Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists
Tips and tools to report safely and effectively during the coronavirus pandemic, updated regularly following Dart Center webinars.
The Dart Center is hosting a series of online conversations about reporting amid the coronavirus pandemic. Each week, subject experts and journalists provide advice ranging from reporter self-care and equipment sanitation techniques, to ethics concerns and methods for telling stories about resilience and grief.
Webinar guests focus on strategies to synthesize constantly changing and critical data from multiple sources. Whether viewed in real time or in hindsight, we are working together to support and educate journalists during this rapidly changing, multi-faceted and unprecedented global crisis.
What can reporters do to cover this crisis most effectively? What are the stories that need to be told today and tomorrow, next week and next month, and over the long haul? How can journalists do their work safely given the restrictions on movement and in-person contact?
Covering Covid-19 on a State and Local Level
March 24, 2020
Guest: Irwin Redlener, MD, Director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Earth Institute, Columbia University
Coronavirus is not only a global pandemic – it is a community-level crisis. How can local and regional reporting make a difference? We spoke with public health leader Irwin Redlener, and shared his advice here.
Find the sweet spot between complacency and panic. Start by getting a handle on policy.
Interpret how city, state and federal policies are being implemented at the local level. New and changing municipal, state and federal rules and recommendations can be announced from one day to the next, which makes it hard to get a handle on how policies will be executed. Reporter vigilance is critical.
All relevant press briefings, including those about transportation and sanitation, must be covered. Reporters should be encouraged to ask tough questions and if adequate answers aren’t provided, ask again. This is also why source contact information must be used, and shared with colleagues.
View your coverage through a Covid-19 lens.
Report about places where social distancing is not being followed, and find out why.
What’s happening with health care systems at all levels, not just at hospitals? Are private medical practices and community clinics staying open? Are new measures to take care of vulnerable populations being put in place? How are child protective services functioning? Keep track of possible increases in domestic violence, including child abuse, and address vulnerabilities in refugee and immigrant communities. (Redlener says, in his experience, facilities and medical staff supporting homeland security and border control are usually competent).
Keep steering reporters to use – and inform the public – about guidance and data from the CDC, WHO and Johns Hopkins. Redlener believes people should be steered away from using social media for reliable data.
Try to paint a picture of the daily “new normal”, such as community efforts to obtain and distribute food. How are families with children who are not going to school? What sorts of alternative teaching is and is not working? Consider focusing less on middle- and upper-class coverage. Instead focus on those living in high-risk, densely-populated areas.
Investigate the past, and use that as context in your future reporting.
Report about the status of funding changes. Was funding increased or decreased? Who is responsible? For example, what were municipal and state health department funding budgets five years ago? How did possible changes determine Covid-19 emergency responses? Report about the reasons for monetary and policy changes.
Read the latest from Irwin Redlener in The Washington Post, Syrian refugees are experiencing their worst crisis to date.
The Day the Pandemic Arrived: Reporting Lessons from America’s first hotspot
March 27, 2020
Guest: Florangela Davila, News Director at Seattle’s NPR affiliate KNKX
KNKX’s newsroom was operating as usual in late January. Most of the staff kept a close eye on a novel coronavirus raging through Wuhan, China. But few anticipated that the first U.S. case of Covid-19 would occur in the station’s coverage area, a large and diverse region. Davila says the staff had to pivot, quickly. Here are some of the lessons and advice she has for continued local and regional coverage across the United States.
Newsroom changes and safety at KNKX
Be prepared to reinvent decades of proven working practices in days, and to deal with a lack of capacity and equipment.
Hold daily news meetings with regular one-on-one check-ins, and pivot reporters and off-air staff to Covid coverage. Establish ongoing remote working with help from engineering staff. Gather and share resource and source contact information, and keep that information up to date. (Davila says it was initially challenging to get accurate and multi-source information).
Establish programmatic changes and protocol for breaking into local briefings and NPR special coverage (or other networks where applicable).
Keep studios sanitized, including microphones and boards used by on air-hosts, and follow NPR guidelines. Keep hand sanitizer well-supplied, if possible.
KNKX distributed kits containing hand sanitizer and alcohol for disinfecting equipment to teams reporting in the field. The newsroom encouraged reporters to practice social distancing, and to use separate microphones for themselves and for their sources. Reporters were ALSO encouraged to routinely disinfect their microphones, and to clean their clothing after every field report.
