AFP photographer Sajjad Hussain works during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in New Delhi, India, on April 9, 2020. (AFP)

How do I cover COVID-19? Frequently asked questions for CPJ’s safety experts

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The coronavirus has changed the way journalists report around the world.

As COVID-19 morphed into a pandemic in early 2020, journalists quickly needed to know how to safely cover the world’s biggest news story. The uncertainty around the virus meant that even stepping outside was fraught with risk. Journalists soon got in touch with CPJ’s safety experts to inquire about every aspect of reporting safely during COVID-19, from what sort of personal protection equipment (PPE) they should wear to how to keep their sources safe, both in person and digitally.

The questions below provide a snapshot of the safety concerns that journalists encounter each day covering the pandemic and reporting amid the threat of infection. The answers to the questions come from CPJ’s publicly available safety guidance, including the COVID-19 safety advisory. CPJ published the first version of the advisory in February 2020, and has updated it regularly since then, providing safety information to journalists as the COVID-19 pandemic develops. 

If you or any other journalists have a question about safety while reporting, contact CPJ using our Ask an Expert forms for newsrooms and journalists.

REPORTING SAFELY

How can I prevent myself and others from getting COVID-19? 

  • 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
  • Generally, most countries are practicing social/physical distancing, though the recommended distance varies depending on which country you are in. If reporting on location with the emergency services or visiting high-risk locations, inquire in advance about the necessary hygiene measures that are in place. If in any doubt, do not visit

Should I report from a crowded area considering I or someone I live with is in a COVID-19 high risk group?

  • To minimize the risk of exposure, and wherever possible, phone or online interviews should be carried out rather than in person

What should I do if I feel sick? 

  • 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
  • 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

For more information about reporting safely, please read CPJ’s COVID-19 safety advisory. Editors can also see the editors’ checklist to help prepare staff for COVID-19 assignments.

PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT (PPE)

Where can I obtain medical PPE? (Note: Many journalists were struggling to source face masks and hand sanitizer, especially in the early days of the outbreak) 

Is it better to wear protective gloves or to wash hands regularly?

  • 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
  • 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

Find out more information about medical PPE in CPJ’s COVID-19 safety advisory

FACE MASKS

What are the differences between N95 / FFP2 / surgical face masks? 

  • If necessary, an N95 mask (or FFP2/FFP3) is recommended instead of a standard ‘surgical’ mask

Can I reuse a face mask?

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

Find out more information about wearing masks in CPJ’s COVID-19 safety advisory

EQUIPMENT SAFETY

Does exposing equipment to direct sunlight kill the virus?

  • No. Ensure all equipment is thoroughly decontaminated when returning it to base, making sure that those responsible for the equipment are trained in how to safely clean it. Make sure that no equipment is just dumped and left lying around without being signed back in to the person responsible for cleaning

What substance should I use to clean my electrical equipment?

  • 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
  • Certain manufacturers recommend 70% isopropyl alcohol wipes for any hard and nonporous surfaces
  • Keep any liquids away from your equipment, and do not use aerosol sprays, bleaches, and abrasives–these will almost certainly damage your equipment
  • More detailed guidance can be seen via this article

What equipment would be easiest to clean and disinfect and keep clean while reporting from a COVID-19 unit?

  • 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)

How can I clean equipment effectively if it has lots of different buttons and tight areas where cleaning is difficult?

  • For the tight areas, we suggest dipping a cotton ear bud in hot water with some detergent, making sure it is not wet, just moist. Then use the bud to lightly wipe down and swab in those difficult areas. Ensure you don’t push down on the buttons when doing so, and make sure to dry the area thoroughly afterwards. For the rest of the equipment surfaces you can wipe down as detailed in the COVID advisory 

Find out more about equipment safety and cleaning electrical equipment in CPJ’s COVID-19 safety advisory 

DIGITAL SAFETY

How can I work more securely from home?

  • Update your devices, including your phone, to the latest operating system. Update apps and browsers to the latest available version
  • Use a password manager to create long, unique passwords and secure your online accounts. Turn on two-factor authentication for all accounts wherever possible
  • Back up your data and research on a regular basis to avoid losing work. Create more than one copy—for example, back up your work to an external hard drive as well as saving it on your computer. If possible, protect your backup with a password, and store it away from your regular workstation
  • Use a virtual private network (VPN) if you are concerned about your internet service provider seeing your online activity, especially if you are carrying out sensitive research. Be aware that a VPN service may also record your internet activity, so research the best VPN service for you, depending on your location and your level of risk
  • Lock all your devices with a PIN or password to deter people from accessing them. Avoid sharing devices you use for work with other members of your household
  • Ensure that your home Wi-Fi is protected with a password

What communications tools are the most secure for contacting sources?

  • Do an internet search on any online communication service you plan to use. Check for security vulnerabilities, privacy concerns, or if the company has suffered any data breaches. If possible, see if the company has been subpoenaed by a government and review what information the service handed over
  • Check to see whether the service uses end-to-end encryption. Research the law in your country with regards to using encrypted communications methods. Examples of messaging apps with end-to-end encryption include Signal, WhatsApp, and Telegram
  • Back up anything important contained in messaging apps regularly, and delete anything inessential
  • Be aware that many messaging apps store a copy of your messages, including photos and documents, either in a cloud account or on your device. Signal, the end-to-end encrypted messaging service, allows users to delete messages after a certain time set by the user

How can I do secure research on the internet and who can see what I am doing on the internet? How can I spot phishing attacks and information related to phishing attacks and COVID-19?

  • Do a regular internet search for common scams and misinformation about COVID-19. This will help you be more informed about documented attacks, including those that are less obvious and more sophisticated
  • Try and use one device for researching COVID-19. This will help limit exposure to malware
  • Avoid clicking on links or downloading documents about COVID-19 on your phone. The small screen makes it difficult to properly analyze the source
  • Think carefully before clicking or downloading information about COVID-19. Consider the source and whether it is reputable
  • Go directly to the source of the information instead of downloading documents sent to you via email, through SMS, or messaging apps. Look up the author of the information online to verify their identity and expertise
  • Use advanced search strategies, such as Boolean search methods, to look up information and confirm the source
  • Be aware that websites from legitimate sources should be encrypted. You can check this by looking for https and a padlock icon at the start of the URL, or web address, in your browser. This means that traffic between you and the site is encrypted

How can I spot misinformation? 

  • Be conscious of state-sponsored misinformation, as reported by The New York Times, as well as general misinformation, something that the WHO has specifically warned about. A COVID-19 mythbuster guide is available on the WHO website
  • Be wary of information about COVID-19 shared in group chats on WhatsApp and other messaging services. There is a lot of misinformation being passed around and some of it may also contain malware

How can I protect against online harassment?

How can I store documents securely?

  • Think about where you are storing your documents, especially if you are working on sensitive issues. Create a system for storing work while you are working from home so that you will be able to find it easily when you return to the office. Avoid downloading and storing documents on an ad hoc basis, or on multiple devices

For more information on digital safety, see CPJ’s guide to digital safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and CPJ’s digital safety kit