Mexican journalists, wearing personal protective equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, cover a protest by administrative workers at the General Balbuena Hospital in Mexico City on April 16, 2020. (AFP/Pedro Pardo)
Mexican journalists, wearing personal protective equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, cover a protest by administrative workers at the General Balbuena Hospital in Mexico City on April 16, 2020. (AFP/Pedro Pardo)

CPJ Safety Advisory: Covering the coronavirus pandemic

Updated May 20, 2021

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020. The global situation continues to evolve, and countries are increasing or relaxing their travel restrictions and/or safety-related measures as new coronavirus variants are identified and the COVID-19 vaccination program gathers pace, according to news reports.

Contents

Journalists around the world are playing a crucial role in keeping the public informed about the pandemic and governments’ efforts to combat it, despite attempts by authorities in several countries to crack down on independent reporting and access to information, as documented by CPJ. Members of the media are facing a huge amount of pressure and strain, and are often potentially exposed to infection through travel, interviews, and the locations they find themselves working in, according to CPJ’s interviews with journalists. Journalists have faced censorship, detention, physical and online harassment, and the loss of their livelihoods due to COVID-19, as highlighted in recent reporting by CPJ.

To keep up-to-date on the latest advice and restrictions, journalists covering the outbreak should monitor information from the WHO and their local public health body. For the latest outbreak developments, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center is a safe and reliable resource.

Staying safe in the field

International travel restrictions and/or safety-related measures change frequently, meaning assignments may change or be cancelled with little or no notice.

Media workers who have been vaccinated should note that they may still be able to transmit the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and that different vaccinations afford varying levels of protection against different strains of the virus, according to Yale Medicine. COVID-19 related safety measures, such as physical distancing and the wearing of face masks, should therefore continue to be adhered to.

Those who are planning to cover the COVID-19 pandemic should consider the following safety information:

Pre-assignment

● If available, consider getting a COVID-19 vaccination in advance of any assignment if safe for you, especially if working in or travelling to an area with a high rate of infection

● Depending upon how high the infection rate is in your location and destination, phone or online interviews should be carried out rather than in person to minimize the risk of transmission and/or exposure

● According to the the CDC, older people and individuals with underlying health conditions such as diabetes or obesity are considered higher risk. If you fall into such categories, and depending on the infection rate, you should avoid participating in any assignment that puts you in direct contact with the general public. Consideration should also be given to any employees who are pregnant

● When selecting staff for any reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, management should be mindful of potential racist attacks against certain nationalities, as highlighted by The New York Times

● Global travel restrictions and lockdown measures can change with little or no warning. Discuss what plans your management team has in place to assist and support you should you fall ill while on assignment, taking into account the possibility of self-isolation and/or being grounded in a quarantine/lockdown zone for an extended period of time

Psychological well-being

● Even the most experienced journalists may struggle psychologically when reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford. Management should check in on their journalists on a regular basis to see how they are coping, and to offer guidance and support if and when necessary

● Consider the potential psychological impact of reporting from a location or area affected by COVID-19, especially if reporting from a medical or isolation facility, or lockdown zone. A useful resource for media workers covering traumatic situations can be found via the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma. Visit CPJ’s Emergencies’ page for external safety resources, including mental health best practices for journalists covering COVID-19

Avoiding infection & infecting others

Most countries continue to practice social/physical distancing, though the recommended distance may vary depending upon which country you are in. If reporting from a higher-risk locations such as any of the following, inquire in advance about the necessary hygiene measures that are in place. If in any doubt, do not visit.

● Any kind of healthcare facility

● A care home for the elderly

● The home of anybody who is sick, elderly, pregnant, or who has health issues

● Any workplace where the risk of transmission is considered high (e.g. a meat processing plant)

● A morgue, mortuary, crematorium, or funeral service

● A quarantine, isolation, or lockdown zone

● A densely packed urban dwelling (e.g. slum or favela)

● A refugee camp or prison/detention center with cases of COVID-19

Standard recommendations to avoid infection include:

● Maintain the recommended safe physical distance with everybody, which will vary according to the advice of the local authorities. You should be especially careful around those showing any signs or symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing, and/or when interviewing the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, anyone close to individuals who are symptomatic, health care workers treating COVID-19 patients, or workers in any higher-risk location

● Try to interview people in an outside space. If you do need to interview indoors, select a location with some kind of airflow (e.g. open windows) and avoid small confined spaces

● Avoid shaking hands with anyone as well as hugging and kissing

● Try to stand at an angle to a subject during an interview rather than face-on, always maintaining the recommended safe physical distance

Wash your hands regularly, properly, and thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds at a time using hot water and soap. Ensure hands are dried in the appropriate way. A very useful guide on how to wash and dry your hands properly can be found on the WHO website

