Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

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 CDCWHO 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.