Since March 20, 2020, most of the cities in Pakistan have been in government-ordered lockdown, including Capital Islamabad. Amid this global crisis, journalists are working round the clock from their homes. The Coronavirus is molding up to be a multifaceted crisis for journalism and media industry, globally. Public health restrictions, including newsroom closures, have imposed limitations on the practices of reporting, and along with the global economic recession, some fresh doubts are casting on the financial viability of several media outlets.
To uncover how International Media is effectively dealing with this situation, our editor-in-chief Saadeqa Khan reached out to Mr. Zeeshan Haider, a senior broadcaster and media professional at BBC World and BBC Urdu. He has working experience of 16 years in digital, radio, and TV journalism and has worked in management, strategic, and operational roles in Pakistan and UK. Currently, Haider is serving as a senior News Editor in BBC Urdu, Islamabad.
“Being a professional in the Pandemic” is Scientia Pakistan’s series of interviews we conducted around the globe to explore how ‘life twisted and how experts/professionals from each field of life are tackling with Quarantine?’
Below are some excerpts of Haiders’ recent conversation, “Being a journalist in the Pandemic.”
Saadeqa: It is not easy to work in pandemic days when there is an outburst of fake News and myths about the virus. I can realize that News editors are playing harder. How lockdown and work-from-home have affected your life being a journalist/broadcaster? Have you felt anxious or overburdened?
Zeeshan Haider: Safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic are quickly creating a ‘new normal’ for media workers. For me, this is by far the biggest story I’ve worked on in 16 years at the BBC, and while it’s thrown up personal and professional challenges for all of us, I think it’s one of those career-defining moments that I hope we can all look back on with pride.
As a renowned Indian Journalist, Shekhar Gupta said, common people, are enormously more fearful and less protected than us journalists. They expect us to be around, watching, reporting, editing, recording this for posterity, and blowing the whistle to draw attention to injustices and state failures in the handling of the matters related to Coronavirus.
If I think about the experience of Work from Home, it is an interesting one for me till now. In an office, there are a limited number of distractions, but in a familiar environment like one’s home, it is easy to let yourself get distracted. Initially, It happened with me too, but it’s all good now.
For me running a team digitally is an experience that has been made very easy by the latest tech available to us though, as an editor, what I have learned is that it’s imperative to be realistic about the day to day goals and expectations from my team while working from home.
Saadeqa: The growing ecosystem of misinformation has led the WHO to declare an infodemic as a large number of conspiracy theories about the outbreak of Coronavirus are affecting public trust in media worldwide. Why theories like Coronavirus is a biological weapon or pre-planned by Bill Gates on behalf of pharmaceutical companies are getting so much attention, and how could international media cooperate people for not being drawn in such theories?
Zeeshan Haider: In times of uncertainty and worry, it is clear that people are turning to conventional and unconventional News Sources for information, but the question is whatever they are getting is accurate or not or can they trust it. Social Media is becoming the first source of News for lots of people all over the world, including Pakistan and the rest of South Asia. In the age of News based on ‘Forwarded Messages,’ the issue of unauthentic and unverified News is of grave concern for us too.
I think It is the responsibility of Media to bust the myths and conspiracy theories in times like this, and on BBC, we are doing our part in the shape of doing fact check & reality check stories & myth-buster videos for our audiences along with our regular output. We try to make this stuff, especially for younger audiences, as they are the prime users of Social Media.
Saadeqa: The coronavirus anxiety is getting viral worldwide, and we all are feeling that at a larger scale. What is the role of print and electronic media to descend this overgrowing sense of fear in public?
Zeeshan Haider: Media coverage sets the agenda for public debate. While the News doesn’t necessarily tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about. Contagious diseases are scary, and they frighten common people easily. The ongoing outbreak of covid-19 has received extensive media coverage, and the flow of information without proper filters can be a double-edged sword.
In these testing times, media, whether its print or electronic, should refrain from sensationalizing the issue by not using frightening language, and The prominence of fear should not be the primary theme in reports on the virus. Having said that, it is also essential to present the facts and do not hold information from the public on the pressure of govt or other parties.
Keeping the audiences ignorant of the scale of the problem can be counterproductive in times like this. In fact, the current situation is a unique opportunity for the media to play its part in a medium to educate people.
Saadeqa: The UK Govt. announced in Feb 2020 that it would increase the Television license fees from 154.50 pounds to 157.50 pounds for British households. Amid the coronavirus scare and a global recession, how will it impact the BBC viewership and people’s right to information in times of crisis?
Zeeshan Haider: I am not in a position to answer this question. You can contact the BBC Press Office if you need a detailed answer.
Saadeqa: Fran Unsworth, a BBC correspondent, outlined several changes in BBC Newsroom in light of rapidly evolving situations due to pandemic. What changes in BBC Urdu (Islamabad) have been made so far?
Zeeshan Haider: This is a highly dynamic situation, and we have adapted our business continuity plans. We’ve made changes to the workplace to keep our output open and also have pioneered new ways to broadcast from home. Some of our team members perform essential roles that can only be carried out within BBC premises. Other jobs (while no less important) are being carried out remotely.
Vulnerable people who work for the BBC and those directly caring for anyone who is susceptible work from home. This also applies to those who are pregnant. Our aim is to maximize the number of people who can work remotely.
Instead of physical meetings, we are encouraging greater use of video/phone conferencing through apps such as Zoom. We have also arranged special sessions arranged on mental health and resilience in the unprecedented time of this outbreak.
Saadeqa: As per my observation, BBC Urdu always encourages and relies on its local reporters around Pakistan. How lockdown affected reporters’ contribution and how News editors are managing this situation?
Zeeshan Haider: Reporters, whether they are full-time staff or freelancers, did struggle to hit deadlines in the circumstances like these as the sources become a lot harder to pin down, but none of what we do for audiences would be possible without our reporters who are working in challenging circumstances.
Now a days though reporters are mostly working from home, everyone has gone the extra mile and beyond to provide correct and verified information to our audiences. As a News editor, I know that we are in this for the long haul, and with the pressure and reduced staffing levels, we have had to adapt. Further adaptation may be required, and I am continuously looking at the different options – taking account of the views of my seniors in London and my team here in Islamabad as well as the needs of our diverse audiences.
Saadeqa Khan is the founder, CEO, & Editor-in-Chief of Scientia Pakistan. She’s a member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (Second Cohort) and NASW. Saadeqa is a fellow of NPF Washington, The Falling Walls Foundation, and the Science Journalism Forum. Saadeqa has won several international journalism grants and awards for her reports.