Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists
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.
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