Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

Safety Know-How for Journalists Covering Protests During a Pandemic

May 20, 2020

Guest: Judith Matloff, Veteran conflict correspondent, author, and Columbia Journalism School professor 

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.