● Use anti-bacterial gel or wipes if hot water and soap is not available, but always follow this up with a hot water and soap wash as soon as possible. (The CDC recommends the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers with greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol.) Do not substitute a regular hand washing routine by using hand sanitizer in its place

● Always cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. If you cough or sneeze into a tissue, dispose of it immediately in a safe and appropriate manner, and remember to thoroughly wash your hands afterwards

● Avoid touching your face, nose, mouth, ears, etc., as highlighted by the BBC

● Avoid drinking/eating from cups, crockery, or cutlery that may have come into contact with other people

● All hair should be covered. Long hair should be tied up and tucked away

● Remove all jewelry and watches before any assignment, noting that the virus can remain live on many different surface types for varying lengths of time

● If you wear glasses, carefully clean them on a regular basis with hot water and soap.

● Avoid wearing contact lenses on assignment, if possible, due to the likelihood of touching your eyes and potentially increasing your chances of infection

● Consider what clothing you will wear, taking into account that certain fabrics can be wiped clean easier than others. All clothing should be carefully removed and washed at a high temperature with detergent after any assignment

● If possible, try and avoid using cash on assignment, and ensure you clean your credit/debit cards, wallet, and/or purse on a regular basis. Avoid putting your hands into your pockets as much as possible

● Consider your mode of transportation to and from the assignment. Where possible avoid traveling on public transportation during peak travel periods, and make sure to use alcohol-based sanitizer on hands when disembarking

● If traveling in a personal or company vehicle, be aware that an infected passenger could pass the virus onto the others inside the vehicle. Travel with the windows down to ensure good airflow throughout the vehicle, and consider the use of face coverings or face masks while in the vehicle

● Take regular breaks and be mindful of fatigue/energy levels, taking into account that tired individuals are more likely to make mistakes with their hygiene regime. Also factor in that individuals may have long distances to drive before and after work

Medical personal protective equipment (PPE)

Depending upon the nature of the assignment, media workers may need to wear a variety of medical PPE to report safely. This may include disposable gloves, face masks, protective aprons/overalls/bodysuits, and disposable shoe covers etc.

Safely putting on (donning) and taking off (doffing) medical PPE requires the strict observance of and adherence to best safety practices. Please click here for general guidance from the CDC. Particular care should be taken when removing (doffing) PPE, as this is when the risk of cross contamination is highest. If in any doubt, seek expert guidance and training before going on any assignment.

Please note that in some countries good quality medical PPE may be in short supply and/or to source, so using such equipment can create shortages.

● Ensure any PPE used is the correct size for you. Badly fitting PPE is liable to tear and/or restrict movement (if too tight), and may catch on objects like door handles and tear (if too loose)

● Always use reputable brands of medical PPE, paying attention to the minimum required safety specifications. Be aware of faulty items and/or counterfeit items. Some of the leading and most respected brands can be seen here

● Use protective gloves if working in or visiting an infected site such as a medical treatment facility. Note that nitrile gloves offer a higher degree of protection than latex. Wearing two pairs improves safety

● If reporting from a high risk location such as a medical treatment facility, additional medical PPE such as a full bodysuit and full face mask will almost certainly be required

● If wearing full body coveralls, ensure you use the restroom in advance of donning the PPE

● Depending on the assignment, you may need to wear disposable footwear or use waterproof overshoes, both of which must be wiped/rinsed off as soon as you exit an affected location. If using waterproof overshoes, they should be disposed of in a safe manner before leaving the location

● It is recommended that all medical PPE is donned/doffed under the supervision of a trained professional, taking into account that this may be the moment of exposure. This donning and doffing video from the CDC may be helpful, although should not be used as a replacement for training/supervision

● Never reuse single-use PPE such as gloves, bodysuits, aprons, or shoe covers. Any equipment that is to be reused must be properly decontaminated and sanitized. Ensure all contaminated medical PPE is disposed of in the appropriate manner BEFORE leaving an affected site

Face masks

The correct use of face masks is especially important for media workers reporting among members of the general public, in confined spaces, and/or at a higher risk location. You should be aware that the concentration of viral droplets in the air in confined spaces will likely be significantly higher than normal, therefore potentially increasing your chances of exposure.

Be aware that unless used correctly, there are concerns that face masks can actually become a source of infection. A study by the Lancet shows a detectable level of infectious virus still present on a surgical mask up to seven days after exposure. Based on this study, taking off or reusing a mask, or touching your face when wearing one, could mean risking infection.

If you do wear a mask you should follow the following advice:

● If reporting in a confined space, in close proximity to others or from a higher risk location, an N95 mask (or FFP2/FFP3) is recommended instead of a standard ‘surgical’ mask

● Ensure that the mask fits securely over the bridge of the nose and chin, minimizing gaps in the fit.

