"Health journalism under limelight"
Work from home and journalism can’t go hand in hand, especially for field reporters.
By Chaitanya Marpakwar
Senior journalist with the Times of India (Online), Lata Mishra is one of the most prolific health journalists in Mumbai. Having reported on health for over a decade, she is known for her breaking news stories on health scams, new surgeries, the latest drugs, and medical equipment. Lata reported extensively on the Covid-19 pandemic, covering a range of issues from lack of hospital beds to lack of life-saving drugs, and the creation of health care facilities on a war footing. Lata says that her field reporting was hampered the most, but that working from home was not an option for her. She hopes that health journalism is taken more seriously and becomes part of mainstream media studies.
Excerpts from a conversation
The biggest challenge was traveling from one place to the other. There was no public transport and there was a strict lockdown. We had private vehicles, but it was a struggle to visit the hospitals and see first-hand what was happening. In the early days, it was very scary. I had to ensure that I didn’t infect my family members. But I’m so used to being on the field, I had to go out and investigate. For me, working from home was simply not possible. Work from home and journalism can’t go hand in hand at all. Even if I reached the hospitals, I couldn't go inside the Covid-19 wards. I did a story about a Covid-19 positive woman who didn’t get a bed at a public hospital. She and her son waited for 48 hours outside the hospital to get a bed. The woman was in a wheelchair. All the beds were full.
So did you focus on human interest stories?
Yes, this was one of the most important stories for me. I spoke to some doctors and later managed to arrange a bed for the woman. I used my own contacts and she got a bed at another hospital. Apart from this, I did several other human interest stories. It was important to tell these stories so that people saw the human cost and loss caused by Covid-19. I also reported about how a public hospital was facing a major shortage of oxygen supply. Because of this, 12 patients died in the middle of the night. This was a sad story, but it had to be told. We had landed in such a situation where there was no oxygen supply. 12 lives were lost. They were in the ICU and on a ventilator. I got this story from one of the doctors who was upset that he couldn’t save these lives. This story was about the lives lost and the poor health care infrastructure.
Were you scared to visit hospitals? How did you overcome the fear?
I was scared, to be honest. What if I got infected? I would come back home and infect my parents and family members. This was always in the back of my mind. Then I decided to stay alone. I moved out and lived alone for three months. These were trying times to live alone since there was a lockdown, and even basic groceries were not easily available. So I had to manage everything single handedly. But my friends and neighbours helped me. When I went out, I took a lot of precautions. I wore PPE kits when I went inside the ICUs to see how doctors were actually working and the challenges they faced. I interviewed doctors inside the ICU. After wearing the PPE kits, I realised how tough it was and what a great job the doctors were doing. During the 30 mins in the PPE kit, I could not breathe. This was first-hand reporting and I realised that the frontline health workers were real heroes indeed.
How did you manage to access data and other information?
I think in Mumbai, data was readily available and in a very transparent manner. Being a city reporter, my contacts came in handy and I could reach out to sources to get data. The local authorities were open to sharing data, and there were no black holes at all. Even top officials were helpful. In fact, they helped us by giving details on WhatsApp since we could not come physically. They shared all the information. The local authorities were very active on social media too. Even today, we get all the daily data on cases, deaths, and recoveries on Twitter. Even testing numbers like a number of tests, positivity rates, etc. were all available and updated regularly.
What is one of the positive stories that you remember?
The pandemic of course had a lot of negative elements, people died. But there were some positive elements too. After the first few days, a lot of people came forward to share information about their health and requested to help them with getting beds. The first 3-4 months, there was a massive shortage of beds. Many journalists also approached me to help them get hospital beds since they were infected with Covid-19. I felt really happy that I could help them and get them beds and treatment. This gave me immense satisfaction that I could save lives.
After reporting on the pandemic, is there something you learned about journalism or story-telling?
Working online was a big learning. I also learned to use social media a lot. I used social media to connect with experts and other journalists from across the world to know what they were doing and how things were panning out globally. I started following many international publications and agencies. I started doing stories with more depth and looking at the big picture. Since Covid-19 was a global issue, I also tried to look at the global picture, developments, and ramifications. I shared a lot of information and I also reached out to other journalists to collaborate. So the use of social media for the exchange of ideas was something that I learned and used.
Did you face a lot of fake news? How did you fact-check?
I still get so many fake messages on social media. There is a lot of fake information going around. I verified all the messages and also busted many hoax ones. This is an ongoing battle against fake news and it has to be fought by journalists who have the resources to bust them. Everyone wants to be fast, but it should not be at the cost of facts. We should resist the temptation to break news before verifying it. I always do that. For me, my credibility matters the most.