Pandemic Threatens Jobs and Hard-Won Rights of Women in Media
By Divya Chandrababu & Durga Nandini
Divya Chandrababu is an award-winning independent journalist based in Chennai. She writes on politics, development, social welfare and mental health. Divya was previously with The Times of India and NDTV-Hindu.
Durga Nandini is the Senior Director, Communications & Partnerships at Change.org India, based in New Delhi. She was previously with Amnesty International India and reported for some of the biggest Television networks and publications.
As an aberrant even for a disruption, the magnitude of Covid-19 has jolted us into new realities and reinforced existing inequalities. While the virus is a common threat to everyone, the humanitarian crisis and economic downturn brought by the pandemic has disproportionately affected women. Now is a time to look back as well as record our career trajectories and question the roles we have played as journalists. A primary concern in the gender dynamics of this global emergency is that we cannot allow it to setback decades of feminist gains made in the workforce.
The news media industry is one of the hardest hit by the economic distress, despite it being an essential public service and more people relying on the medium. Journalists who are reporting on the health crisis, the large-scale loss of lives, livelihood and suffering, are victims themselves. While media organisations strive to expose problems afflicting our society there is a haunting silence in newsrooms about concerns facing journalists.
The Network of Women in Media, India, launched a collective effort to help inform people who are in need of jobs and assignments given the spate of job losses during the pandemic. At the heart of the initiative was the intention to end this culture of silence and make job losses and pay cuts a subject of discussion to ensure that problems faced by journalists were not brushed under the carpet or made invisible.
A survey to assess the extent of job losses was an important part of this initiative and simultaneously, network member and independent journalist Raksha Kumar and the writer Durga Nandini fronted the NWMI’s Twitter thread on job resources. Their DMs were open on Twitter for media professionals who are desperate to talk to somebody. Both men and women reached out to them. Many challenges were similar – desperate for a job, no money for taking care of family, threat of being sacked, freelance assignments drying up. With women, what stood out was the immense stress levels caused by the dual role they are forced to play now – of being full time caretakers of their family members who are stuck at home and to continue to over perform at work for fear of losing their jobs if they are perceived as slackers.
Pamela Philipose, Public Editor, The Wire, in a conversation with the writer Divya Chandrababu, says that women have less autonomy now to pick and choose the conditions they report from due to the tremendous pressure of job threats. For reporters, the workplace is predominantly outside of office, at public spaces and institutions where even before Covid-19, women reporters’ were at the risk of being sexually harassed or groped while on the job. While the #metoo movement shook up newsrooms, it could not address the lack of safety which women reporters often face on the field. Even the most well-meaning editors’ could only come up with a solution of sending male reporters to cover protests or large gatherings – which takes away the right of a woman reporter to pursue a story. The current crisis adds another layer of constraint for women journalists on the field. They are on the streets wearing PPEs, reporting while on a painful period cycle and walking long distances without public transport.
Any industry looks at productivity and profitability that one can bring to a job and if the company has to invest more for a candidate, those employees would be the first ones to be fired. “Women often tend to be in that dubious category,” says Philipose who was an advisor to the Media Task Force of the Indian government’s High Level Status of Women Committee Report. An editor of a major newspaper, on condition of anonymity, said that though there are individual unstated prejudices against hiring women, which may be reinforced during mass layoffs, it hasn’t largely restricted recruitment policy towards women. But when decisions are made based on factors like who can go out at night or go to the field without facing problems, women are disadvantaged here.
“Since the 1950s, courageous women have fought for toilets, maternity leave, security of service at the workplace. All that can disappear in a moment,” warns Philipose. “People will say conditions are not right now and there will be temptation to adjust but we have to hang on to gains made during normal times.”
So far, there are no verified industry numbers to study the overall extent of job cuts or the gender divide. Cyril Sam, an independent journalist based in Delhi, has been running an up to date Medium blog where he captures every announcement about job losses or salary cuts. “Here is what I know in reverse chronological order,” he says in his blog and proceeds to jot down every single publicly known impact of Covid-19 on the media industry. At the time of writing this piece, he had documented a staggering number of 57 cases of edition closures besides salary cuts, operations being ceased, newspapers going behind paywalls, media companies vacating rented offices, bulk layoffs and so on. Just scrolling through that list can shock you with the scale at which the media industry has been hit.
News about pink slips has been reaching us through Whatsapp groups, Twitter and other routes. Most media organisations have not revealed actual numbers of job cuts, salary cuts, or prolonged unpaid furloughs. Employees who are shown the door do not talk publicly for fear of being branded a “troublemaker” and losing whatever slim chances they have at another job opening.
Anyone following the media industry closely would have noticed that the job losses began at the so-called fringes – lifestyle, travel and entertainment journalism. Traditionally, women have been assigned these “softer beats” and deprived of equal opportunities in beats perceived as “tougher”, such as politics, crime, business and economy. Naturally, women are among the first to take a hit during job cuts. Health – which until the virus spread was also perceived as a ‘soft beat’ is the most significant beat across the world. In India it is predominantly led by women, both freelancers and those who work in mainstream media. Their stellar public health reportage has brought crucial changes to India’s response to the coronavirus but exposes them to incessant abuse on social media by pro-government accounts who attack journalistic work that seeks accountability from elected representatives.