● Ensure any facial hair is removed to ensure a good tight seal to the face.

● Strict adherence to face mask safety is essential. Avoid touching the front of the mask, only ever remove it by the straps, and avoid adjusting the mask once on unless absolutely necessary. Wash hands immediately if they come into contact with the mask.

● Reusing masks is high risk. Always dispose of used masks immediately into a sealed bag.

● Always wash hands with soap and hot water after removing the mask. If not possible, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol) but follow this up as soon as possible with a hot water and soap wash

● Replace the mask with a new, clean, dry mask as soon as it becomes damp/humid

● Remember that the use of a mask is only one part of personal protection, which must be accompanied by regularly washing your hands with hot water and soap and avoiding touching your facial area, including your eyes, mouth, ears, and nose

● Be aware that face masks may be in short supply and/or subject to sharp price increases, depending on the location

Equipment safety

The potential to spread COVID-19 via contaminated equipment is real. A strict cleaning and disinfecting regime should be implemented and adhered to at all times:

● Use directional ‘fishpole’ microphones from a safe distance wherever possible. Clip microphones should only be used under controlled circumstances combined with the adherence to strict hygiene protocols

● Microphone covers should be disinfected and washed at a high temperature with detergent at the end of every assignment. Seek guidance/training on how to safely remove the cover to prevent any potential cross contamination. Try and avoid the ‘wind muff’ type covers if possible, which can be harder to clean

● Use low cost earpieces wherever possible and treat them as disposable, particularly for guests. Wipe down and disinfect all earpieces before and after use

● Use long sight lenses to help maintain a safe distance on location

● Wherever possible, use mobile equipment rather than those with cables

● Consider how you will store your equipment on assignment. Don’t leave anything lying around and put everything back in its case and close it (i.e. some kind of hard sided flight case, which is much easier to wipe down and keep clean)

● If possible and practical, put some kind of plastic wrapping/protection around equipment when using it. This will minimize the surface area of the equipment that could become contaminated, and will be easier to clean and disinfect

● Carry fully charged spare batteries with you and avoid charging anything on site, as this is an additional item that could become contaminated

● Always decontaminate all equipment with fast-acting antimicrobial wipes such as Meliseptol, followed by thorough cleaning, including but not limited to cell phones, tablets, leads, plugs, earphones, laptops, hard drives, cameras, press passes, and lanyards

● Ensure all equipment is decontaminated again when returning it to base, making sure that those responsible for the equipment are made fully aware in advance and that they are trained in how to safely clean the equipment. Make sure that no equipment is just dumped and left lying around without being signed back in to the person responsible for cleaning

● If using a vehicle for the assignment, ensure that the interior is given a thorough deep clean after any assignment, ideally by somebody who is properly trained. Particular attention should be paid to common touch points such as the door handles, steering wheel, gear stick, hand brake lever, wing mirrors, head rests, seat belts, dashboard, and window winders/catches/buttons

Cleaning electrical equipment

The following points offer some general guidance regarding the cleaning of electrical equipment. Always ensure you have read the manufacturers guidelines before attempting any cleaning.

● Always unplug/remove all power sources, devices, and cables

● Keep any liquids away from your equipment, and do not use aerosol sprays, bleaches, and abrasives–these will almost certainly damage your equipment

● Never spray any substance directly onto your device

● Only use a non-abrasive, soft, lint-free cloth

● Make the cloth damp or moist, but NOT wet. Add some soap to the cloth and rub it into the cloth with your hand

● Thoroughly wipe the device down several times

● Do not allow any moisture to get into any openings (such as charging sockets, earphone sockets, keyboards)

● Dry your device with a clean, dry, and soft cloth

● Certain manufacturers recommend 70% isopropyl alcohol wipes for any hard and nonporous surfaces

● If disinfecting your equipment always check with the manufacturer first, as disinfectants could damage your device

More detailed guidance can be seen via this article.

Digital security

● Be aware that journalists face levels of online hostility in relation to their reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak. Abuse may come from anti-vaccine groups or people who oppose wearing masks. Review CPJ’s best practices for protecting yourself against attacks

● Governments and tech companies are using surveillance as a way to track the spread of COVID-19. This includes the NSO Group, which created Pegasus, a spyware that has been used to target journalists, according to Citizen Lab. Civil liberties groups are concerned about how these surveillance techniques will be used to target people after this health crisis is over. Transparency International is tracking these global developments on their website

● Criminals are using the continuing health crisis to target individuals and organizations with scams linked to the vaccine rollout being common, according to reports. Pause and think before you click on links or download documents containing information about COVID-19 or vaccines, as sophisticated phishing attacks that could lead to malware being installed on your devices, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Exercise caution when clicking on any COVID-19 related links on social media or in messaging apps, some of which may direct you to sites that infect devices with malware

