Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

Medics wearing personal protective equipment intubate a gravely ill patient with COVID-19 symptoms at his home in Yonkers, New York, April 6. The man, 92, was barely breathing when they arrived, and they performed a rapid sequence intubation on him before transporting him by ambulance to St. John's Riverside Hospital. From left: The medics are Capt. AJ Briones, Michelle Melo, and Carlos Cabrera.

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.