The work-from-home arrangement enforced by the five-phase lockdown since March has had its benefits and detriments for women reporters. Two employees we spoke to were on maternity leave until May. One of them has taken two rounds of salary cuts but is relieved that her job is secure. Filing stories from home is a blessing in disguise for her as she can continue breastfeeding her baby. But the same situation sadly played differently for another reporter who had to resign because she delivered her baby in another city and travel restrictions didn’t allow her to return or for her family to come to her for support. The HR couldn’t offer her a transfer as they were cutting down on staff. “I was looking forward to joining work. It’s as if women are being punished for having the ability to give birth,” she says.
Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, an editor had asked Divya of her marital status while commissioning a story to understand if her personal life would be supportive of a demanding professional commitment that would take months of work at a stretch. Considering social norms and the new work structures, our impression is that the roles of women at home will be further scrutinised as we live through the crisis. With homes becoming the concentrated center of all activities, child support systems suspended and self-quarantine being encouraged, the unpaid workload on women increases as they fall on the caring side of the relationship equation. Balancing their responsibilities towards their families and their own demanding careers, which are on the line of fire, has taken an invisible toll on stress levels affecting the mental health of women adversely. One woman said that not so long ago, she had the option of choosing a career in research and policy, but she chose to continue being a reporter. Now faced with a salary cut and the threat of a job loss looming, she is very worried about how she will take care of her dependent parents.
At the bottom of this pecking order are independent reporters including Divya for whom assignment opportunities and negotiating powers are diminishing. Since March, editors began turning down pitches as they couldn’t take contributions while they were simultaneously cutting down on their in-house resources. Freelance reporters have told us that they touched base with new editors, cold-emailed publications but there has been no response. “The novel coronavirus is the biggest story of our lives but one of its many consequences has led us to trade off a paid reporting space.”
As independent women journalists, we have the control of time, flexibility and the space to delve deep into stories we really care about. But it comes at a price. It’s a lonely job with a range of challenges such as operating without a press card – which was a practical problem preventing us from going to the field during the lockdown. When you take on investigative stories or go up against a powerful person/body there is no organisational security. Access is lesser when you don’t represent mainstream media. Reporters have also complained of publications stealing story pitches which they had submitted and reporters most often have to chase for their payments. The current crisis and a post-pandemic scenario only aggravates such pre-existing problems.
The NWMI’s statement on the impact of the Covid19 crisis on the news media, especially journalists, also pointed out that, “Freelancers, a majority of them women, already face tenuous arrangements for assignments and poor and erratic payment schedules and have been further pushed to the margins.” This statement was validated during an NWMI survey on job losses and pay cuts, when a columnist and freelance writer who asked not to be named, said that she was told by publications that her articles would be published but she would not be paid. Her regular column in a newspaper paid her pittance and for a decade, she had not had a single pay raise. Newspaper editors had been ignoring her constant requests to increase her fee.
Regardless of the nature of employment, everyone is in survival mode now. In a recent NWMI Webinar for journalists titled “Letdown in Lockdown”, the discussion was largely focussed on how to tide over these testing times. Where do we find jobs or freelance assignments? Should we take this time to study or upskill? What do we do when we are shown the door unceremoniously? – were just some of the questions that came up from women journalists
A woman journalist, who reached out to talk to Durga about the NWMI job thread on Twitter, had quit her job to join another organisation just before Covid19. And the organisation she had to join was not able to go through with their job offer to her. Faced with uncertainty, she did the most sensible thing. She looked at her own job profile, which had been spent with one organisation for many years, and realised that she had to upskill and diversify. She felt she had to get her bylines in more places and emerge as an expert in her field. She started drawing on the professional connections she built over the years, became an independent journalist and started writing pieces for a few news portals. She has just begun this process and she doesn’t really know where this will take her but she has taken the first and the most important step towards building a strong CV.
Diversification means different things to different people. Some journalists choose to diversify within journalism. Others consider diversification as moving to various sectors where your communications skills can be put to use – Advertising, Public Relations, Policy Research, etc. Durga has done both forms of diversification in her 15 years in the media industry. “In journalism, I gathered reporting experience with print, news wire and television. For the past many years, I find myself in the nonprofit sector and there too, I have played leadership roles in Communications, Advocacy and Partnerships.”
Recruiters look for these fundamental qualities in a resume. Does the CV indicate that the candidate is a fast learner and will hit the ground running? Does it give us a sense that the candidate is capable of unlearning and will swim if thrown to the deep end? Journalists often ignore how important it is to build one’s CV. They get comfortable within their cocoon of being reporters, sub editors, television anchors or news producers. But when there is a crisis in the industry, reality strikes. There are no more jobs. And the skills that your CV shows may not open doors for you in other sectors.
However, an upward trend is that the pandemic pushed women to progress toward journalism entrepreneurship. Singapore-based media start-up, Splice published a detailed report on how four freelancers in Asia, three of whom are women, expanded their work and audience during the pandemic. The model allows reporters to create news content for a specific audience with whom they engage directly and monetize their work through personal newsletters, podcasts or via platforms such as Substack. Industry watchers believe that this is the future for news media and journalists.