● Be conscious of state-sponsored misinformation, as reported by The Guardian, as well as general misinformation, something that the WHO has specifically warned about and that the BBC has highlighted. A myth buster guide is available on the WHO website

● Read up on online conferencing and privacy issues so you are aware of what these services are doing with your data, what they have access to, and how secure they are. Be aware that with an increasing number of people working from home, services have been targeted by hackers

● Be alert to the risks posed by reporting on and/or from countries with authoritarian regimes, which will likely be closely monitoring coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak. Certain governments may try to conceal the extent of any outbreak and/or censor the media accordingly, as highlighted by CPJ

Crime & physical security on assignment

● If you can travel for an international assignment (see below), research the latest security situation in your destination, noting that there have been sporadic violent incidents and protests around the world since the start of the pandemic. Some journalists report having been verbally harassed and criminally targeted, so do not take safety for granted

● Be particularly careful if reporting from rural areas. People may be suspicious and/or hostile toward ‘outsiders’ for fear that you could be infectious

● Be aware of a potentially heavy-handed response from the police relating to COVID-19 lockdown measures, noting the danger of physical assault and the use of tear gas

● Journalists in countries with an authoritarian regime should be aware of the threat of detention, arrest, and/or deportation when reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak, as highlighted by CPJ

International travel assignments

Due to global restrictions, international travel remains challenging. If an overseas assignment is possible you should consider the following:

● Check on any existing and/or upcoming travel bans for your intended destination, which could change at short notice

Be aware that lockdown measures and/or curfews may vary throughout different parts of a country. Note that local lockdown measures could be imposed with little or no notice, so always monitor local sources for news of any movement restrictions within the country

● Quarantine on return measures may be introduced/revised with little or no notice, depending on the location you are returning from, as seen recently with people returning to the United Kingdom from Spain

● Identify all medical treatment facilities in the area you’ll be operating in, noting that healthcare workers may strike or protest with little or no notice

● Access to medical PPE may be limited, nonexistent, and/or the quality suspect. Always research availability in advance of any assignment, and take supplies with you if necessary

● If feasible try and get a COVID vaccination before going on assignment, and ensure all other relevant vaccinations and disease prophylaxis are up-to-date for your destination in good time

● Check your travel insurance policy, noting that obtaining cover for COVID-19 related travel may not be possible. Be aware that many governments have issued varying levels of travel advice and alerts against international travel

● Regularly check the status of any event you plan on attending, taking into account that many countries have banned public gatherings altogether, or gatherings above a certain number of people

● Many land borders remain closed around the world. Any borders that do reopen could close again with no warning, something that should be factored into your contingency planning

● Do not travel if you are sick. Most international and regional airports, as well as other transportation hubs, have implemented strict health screening measures.

● Note that COVID-19 is causing significant financial distress for many airlines, according to news reports, so consider purchasing fully refundable flight tickets

● Check on the latest visa situation for your destination, noting that numerous countries have stopped issuing visas

● Check if your destination country requires a medical certificate to prove you are COVID-19 free

● Maintain flexible itineraries and allow additional time at airports around the world, taking into account health screening measures and temperature check points. The same applies at some railway stations, ports/docks, and long-haul bus stations

Post-assignment

● Continually monitor your health for any signs of symptoms

● You may need to self-isolate as a matter of course after returning from a high-risk destination. Please check the relevant government advice for clarity

● Monitor the latest updates and information on COVID-19, as well as any quarantine and isolation procedures being implemented at both your origin and your destination

● Depending on the rate of infection in the country you are in, you should consider keeping a journal with names/numbers of individuals you come into close proximity with for 14 days after your return. This will help with possible contact tracing should you start showing symptoms

If you develop symptoms:

● If you develop or have symptoms of COVID-19, however mild, inform your management team. Work with them to take appropriate transportation from the endpoint of your assignment to your home. Do not simply get in a taxi

● Follow the advice of the WHO, the CDC, or local health authorities to protect yourself and your community

● Do not leave your home for at least 7 days from when your symptoms started (the exact amount of time will vary according to the advice from your government). Doing so will help protect others in your community while you are infectious

● Plan ahead and ask others for help. Ask your employer, friends, and family to get the supplies you need for you, and to leave them outside your front door

● Stay the recommended safe distance away from other people in your home whenever possible, and if feasible, sleep alone

CPJ’s Safety Kit provides journalists and newsrooms with basic safety information on physical, digital, and psychological safety resources and tools, including on covering civil unrest and elections.

[Editors’ note: This advisory was originally published on February 10, 2020, and is being frequently revised. The publication date at the top reflects the most recent update.]