News directors should consider asking reporters to share contact information for their sources, and make that information readily available. Many reporters have access to state and local officials, politicians and experts whose information is not routinely shared across the newsroom. This can and should change now. Coverage that is driven by relationships with sources can give a news outlet more nuanced regular updates than they will get from daily press events alone.
Get up to speed on pharmaceutical and data developments. Keep an updated list of statewide emergency responders. Set up a hyperlink with resources for your readers and listeners. Update and use it liberally. Dedicate someone, or rotate multiple people, to mine social media for additional sources and leads, and to guide people away from misinformation.
It really helps to have a health and/or a science reporter to keep reliable baseline data current. Remind on air hosts to maintain a calm delivery.
It’s more difficult to consistently double-source, but make every effort to do so.
Avoid stigmatizing language. For example, avoid using the phrase “infected with.”
Be gentle when interviewing. Allow people to speak freely and try to always ask if there’s anything else they’d like to add and/or tell listeners.
Shifts in coverage
KNKX pivoted its podcast Transmission to exclusively cover Covid-19. The station encourages listener engagement online, and solicits audio diary entries from listeners, and from reporters.
Make good use of already existing station-to-station collaborations. The station’s health reporter, who is now being used by NPR, helps generate ideas. For example, how are Covid19 funerals being handled?
Make an effort to include tribal, homeless, school children, vulnerable and underserved populations as much as possible; find diverse voices even if that diversity goes beyond that of listening, viewing or online audiences.
Engage with the national narrative, but keep your local focus. Always try to localize national issues, and use local voices first.
KNKX did not have enough back-up editors or weekend staff, and struggled to cover the large geographic listening area.
It also wasn’t easy to “become fluent” in the intense amount of science and medical data. At first, it was also difficult to get clear information – too many municipal and state players were involved in response logistics, effectively muddling the message for reporters.
Whenever possible give people time off if they need it.
Encourage self-care, possibly even staggering shifts and beats if necessary.
One-on-one debriefs and check-ins from the news director can help morale, and set the tone for a staff. That goes for virtual happy hour, too.
Learning from Past Pandemics: Bridging the Science Gap
March 31, 2020
Guest: Caleb Hellerman, Documentary filmmaker, longtime supervising producer to Dr. Sanjay Gupta and CDC Fellow
As journalists, how can we best develop the right expert sources? How can we effectively bridge complicated medical science and public understanding? We distilled documentary filmmaker Caleb Hellerman’s advice here.
Critical Source Development
The time to develop source relationships is in between crises. The time to use them is now. Be wary of arm chair epidemiologists and try not to be enthralled with experts. Use your reporter’s gut.
The journalism profession needs to become better at communicating uncertainty.
Medical and science reporting moves more slowly than other beats. It’s ok to be humble and communicate what we don’t know, which might include a range of possibilities.
The reporter/host is the stand-in for the audience. We must reflect audience concerns as well as our own deep dive into the subject to provide timely, accurate accounts and to ask meaningful, forward-thinking and thoughtful questions.
The ethical issues around medical catastrophes are numerous and require sensitivity to religious practices and other rituals around death and dying. Reporting during an active health crisis is best done by getting to know people early. And by staying with them, if possible, in order to develop relationships. The best reporters always show up.
Learning from Past Pandemics: Covering Ebola
April 2, 2020
Guest: Jina Moore, Freelance writer, reporter, producer
As one of the first reporters to file stories about the Ebola virus, Jine Moore arrived on the scene at a time when most people were talking about vectors, not people. This meant she had to come up with strategies to report and survive with very little support.
A valuable fixer may be one of, if not the, most important relationship for a reporter filing from a warzone or from other dangerous places.
Reading the landscape
Jina’s sensitivity to people she interviews resonates in her stories. This can mean making on the spot decisions to hold an interview outside of someone’s house so they can speak openly, without worrying about their children listening in.
It’s important to stay aware of the fine line between personal safety and being respectful, and to remind yourself that the personal protective equipment you may have access to is likely unavailable to the people going through the crisis.
The learning curve for reporters covering dangerous circumstances can mean not always making the safest choices, at least initially. This is an issue that reporters covering Covid-19 and future pandemics will likely be discussing and grappling with for a very long time.
