Stefania Battistini, an experienced reporter for Italian public broadcaster RAI, has covered terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and Syria’s civil war for the channel’s news program. Now, she is confronting the biggest challenge of her career: the coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging Lombardy, northern Italy, one of the hardest-hit regions in the world. Battistini, who is based in Milan, the region’s capital, spoke with CPJ on March 23, 2020, about her experiences covering the pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How has your everyday work changed since the crisis started?
First of all, everything changed from an organization point of view. Our company, RAI, asked reporters who work in the “frontline” to commit themselves fully to covering the crisis, so I exclusively work now on this topic. Our crew members do not change, we stick together and we were asked not to return to our headquarters because we are the ones who are most at risk to be infected so the guideline is that if we return, we will have to put ourselves in a 14-day quarantine first to prevent eventually others being infected. I have continuously worked for the last 23 days, non-stop–today [March 23] is actually my first day off.
How have you first confronted the crisis? How were your first experiences?
One of our first assignments was to cover how hospitals are overwhelmed with the great number of patients. When we arrived in Pesaro, where there was a local outbreak, there were around 10 people from the hospital staff waiting for our crew to arrive, they wanted us so much to show how dramatic the situation is in the hospital. I practically did not even have time to ask questions, they were immediately taking us, some of them crying, with tears in their eyes, right to the intensive care unit where everyone was covered from head to toe in protective clothes dealing with patients, some of them dying of the virus.
It was dramatic to see the terror and the fear in the eyes of doctors and nurses, listening to them telling us how they themselves were scared, but at the same time how much they did not want to give up because otherwise they knew, more people will die. It was like visiting hell.
You have worked in war zones, covered earthquakes and disasters in Italy, how does this compare to what you are experiencing now?
I have experienced lockdowns and curfews while I was reporting from the civil war in Syria or when I worked in Kurdish territories in Turkey, I remember the feeling of waiting inside a house for a bomb to explode somewhere nearby. There, however, the “enemy” was very physical, we knew that a bomb would soon hit, while here the virus is invisible, and it can hit anywhere. So you do not have a physical connection to it, you only experience its consequences when you see coffins being transported by army trucks because crematories cannot cope anymore or when you go to hospitals and see people dying. The enemy is everywhere and you don’t know how to defend yourself.
What are you doing to keep yourself and your sources safe?
We are every day in the field, we have many contacts with people at risk, so we do everything to protect ourselves. Our company has done everything it could to make sure that we are well protected. We have received a big supply of protective equipment. We have become almost maniacal with the use of surgical masks, gloves, now we even wear the white coats doctors wear, we cover our microphones with protective material, and we keep distance when we interview people using long microphone stands.
At the end of each day, we put everything, even microphone covers in the washing machine and disinfect everything we use. And of course, we have stopped visiting our parents, as they are old and are most vulnerable to the virus.
What are your biggest personal concerns?
One of the biggest challenges, personally, is to overcome the fear I have and put my job as a reporter ahead of everything else even my private fears. I do not hide that I am scared sometimes. At the end of the day shifts, after I have seen so many deaths around me, I know I have to rationalize and process everything I have seen through the day. So I keep telling myself that even if it would be tempting to give it up, I should not, because I am a journalist, that is the reason for which I became a journalist.
I also try to make it clear to myself that I will not be able to do (and cover) everything I would like to even if we work in shifts from 7 a.m. to midnight, I will have to prioritize and also make sure that I protect my health, as we know that we will have to be here for the long run. It will surely take many more months before the crisis ends.
What are your most important professional challenges?
Recently, the biggest professional discussion was around the so-called “spectacularization” of the crisis, as we have shown long lines of army trucks transporting coffins as local crematories were overwhelmed and could not process. Some of our critics said that these images are too strong and they might worsen the crisis by creating panic. We were also criticized that we “spectacularize” people’s pains by showing the overcrowded hospital wards or IC [intensive care] units, or showing the concerned faces of the doctors. In my opinion, however, as a journalist, my role is to show reality as it is and not to hide, “sweeten” or polish the tragedy we are experiencing.
How much are you satisfied with the authorities? Are they open enough to provide journalists with information?
Here in Lombardy, authorities really do everything they can to give us all the information. There are daily press conferences with a lot of data, officials give interviews in news programs, give us all the contacts we need and they are very honest. It is not that type of reassuring communication sometimes authorities tend to do, on the contrary, they do not filter, they speak about the emergency and sometimes even the hopelessness they experience.
How are you dealing with and responding to misinformation around the virus?
I work day-by-day in the field, I collect information from everyday people in the streets and I do not think there is a lot of misinformation around us here. Authorities do not hide the reality, we know everything, there is so much information that it is even difficult for average citizens to untangle. I think it is impossible to be more aware of reality than this.
CPJ’s safety advisory for journalists covering the coronavirus outbreak is available here in English, Italian, and more than a dozen other languages. Additional CPJ coverage of the coronavirus can be found here.