Pandemic meant more hours of work without pay increases for women journalists in Colombia and Venezuela, study finds

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the routines and professional practices of women journalists in Colombia and Venezuela, imposing more daily working hours and intensifying the use of information and communication technologies, but without a corresponding salary increase. This is one of the conclusions of a study carried out by researchers at the Francisco de Paula Santander University, in Cúcuta, on the border between Colombia and Venezuela.

The survey interviewed 110 professionals from both countries, through an online questionnaire, to identify the impact on their journalistic work of the health emergency declared in the first half of 2020. Professor Gladys Adriana Espinel-Rubio, one of the authors of the study, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) that for about five years now, members of the university's Communication and Media Research Group (GICOM) have been exploring “the life stories of women journalists, what influences them to become opinion leaders and how their personal life hinders or helps their professional development.”

Espinel-Rubio added: “We are also concerned about wage insecurity and the impact of social and digital media (like newspaper companies) which, in fringe areas like ours, do not have sufficient financial resources to guarantee decent wages. Men and women are affected equally, but women are exposed to other situations of inequality.”

The investigation focused on Colombia and Venezuela because of where the university and the research group are located, on the threshold between the two countries. “We have been direct witnesses of the Venezuelan exodus, and we know that the political and social situation has also affected journalists in the course of their work,” the professor said.

The current Venezuelan situation was reflected in the fact that half of the country's journalists who responded to the survey said they lived and practiced their profession abroad. According to Espinel-Rubio, in Venezuela “conditions are not present in terms of freedom of expression nor salaries. This, of course, has repercussions on Venezuelan citizens’ right to information, on social control and on the defense of rights that can be promoted through the media.”

More work, same pay

Most respondents said they work in online media (57%), followed by radio (41%) and newspapers (37%). Those who work in newspapers said they work in both print and digital versions.

The survey results point to a caretaking crisis exacerbated by the pandemic: 42% of women journalist respondents said they were responsible for at least one child, elderly person or person with a disability; and 79% said they had been pressured by their family to leave work or change jobs.

“Despite the normalized belief in gender balance in newsrooms, the truth is that women journalists face restrictions when it comes to managing family and work demands, due to the working hours and activities inherent to the profession,” according to the study.

Workload increased for 76% of respondents. For nearly a third of them, the increase meant one to three extra hours a day, while the other two thirds reported spending more than three additional hours than when they worked before the pandemic.

In addition, they “had to develop other skills to deal with new media languages. So this process, which had already been changing, accelerated,” Espinel-Rubio said. According to the study, there was “an increase in the number of sources to cover while adding tasks such as making videos, taking photographs and creating infographics, among the most relevant and common activities.” 

When journalists started to work from home, an arrangement reported by 83% of the respondents due to the pandemic, they had to learn information and communication technologies they did not necessarily master previously.

When asked about the skills they had to learn to carry out their activities, 90% of them said “the use of different platforms with their respective applications,” in addition to graphic and website design. Audio and video editing, technical support of broadcasting equipment, design of strategies and virtual campaigns or live coverage were also mentioned.

All respondents said they became more active on social media during the pandemic, intensifying the use of these tools for personal and professional communication and also to share “complaints from citizens or express political stances.” “In this way, they give greater visibility to their voices and create spaces to generate public opinion, which are restricted to them in the exercise of their journalistic work”, according to the article.

Regarding care to protect themselves from COVID-19, 70% said they had not received any information from their employers about the disease and its implications for their work, and 60% said they had not received any protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizer. Asked if they were afraid of contracting the disease in the course of their work, 57% said yes.

When reflecting on their working conditions under COVID-19, 30% of them said they had considered quitting, while the other 70% said quitting was not a viable option. Only 9% said they benefited from additional bonuses for job performance during the pandemic.

Professor Espinel-Rubio said she was “quite pessimistic” about possible actions by journalistic organizations and state entities to improve the working conditions of women journalists in the contexts analyzed by the research. “The transformations in the profession are enormous and it has become more impoverished each day. At this moment, I do not foresee solutions for a structural problem exacerbated by the market,” she said.

The article concludes considering that, working from a home office instead of in the newsroom, “where they learn about practices and tensions related to timetables, organizational processes of media companies and relationships with editors and bosses,” journalists are “facing the emergence of a new relational ecosystem that freelancers already faced, for example.”

“The process of producing information will undergo transformations that will push journalistic ethics to the limit. We are facing one of the most significant changes in modern journalism. Will post-COVID-19 journalism be a process in which individuality in the production of information (typical of work routines) will acquire a new meaning? Where perhaps there is more polarization, less consensus, but also less organizational tensions?” according to the article.

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