Ethical concerns: A veteran health crisis reporter’s internal check list
Are you taking advantage of the misery of others?
Are there ways to advance the story?
What is life like for survivors?
Adopt a familiar, perhaps mandatory lens that magnifies, maintains and fortifies relationships. The most important takeaway for a source is how they feel about their encounter with the journalist.
Look for tide-turning moments in the crisis
What changes? Can you find someone who can explain what that change means? Are there inherent systems – a dialectic of sorts – between the crisis and the story?
Watchdog Reporting on the Pandemic
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
Guest: Aaron Glantz, Senior Reporter, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting
Aaron Glantz’s message to reporters is straightforward: Lean into what you know best, and pivot immediately to use your knowledge and sources for Covid-19 coverage. His most in-depth beats are the housing market and covering veterans.
Reporting about the bail out
The economy is ideal for what Gantz calls the “local-national virtual circle”. For example, the only way individuals can know how much financial relief they’ll get is to find out, now, if the federal government owns their mortgage loan or their landlord’s loan.
Report on who wins and who loses financially, and which sectors of the economy are getting the most help. Also look into the efficacy of systems set up so that people can get relief – are they working?
Take a look at insurance – do life insurance policies have pandemic exclusions?
Veterans and Covid-19
The Veterans Health Administration is the largest healthcare system in the country. And though Glantz says the VA doesn’t like to give out a lot of information, reporters can go to their local VA hospitals and find employees and patients who are willing to talk. He also suggests talking to veteran service organizations like the American Legion about what they are seeing, what vets are talking about and where they are going.
Glantz says the VA has done a tremendous job in reducing veteran homelessness in the last ten years. He says this was basically accomplished by giving homeless vets housing vouchers and access to a social worker. Find the people within the VA who have been responsible for that success, and take advantage of their expertise while covering Covid-19.
Typically, during an economic downturn, demand at the VA goes up. If a veteran loses employer-based health insurance, he or she may turn to the VA for healthcare benefits. And the VA may or may not have the resources to handle that increased demand.
Veteran’s Mental Health Care
Reporters should ask local VA officials what kind of social work is continuing to take place. Are veterans who normally come to individual or group therapy sessions still being contacted? Are alternative treatment methods, perhaps via phone or video conference, being offered? What are the ramifications for veterans who put off elective healthcare?
Documenting Death: Obituaries in the time of Coronavirus
Tuesday April 14, 2020
The staggering number of deaths from Covid-19 around the world has journalists, especially local and regional reporters, covering death and dying in an acute and ongoing way. How do reporters meaningfully chronicle this scope of human loss as the pandemic also touches their personal lives?
An Obit is not a eulogy
An obit is not about death, but rather about life. How comprehensive should an obituary be? What is an obituary’s role? Goldman says this is not the time to produce a tribute. There’s a different time for memorials, and a difference in style. He says basic journalism tenets are especially important. Don’t tell us about a person’s life. Show the reader, viewer or listener how the person lived each day, what was important to them, who they loved and who loved them.
When does coverage about the particulars of a death scene become important?
A collective event, where there are many deaths, makes reporting about a person’s specific life story even more critical, and in doing so there are multiple stories to consider: stories about nurses, doctors, orderlies, funeral home and morgue workers, first responders and law enforcement.
Talking with grieving families
Express condolences. Always. Ask questions about the person’s life. Timing is important. A reporter doesn’t want to put survivors in a position of repeating the betrayal, or heightening their grief. Using sensitivity and empathy go a long way. But being direct and not wavering from the reason you are talking to family and friends matters, too. Remember that obituaries are often a part of the grieving process.
Make absolutely certain to verify everything. Nothing said by a family member should be treated as the gospel truth. Like in every other story, attribute and source the facts.
Self-Care and Peer Support for Journalists During a Global Pandemic
Cait McMahon is a registered psychologist with a PhD who has received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM), one of Australia’s highest civil accolades, for her work with journalists and trauma.
For many journalists, Covid-19 may be the biggest and perhaps most challenging news story they’ll ever cover. And reporting on the pandemic is risky and personal. How can reporters meet demanding and continuous deadlines while being vigilant about taking care of themselves?
Distinct challenges of Covid-19 coverage
The extreme stress felt by many journalists during this unprecedented public health crisis is unique. As McMahon says, we are all experiencing it, globally, together. And this raises different issues because the coverage is on-going, and the circumstances in constant limbo. Stress from lack of sleep, or from producing multiple stories about traumatized people can lead to burnout. McMahon says reporters need to be watchful not to project their own stress into the story.
