Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

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.

Staying connected

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.