Wake up with the morning light creeping across my blanket. Reach for my phone to check messages, careful not to awaken my baby. After morning ablutions, pick a decent pambahay outfit, make a cup of Americano. Crank open the laptop.
This is a typical pandemic morning for me. There might be variations — like when Malacañang decides to air President Rodrigo Duterte’s speech in the morning instead of late at night. Or when Harry Roque does an early morning media interview.
These two things mean the coffee must wait.
The rest of the day, I’m rooted to my chair in our dining room, my pandemic workstation. From this comfortable (until it’s not) pod, I can confirm breaking news, have conversations with sources, listen to hours of press conferences, and do on-camera interviews with government officials or experts.
In between writing a podcast script or an in-depth piece, I’ll breastfeed my six-month-old or step into the veranda for some sun and greenery.
Some aspects of this life are not all that different from the professional life I led after Malacañang banned me and other Rappler reporters from physically covering President Duterte’s events.
This is not the first time I’m reduced to virtually covering Malacañang press briefings and Duterte speeches. This is not the first time I’m limited to sending my questions to a press briefing moderator instead of having the chance to grill an official in person.
In many ways, I’m more prepared for journalism in the age of a pandemic than some reporters. It’s not something I celebrate, but there it is.
The physical element of journalism
But what this health crisis has brought home to me is how much of my life as a journalist depended on and was enriched by physical interactions.
“ I realize now that journalism is a very physical job, not just because it requires a lot of movement and getting somewhere fast — but because the physicality of it is one way to expend the pent-up energy from having to mentally process very frustrating things. ”
Banned from physically covering my beat, I cherished and thrived in events I could cover. I took advantage of every press conference, political sortie, congressional hearing, studio interview, or rally I was deployed to. I never just showed up. I ran after officials, pestered them until they got annoyed, asked questions, live-tweeted like a maniac, took a ton of videos, photos, and sound bites, got numbers and e-mail addresses, and transcribed the sh*t out of ambush interviews.
My last major coverage before the pandemic was tracking anomalous, unfinished government infrastructure projects in Lanao del Sur. Six months pregnant, the coverage took me to Butig, the birthplace of the Maute terror group, and the living room of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Commander Bravo (real name Abdullah Macapaar).
I was always tired to the bones after physical coverage but it’s now I realize that I much prefer that kind of exhaustion to what I feel at the end of each pandemic day.
This new tired is the product of all-day inertia despite all-day mental buzz and anguish. I realize now that journalism is a very physical job, not just because it requires a lot of movement and getting somewhere fast — but because the physicality of it is one way to expend the pent-up energy from having to mentally process very frustrating things.
Things like corruption, ineptitude, injustice, loss of democratic freedoms, officials who can’t take criticism, officials with pretenses of virtue.
Without the benefit of physically confronting government officials, I’ve learned to pester them virtually.
But I fear for how this pandemic will impact the dynamics between journalism and those in power.
“ The pandemic has gravely affected the ability of the press to hold power to account, primarily because access has become severely restricted. ”
It does not help that the greatest blow to press freedom under the Duterte government was dealt in the middle of this crisis — the shutdown of ABS-CBN.
Already, the pandemic is proving a convenient excuse for limiting reporters’ access to officials.
In Roque’s press briefings, for example, only television reporters have regular opportunities to engage in back-and-forth with him or his guests, whereas reporters from other outfits have to exert extra effort to get the same privilege.
If you aren’t a TV reporter, you’re often told to just send your questions to the moderator.
This leaves plenty of room for filtering out undesired or “overly” critical questions or sidelining specific reporters.
The pandemic has gravely affected the ability of the press to hold power to account, primarily because access has become severely restricted.
While this is understandable now because of the steady rise in coronavirus cases, these restrictions should not persist longer than necessary.
The media relations of government offices should also use digital resources to the fullest extent possible to ensure all media outfits get a fair chance at asking questions.
First, let’s stop the charade of reading out reporters’ questions. Reporters should be able to ask their questions themselves and do some follow-ups, too.
Second, devise a transparent way to conduct virtual press conferences. Don’t prioritize or favor only a few reporters. For regular press briefings with time limits, there should be a way to fairly select who gets to ask questions. Perhaps one group of reporters today and another group tomorrow.
Third, the press corps should step up. Knowing the time limit and access restrictions, perhaps they can organize among themselves who gets to ask questions for one press briefing. Or they can collect questions from members and assign one member to read them out. This is more respectful of the independence of journalists than leaving the job to a government official.
Juggling parenthood & work
My pandemic days have not just been defined by my work as a journalist but also by my being a new mom. In turn, motherhood is defining my work as a journalist. There’s no better raison d’etre to journalism than making our country better for our children.
There’s no better raison d’etre to journalism than making our country better for our children.
But parenthood is not some shiny, abstract concept. It’s as real and intrusive as a stinky diaper. There’s no doubt that it has a huge impact on my daily work life, more so now that I’m stuck at home.
If journalist moms before could manage some sort of division between work and home life, it’s nearly impossible for them today. Because I live with my baby, my newsroom has chosen to not deploy me to physical coverage. I’m thankful for this since I don’t know how I would forgive myself if a coverage led to infecting my baby with COVID-19.
I’ve relied on family to take care of my baby when I have to focus on work. Sometimes, even when I’m “in the zone” while writing, I have to pry myself from my laptop because she is crying. I’ve recorded podcasts with her wails in the background.
The pandemic is an opportunity for newsrooms to adjust to the needs of working, breastfeeding mothers.
One thing I’m grateful for is the amount of time I can spend with my baby and continue breastfeeding her even after my maternity leave.
It’s not an option most female journalists have.
But working in the time of a pandemic shows there are ways for breastfeeding mothers to be productive at their craft using the unprecedented digital tools at our disposal.
There will always be a need for physical coverage and I don’t plan on staying home forever. But newsrooms can consider more flexible work arrangements for journalists taking care of breastfeeding children.
Edited by Tanya T. Lara