Covid-19 is an existential dilemma
Governments operating with vastly different strategies about how to buy time for medical communities or create policies for the well-being of citizens can cause endless amounts of rage, anger, fear and anxiety. Covering this can lead to the same feelings for reporters.
Maintaining disciplined self-care regimes, with support from news managers, gives reporters a better chance of staying mentally and physically healthy. But the reality is that in many newsrooms facing budget cuts and staffing reductions, this kind of support can be inconsistent.
Reporters who have experience covering trauma do have an advantage: Many have built up resiliency. But this in no way negates the urgency and importance of daily self-care to maintain that resiliency.
Strong sense of purpose and mission
Those who believe and understand the vital role journalists play in the unfolding crisis will likely handle the stress better. McMahon says writing a personal mission statement can be grounding and a reminder for journalists that they operate with the intent to provide clear, accurate and ethical stories.
Review, Reflect, Distance
Journalists are trained observers with fine tuned ability to look at a situation from a distance. While crafting stories reporters, should constantly lean into those assets. Take breaks during the story, even short breaks, and come back with fresh eyes.
Set boundaries and disconnect from your devices
This guidance is no longer only the stuff of self-help blogs. This is survival. McMahon suggests setting a plan and sticking to it. Get exercise, even briefly. Do yoga for ten minutes during the day.
Step back and really look at your daily routines. Is there a place you can go, even another room in your house, for physical and psychological space from the story? If so, find the time and go to that place.
Self-Care check list
How am I feeling today? Am I physically sick or under the weather?
Am I having more emotional moments? Trouble with my family or my friends?
If the answer to these basic questions is yes, then it’s time to increase your self-care.
Thought experiment for dealing with the unknown.
Create, in your own mind’s eye, a safe place. Include auditory and physical sensations. Keep the image of the safe place in your mind.
Go there for five or 10 minutes each day. Imagine fragrances and sounds – use as many senses as you can. Your brain won’t know if you’re really there or not. Practice this on a daily basis.
The brain needs time to recover
An overloaded brain is unlikely to handle stress and anxiety well over time. Even "nano breaks”, anything from a minute to an hour, can help restore and relieve some of the pressure. Think about your work as a marathon. Even the best athletes need hydration and rest. The brain needs this psychological distance from the trauma to perform.
Be a good colleague, even when socially distanced.
Social support enhances resilience. McMahon says this is true whether giving or receiving support. Use Zoom or social media to check-in on each other, everything from daily check-in calls at the start of each work day, to social gatherings on Friday nights. And always try to find ways to keep humor firmly rooted in your encounters where appropriate. Be generous and mindful, and remember it’s often hard for people to ask for help.
So keep on the look-out for signs from colleagues who might be struggling. Signs include an increase in negative self-talk. Check-in with reporters who can be prone to anxiety. Identify a colleague’s friends in the newsroom, and if you see behavior that is worrisome, approach them to help.
And don’t hesitate to ask others to help you check-in. A sort of battle buddy system can be a good idea.
Learn what is normal about trauma and our reactions to it. This helps you understand the kind of stress that can emerge from covering events like Covid-19, including a complicated sense of guilt and worry about whether stories are making a difference.
How can mentors be comforting to young journalists?
Remind students and new reporters that we are in this together. Journalism is often at its best when the effort is collaborative.
Be honest. Talk about things you’ve learned in the past and tell reporters that their work today is helping to write journalism guidebooks for the future. And that you are writing that guidebook with them.
Create a space for talking about fear: Fears about getting sick, about spreading the virus and the protocol for avoiding these issues. Be specific and repetitive, if necessary. Information and education can reduce fear and anxiety.
Be realistic. Self-care and safety guidelines can’t eliminate risk, but they can greatly reduce them.
Photojournalism and Covid-19: Ethics, Craft and Safety
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Guest: John Moore, Senior Staff Photographer and Special Correspondent, Getty Images
John Moore manages to capture intimacy and dignity no matter the crisis or circumstance. The photograph above, taken while EMT’s intubate a Covid-19 patient at his home in Yonkers, illuminates his ability. Moore says photojournalists who cover trauma require intense focus and vigilant sensitivity. In this conversation, he shares insights gleaned from his career photographing in 65 countries.
