her to wear a disposable rain poncho for PPE and sanitise all her belongings, steps that protected her as she visited hospitals in the region. 

While Lew was able to report in relative obscurity when she first arrived at these hospitals, as news spread about the virus and public attention grew, staff called the police on her and she returned to Hong Kong after being interrogated by the police. 

At the Associated Press News’ bureau in China, News Director Ken Moritsugu said they had stockpiled N95 masks left over from the SARS epidemic, but “not nearly at the level” needed for this outbreak. He said that the bureau has made sure reporters have masks, but also highlighted the importance of disinfectants for camera equipment, which can pick up particles as well. 

Moritsugu talked about the challenges of a newsroom at home, saying, “When you have a newsroom, there’s a lot of synergy from the discussions, especially when news is breaking. People are talking all the time and throwing ideas at each other and saying, we should do this, let’s do that. You have to figure out a way to replicate that when you’re all isolated.”

While AP has no hard and fast rules about interviews being conducted with masks as the situation changes quickly and varies across different locations, Moritsugu said that he encourages journalists to exercise precautions and that there is a clearance process with the management for when reporters want to visit high risk areas like hospitals.  

“The basic concept is that your life and health is the most important thing. So you should not do anything in your reporting that endangers that unnecessarily,” he said. 

Lockdowns also meant that some newsrooms had to adapt to new technology.

Features Editor Kalani Kumarasinghe said that Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror worked with a software that wasn’t designed to be used remotely. 

“Not all of Sri Lanka is really digital,” she said, “So we have quite a large number of senior reporters and sub editors for whom adapting to something like zoom was a bit of a challenge. So it didn’t quite work well.”

Younger reporters stepped in to keep things running and with curfews limiting the amount of content the Daily Mirror could put out, their print edition shrunk to 12 pages, down from the usual 24 to 36. With Whatsapp and Viber also hugely popular in Sri Lanka, the Daily Mirror delivered free PDF editions of their paper, which were then shared widely by their readers.

Kumarasinghe also spoke about the challenges journalists faced advocating for themselves in Sri Lanka, referencing incidents when groups of them had been sent out to cover large events that were later discovered to be COVID-19 hotspots. With trade unions banned in Sri Lankan media houses, journalists depended on more informal welfare organisations to lobby papers to provide them with housing to quarantine away from their families and for COVID-19 tests. 

Kang Wan Chern, the Editor in Chief of the Myanmar Times, spoke about her newsroom’s struggle to accommodate journalists with different levels of access to technology at home. “Some reporters don’t have laptops and data here is expensive. The company has had to change a few policies and some people have had to be a little innovative, using their phone to write up stories. We still have contributors who handwrite their stories and send it to us,” she said.  

The virus also meant that some journalists also had to contend with even greater political restrictions on their reporting. 

In Cambodia, stringer reporter for the Voice of America (VOA) News Vicheika Kann gained prominence after a video of her interviewing Prime Minister Hun Sen was spread on social media. Kann had asked the Prime Minister about a draft bill passed in the country to help stem COVID-19 that allows for the restriction of free movements and gatherings and the unlimited surveillance of telecommunications, which activists fear will allow for the further erosion of human rights. 

Hun Sen asked her to swear on her life if she’d been directed by someone in Washington to ask the question, which Kann did, standing her ground. Kann has since faced attacks from his supporters on social media. 

Nicholas Yong from Yahoo News Singapore spoke on covering the elections during a pandemic and the challenges of social distancing during crowded events like Nomination Day and the celebrations in Hougang following the opposition’s big wins. 

Lew at the SCMP said that the pandemic brought out a positive change in the ways that Chinese government communicates with the public.

“The Chinese government has actually had to change their usual ways of operating and that they started to hold daily press conferences, which Chinese journalists say is rare to see. Previously China had gotten to a point where journalists sometimes just give up trying to reach the government for official comments, because they know, a lot of the time it’s just a dead end or you end up wasting so much time on trying to get one response,” she said. 

Feature story news correspondent Grace Lee moved from Hong Kong to Tokyo in late February, just as the Diamond Princess was quarantined in the port of Yokohama. “I was going out to cover that every day. And I noticed gradually, little by little, people were starting to work from home and sources didn’t want to meet face to face anymore,” she said. 

With health issues like asthma, Lee felt that she had to take extra precautions to protect herself. She developed guidelines for herself when she went out to interview people, disinfecting her recording equipment and renting cars instead of taking public transport. 

“I think my time in Hong Kong covering the protests was a good training session for me in a way. That was considered a hostile environment and safety was priority while I was covering that story as well. So the pandemic kind of felt like part two of that, or a different kind of twist on trying to stay safe while telling these stories,” she said. 

Lee also said that she felt being in Japan made it very easy for her to stay safe while covering the pandemic. “Masks are a huge thing across Asia, everybody just has it on and you know, you don’t have to think twice about it, I don’t have to tell any of the subjects twice that I want to keep my distance from them,” she said. 

As the world adapted to working from home, Mark Zastrow was an old hand, having worked from home as a freelance science journalist in Seoul since 2015. He arrived in the city right before the MERS outbreak, with one of the first stories he covered there on a programmer who crowdsourced a map of hospitals with MERS patients when government officials were reluctant to reveal that information. 

“That really paid off down the road with COVID-19. Because so much of the early response for Korea was exactly this – testing and tracing contacts, finding out where they were, and communicating to the public where all of these individual patients were,” he said. 

He advised people working from home to carve out distinct spaces for relaxing and for work and to invest in their equipment. “I treated myself to a mechanical keyboard that is nice to type on. Any sort of nudge or incentive that you can create to incentivize yourself to focus is a win,” he said.