Gaining access during crisis reporting and relationship building
Whether covering the Covid-19 pandemic or the Ebola virus in Liberia, accessing medical settings is hard for all reporters, but especially for photographers. Moore says going through the bureaucratic process to get media access can be a fool’s errand because credentials can be pulled at any time. Personal connections make a huge difference – journalists should get in touch and check-in with people they know.
Contacts from previous stories can be especially helpful. Moore advises asking past sources to weigh in on current circumstances, and to share background and ideas about which stories to cover. If the hospital or clinic doesn’t have a connection with the reporter, it will be more difficult to depict intimacy.
Emergency reporting requires strict adherence to ethics guidelines
Moore says it’s critical to understand a community’s rituals and traditions, adding that every culture has varying sensitivities. Some places and people will be very interested in sharing their stories. Others, like in Germany, where all photos in public places require permission from each subject, can be tough to work in.
For his most recent Covid-19 stories, Moore asked the EMS captain if it was ok for him to be in their work space. The captain then spoke with families on Moore’s behalf, asking for permission for him to be on the scene and take photographs. Moore says he always asks the first responders or anyone working at the scene to let him know if he’s in the way, and still he usually hangs back and works from a respectful distance. His advice is to stay out of everyone’s way.
During recent Covid-19 coverage, he says most people have been appreciative of and applauded photojournalists. He stresses that this appreciation is something that journalists must earn.
COVID-19 is personal for those in the stories and for the journalists who tell them
Other crises Moore has covered, like Ebola, were abstract to many family and friends at home. On this story, he has more immediate connections. While photographing a birthday caravan in his neighborhood as a favor, Moore asked the person organizing the celebration if they happened to know any EMS workers he could reach out to, which led to useful contacts.
Moore says he constantly looks for new story ideas and sources during reporting – something more likely to happen if a journalist is well-versed in the ethics and standards of being careful at the scene of a crisis. Ideally, Moore says, every story leads to another.
Using personal protective equipment
Moore says photojournalists don’t usually have a tremendous amount of personal protective equipment (PPE). But the right amount is critical. When in people’s homes, he uses various levels of PPE.
Moore tends to use his own equipment which includes a full bodysuit, gloves, an N95 mask and a full-face respirator. For Covid-19 coverage, he wears the respirator.
Staying safe for yourself and for others
Moore says covering the pandemic at home is a very different experience – he didn’t expect to use a skillset that he learned in West Africa in his own neighborhood. Moore says unlike his assignments in other countries, he now has to stay safe for his family and friends as well.
He is mindful that healthcare workers are in physical contact with sick people, and switching out PPE constantly. After 24-hour shifts, Moore says, mistakes can happen. Healthcare professionals can become sick. As a photojournalist, Moore doesn’t touch patients nor does he lean in close. All he touches is his camera, and he remains hyper-alert.
Finding the photographs that work
Sensitive material – like photographing a daughter seeing her father for the last time – requires craft judgements to avoid being voyeuristic or sensational. Moore has taken many pictures that show family members in the background that he has decided not to use. He won’t show a patient’s face or family pictures on the wall, either.
Taking care of yourself at home
Moore says being able to discuss the coronavirus story with neighbors locally has helped. Often, journalists have to rely heavily on colleagues and their shared experiences for support. But with Covid-19, everyone is part of the story.
Perhaps, Moore says, being a photojournalist at home can be a little better for long term resiliency. And Moore hopes reporters covering Covid-19 in the US will not face the same sort of stigma as journalists who came home from working on Ebola.
How, and why, does a photojournalist add beauty to a tragic situation?
No matter the story – from Australia’s bush fires to Ebola or the Covid-19 pandemic – Moore says he always tries to take pictures that will attract as many viewers as possible. In a world where people tend to engage visually, but are barraged with images, Moore sees his job as more than just reporting for the record.
He wants his work to resonate, which is why he does a fair amount of reporting. He always works to provide context for a picture story or a photo series, and includes related photos and captions.
Advice for young journalists
Moore suggests staying away from the riskiest stories at first. Try reporting on parents grappling with suddenly having to balance working from home with homeschooling. Talk to friends or friends of friends to gather ideas that don’t require bureaucratic road blocks. In some ways, because Covid-19 is everywhere, it can be easier to find these stories.
If handled sensitively, Moore says, new and veteran journalists can cover the pandemic effectively both across the country and the world.
Filmmaking and Covid-19: Ethics, Craft and Safety
Thursday, April 23, 2020
Guest: Francesca Tosarelli, Documentary Filmmaker
Reporting on crisis and conflict is familiar territory for documentary filmmaker Francesca Tosarelli. She has covered female rebel guerrillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central American migrants fleeing organized crime. In March, Tosarelli found herself at the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis in her home country, Italy.
Trauma back home
In March, Tosarelli and a photojournalist rushed to Bergamo in Lombardy, the heart of the Italian pandemic. Her footage – of doctors and nurses in intensive care units, families struggling at home and paramedics rushing patients to hospitals – has been shown all over the world.
Bergamo, a city of over 800,000, had recorded more than 2,000 deaths. Tosarelli had little time to produce this story which ultimately gave many people their first glimpse of what the rapidly spreading pandemic would bring to cities and towns everywhere.
Intimacy revealed in the midst of crisis
Before embedding with the Red Cross, Tosarelli took time to introduce herself and explain her style of filmmaking and her motivations for doing this work. (She always makes an effort to distinguish her work from common stereotypes of invasive and sensational reporters).
The Red Cross shared their protocols and instructions for how to wear protective gear. Building trust quickly is always difficult, especially so while wearing PPE. Tosarelli says that once trust was established, the Red Cross got to work and for the most part, Tosarelli and the photographer she worked with went unnoticed.
A little magic
Tosarelli’s film resonates in part from its physical and emotional closeness to patients and their families, often depicting ambulance workers inside people’s homes. She says everyone seemed to realize, even in the midst of pain, distress and fear, the importance of getting the word out and telling their stories. Italy was two weeks “ahead” of an impending world-wide crisis, and Tosarelli says the urgency of reporting about Covid-19 in Italy was palpable.
Tosarelli is staying in touch with some of the families whose stories she told. She says if you report with respect and then share the final product with your sources, including distressing scenes, relationship building continues. Many of the families she filmed greeted Tosarelli on a return visit with cakes and gratitude.
Choosing what to air
Tosarelli decided from the start to avoid shooting graphic images, and she worked with an editor with similar sensitivities. She mostly made choices about what to include during the shoots themselves. In some cases, for example while filming daughters who had just said goodbye to their mother, she turned off her camera to give her subjects the privacy to grieve.
Taking care of yourself
Tosarelli says the hardest part of the work came early on, in March, when little was known about the pandemic; rules and protocol were hard to come by. At that point she took extra care to learn as much as possible.
Working in her home country, she says, was special: Fewer, if any, cultural barriers existed. Shooting took place over a short period of time. This, she says, likely minimized her own trauma exposure.
It was, however, the first time she had filmed in an ICU. Nurses were exceptional guides, and though there were many moments of serious medical distress, she often chose not to film them, instead finding other moments to reflect the difficult reality.
Tosarelli also said that she did not take time to stop and worry too much about emotional self-care while on assignment. As a freelance journalist, she explained that she must work when opportunities present themselves. This is both to fulfill her mission as a journalist, and to be able to support herself financially. She is also cognizant that she may need to take care of family members if they get sick, which would make it impossible for her to work.
It’s a process
Tosarelli says that as reporters from all over the world flocked to Italy to cover the story and the number of patients dramatically increased, it has become more difficult to access hospitals. But depending on the type of journalism, Tosarelli says reporters can find space and new angles to advance the narrative.
Soundscapes in films about suffering
Tosarelli says she was lucky to work with an editor and post-production team that she knew. She admits that with such a tight deadline, and the limitation of working in protective gear, she had to use a boom mic and rely on her editor to make the right audio choices.
The Rise of the Security Champion: A Playbook for Newsrooms and Reporters
April 30, 2020
Guest: Jennifer Henrichsen, a fellow with Columbia's Tow Center for Digital Journalism and a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School of Communication
Straightforward advice for adopting critical digital security.
Henrichsen’s new report shows wide disparities in how newsrooms big and small handle digital security.
Challenges during Covid-19
With many journalists are working from home, sequestered, Henrichsen says reporters need robust personal security systems and she recommends the following, at a minimum:
- Enable two-factor authentication;
- Change admin credentials regularly;
- Update firmware, and check to make sure future updates are automated;
- Create complicated and unique passwords, and change them frequently;
- Use a password manager, like KeePass or LastPass;
- Lock down any information that you don't want to be known;
- Use tools and platforms for encryption;
- Understand what phishing looks like;
- Don't open unfamiliar emails;
- Create different accounts for work and personal use.
Don't wait to be doxxed
Henrichsen says being vigilant is the only way to avoid having someone use online personal data to target or harass you. She recommends conducting regular searches of yourself and your family members, with information like cell phone numbers and home addresses. Analyze public-facing information, and then decide whether or not to take steps to reduce or remove that data. Henrichsen warns that information can resurface, advising reporters to do regular checks.
Too often, Henrichsen says, newsroom management only responds after a journalist has been doxxed. The Committee to Protect Journalists confirms Henrichsen's finding that newsroom security upgrades often follow a reporter being harassed online.
What makes a “Security Champion”?
Precarious budgets, distance between editors, reporters, freelancers, and IT departments can make it challenging to implement high-level security protection across an organization.
Henrichsen advises not to wait for your company to implement changes. Instead, become a Security Champion: a reporter who is passionate about digital security, who pushes more and asks less for permission from other colleagues and editors. She says reporters who effectively advocate often skew younger and come from a broad range of beats, and usually include those who combine curiosity with concern.
To be an effective Security Champion, begin and maintain a dialogue with security experts. Involve your newsroom by gathering like-minded colleagues for a brown bag lunch, including someone from IT. And recognize that journalists tend to be anti-authority, and can worry about protecting their sources more than themselves. Push against this idea, and think about online harassment and doxing before it happens.
Security strategies should fit journalism, NOT the other way around
Make sure that particular systems work with the culture and workflow. Demonstrate the ways in which specific platforms or security measures protect reporters, editors, the newsroom, and the organization at large.
If a security concern might slow down or stop a journalist on deadline from getting the source or the story, internal conflicts may emerge. This is a predictable dilemma, and you should discuss mitigation plans in advance.
How to create a threat model
Journalists have public personas, which in many cases are encouraged by management. If you're worried that a particular story will draw extreme reactions, implement technical steps to mediate them. Find out what information is being acquired, and who has stakes in that data.
Reporters should check and re-check what personal data is available online. Lock down your social media accounts, temporarily limit direct messaging, and consider having an editor handle your responses during a rough stretch.
Positive trends during Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic and other breaking news stories require news outlets to continue to provide trustworthy stories. That compels a need for reliable security.
As the pandemic continues to reveal the toll of being unprepared, the need for newsrooms and reporters to use adequate digital protection before problems emerge is evident now more than ever.
Coronavirus and social justice reporting: Dispatch from Texas
May 7, 2020
Guest: Dianne Solis, Senior Immigration Reporter, The Dallas Morning News
How do journalists build trust with sources being held in detention? What kinds of stories should reporters be looking for two months into the crisis, and beyond?
Finding stories at the intersection of vulnerability and injustice
There are huge populations that are generally overlooked when it comes to COVID-19’s fast-moving and constant media coverage. Solis describes two examples from her recent reporting: families who are not receiving stimulus aid because of mixed immigration status, and immigration jails where new detainees arrive who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Telling less visible reported Covid-19 stories
Solis’s editor directed her toward a vast migrant camp on the Texas Mexico border to look at whether the virus had become a problem there (two states were already releasing numbers about cases of “imported” Covid-19). Solis called on sources from previous trips to the border, which meant she was able to more easily report remotely.
Maintaining and building relationships with sources
Establishing connections with sources and circling back with them regularly is critical. Solis relies on colleagues at the Dallas Morning News as well as new sources she has met through her current COVID-19 reporting.
Finding people without access to Federal help
Solis received an email from a U.S. citizen whose husband only has a green card; she and other families with mixed immigration status are not receiving aid via the CARES Act. With the help of this contact, Solis was able to identify more people who were unable to access federal aid. She says that as many as five million people – including four million children who are U.S. citizens with at least one parent who is an unauthorized immigrant – are not eligible for assistance through the CARES Act.
How to cover this story in your state or region
Start in the Facebook group Mixed Families Status United. More than 13,000 people now follow the page, which was founded on April 20, 2020, and Solis says it’s an excellent place for reporters to find sources.
Undocumented immigrants want to tell their stories
Solis hears from people every day who need help, including veterans, and people who are frozen in the process of applying for a green card. She says current Federal legislation has been proposed, namely The Leave No Tax Payer Behind Bill, and lawsuits have been filed on behalf of immigrants who haven’t had access to help.
Solis suggests that reporters go to federal district courts and look for writ of habeas suits and/or temporary restraining orders to have immigrant detainees released. She recommends downloading Getting Out, which is mandatory for detainees in some detention centers. Reporters can use the app to contact detainees if they have their surname and alien number. She also suggests contacting immigration attorneys.
What stories are on the horizon?
Solis says toxic stress in children living under the shadow of potential deportation will be a significant story to follow Before the pandemic, Solis reported on a family with a child whose hair was turning grey. She says these children will now have additional acute fears resulting from the pandemic.
Solis says reporters will face steep challenges while covering the pandemic, especially since it will be more difficult to show up in person to report. But she is convinced reporting must continue. Solis suggests texting more often, using video calls, and asking children and parents to record videos.
Seek out inspiring people taking action
When Solis was looking for a fresh approach to covering undocumented immigrants, she found a compelling story about a man running a parish. Solis says reporters will undoubtedly be able to find more of these stories as the pandemic continues, calling it essential for journalists to tell stories about people who find agency and take action, even in the midst of crisis.
Safety Know-How for Journalists Covering Protests During a Pandemic
May 20, 2020
Matloff discusses innovative and evolving safety protocols for media organizations around the world, sharing tips on gear, positioning, and tactics for protecting yourself on the street while getting the story.
Be sure to also check out Matloff’s tips for safely covering protests during the pandemic.
Wear PPE and Maintain Social Distance
Use high-quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and stay at least six feet away from other people. Print reporters, photographers, and even TV journalists may have an easier time maintaining social distance than radio reporters. Reporters will be tempted to produce the storied, often intimate, narrative reporting that public radio listeners have grown accustomed to hearing. But gathering this sort of sound today remains a challenge.
Maintaining distance is, in many ways, the opposite of a reporter's instinct. This is why, Matloff says, having experienced and dedicated editors and managers is paramount, though not always the case. When it comes down to it, Matloff says, every reporter is responsible for their own personal safety.
Watch Your Back
Matloff says that during demonstrations or protests, reporters should aim to stay on the edge of a crowd, even more than six feet away if possible. She advises using a boom mic, wearing an N-95 mask if possible, and carrying several surgical-style masks to give to people who they would like to interview. She suggests always bringing at least two pairs of gloves, and carrying a plastic bag for equipment and clothing that needs to be cleaned and disinfected.
Vigilance and preparation are crucial to reporting during a protest, especially during a pandemic. Don't plan to linger. Instead, to the extent that it’s possible, plan out narratives and frame shots ahead of time. Come prepared with a specific reporting strategy as well as contingency plans.
Ideally you should have a reporting buddy, Matloff says. Take turns reporting and keeping an eye on one other, but don’t spend time looking for each other if you are separated. Instead, Matloff says, designate a meetup spot ahead of time.
Matloff says that when a situation becomes violent, this change often happens quickly. I possible, find an elevated spot to stand to get a better vantage point. Set a timer on your cell phone to go off every ten or fifteen minutes so you don’t lose track of time. When the timer goes off, step back and evaluate the situation – it's critical to keep doing so throughout the entire event.
Assess Risk Ahead of Time, Reflect on Mistakes
Matloff says reporters should plan for worst-case scenarios even if they rarely happen. Craft and think through various possibilities along with specific ways, step by step, to handle each situation that may come up.
Soldiers and first responders create risk assessments before going into the field, and journalists should follow the same protocols. Unfortunately, while the Covid-19 pandemic remains a significant presence in the United States and around the world, reporting in a group setting of any kind remains dangerous.
Journalists can avoid mistakes by reviewing and analyzing their process after an assignment. What worked? What didn't? Consider running through this exercise with peers and, in the best-case scenario, include managers and editors.
Throw Competition Out the Window
Matloff says reporters and news outlets should share best practices and even equipment whenever possible. While this may be unrealistic depending on the market and the particular media outlet, Matloff says most war correspondents throw competition out the window. She hopes news directors and editors will begin to take a similar approach.
Last updated: June 11, 2020