The New York Academy of Sciences
Reporting on COVID-19: Challenges and Strategies
Posted July 14, 2020
Since the emergence of COVID-19, reporters around the country have received assignments to cover the pandemic. Those with minimal experience covering health and science have learned quickly about the virus and epidemiology, new safety precautions, and how to gather information across social distancing barriers. Journalists in print, multimedia, and broadcast discussed the unique challenges of reporting on COVID-19 during the Academy's webinar on April 29, 2020.
- How an experienced science editor wrote a tip sheet for reporters, providing guidance on how to cover the pandemic.
- How a reporter conducts interviews by phone while gathering all the small details she would typically observe directly, to "set a scene and a sense of place."
- How a television correspondent works with a smaller team, modifies reporting techniques, and travels safely around the country to report on COVID-19 for her network newscasts.
- How a photojournalist who cannot do her work from home documents the impact of the COVID-19 in Chicago.
The New York Academy of Sciences
NBC News and MSNBC
Los Angeles Times
Traveling for Essential Work
In a time of social distancing and sheltering-in-place orders, NBC News correspondent Blayne Alexander has reported on COVID-19 throughout the country. Her reporting has often focused on the impact of COVID-19 on special populations. For example, she flew to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to report on a meat plant’s shutdown after a large number of workers there fell ill. And from her home base in Atlanta, Alexander reported on the differential impacts of the disease due to discrepancies in underlying health, access to medical care, and ability to maintain social distancing due to employment and economic circumstances.
She realized the full magnitude of the pandemic when she traveled to New Orleans. Strangely empty security checkpoints at the airport and a nearly empty flight made it clear that "the norms of life [had been] completely disrupted," said Alexander. When she arrived, she was greeted by another stark reality—a nearly empty Bourbon street following the French Quarter's shutdown. Alexander also recalled reporting from a small city three hours from Atlanta that had an especially large number of COVID-19 cases.
In addition to covering how the virus affects the general public, Alexander has also examined its effects on state and local leaders and individual business owners. Amid economic hardship, many business owners were trying to reconcile conflicting information about how and when it might be safe to re-open.
It’s important to note that television reporting, which requires teams, quickly changed due to COVID-19. For example, to minimize the number of people in the field, Alexander’s field producer often works remotely rather than at her side. Camerapersons and audio technicians follow social distancing recommendations, working six feet away from others, and team members travel in separate vehicles. Interviews might be conducted by cell phone. Correspondents and producers ask people to shoot video with their phones and are happy to broadcast imagery that previously would not meet network technical standards.
Ultimately, Alexander feels like she is in the middle of the crisis, right along with the people she covers for her stories. “You can’t just interview people and move on,” she said while explaining that she stays in touch with many of her subjects. “The emotional connections and the human connections really do help deal with all of this.”
Sarah Parvini a writer who has covered everything from terrorist shootings to natural disasters, discussed the unique ways that covering the pandemic has affected her personally and professionally. Because she realized early on that COVID-19 would have a broad and immediate impact, she knew it would “hit us all in some way or another.”
Though reporting remotely, Parvini maintains a high level of detail in order to write a compelling story. To overcome the challenge of not being able to observe first hand, Parvini asks her sources more questions to elicit the kind of details she would usually observe face-to-face with her subjects. “It’s a lot of tiny, tiny details” to “set a scene and a sense of place,” Parvini explained.
For her work at the Los Angeles Times, Parvini often focuses on minority populations, including religious communities. Now, her work includes stories about how people have carried out rituals of their faith during the COVID-19 crisis.
Another story she reported shed light on the varied ways COVID-19 makes an impact. She explained how census data determine the distribution of many government resources, including funds for housing assistance, nutrition programs, and healthcare. Yet in many communities of color, she said, some people don’t respond to the census because they distrust providing personal information to the government. The pandemic prevented grassroots organizations from visiting neighborhoods door-to-door to encourage people to fill out census forms. Parvini explained that as an alternative, many of these organizations relied on social media channels to relay their messages.
Preventing the Spread of Misinformation
As a science journalist and editor, Laura Helmuth explained the frustration of urging people to pay attention to health risks they can’t see. Recently, many journalists have pivoted to science and health writing. Helmuth created a tip sheet, published on The Open Notebook, intended for reporters who don’t usually cover health and science, but have shifted to writing about COVID-19. Journalists need to communicate with experts who can share evidence that the general public can understand. Helmuth noted how quickly general audiences adopted a public health vocabulary, including terms such as “asymptomatic spread” and “social distancing.”
Experts are also valuable because they help contain the spread of misinformation. “There are a lot of billionaires, Noble Prize winners, and people who on the surface seem like science experts who are spouting absolute nonsense,” she said. “You have to be really wary of those who have massive self-confidence and some credentials, but are either sharing bad information or disinformation.” Helmuth spoke highly of Twitter as a platform to find experts and quotes. She also explained why photos and graphics are so important. Viruses and the immune system are not visible, and most of what goes on in hospitals happens behind closed doors. “Anytime we can make something visual and graphic, it can clarify a really complicated situation,” Helmuth said.
Capturing the Pandemic
As a photojournalist for the Chicago-Sun Times, Ashlee Rezin Garcia cannot work from home. She has photographed drive-through protests, drive-through wakes, and Chicagoans as they try to help each other during the pandemic. For example, she took photos for a story about turning a dress shop into a small factory for making masks.
One of Rezin Garcia's powerful images followed the city's emergence from its long, cold winter. Typically, "when Chicago gets its first 70-degree day, it's an event," said Rezin Garcia. People are usually so excited that it feels like a holiday. On the first 70-degree day this year, she went to the lakefront and photographed crowds enjoying the sunshine, with little social distancing. Rezin Garcia tweeted and published the photos. Within 24 hours, the city's mayor sent police to barricade every entrance to the lakefront's parks and walkways. Rezin Garcia went returned and took photos showing Chicago's photogenic lakefront again, now strikingly empty.
Rezin Garcia has also relied on alternatives to continue working during the pandemic. For instance, now she might take a woman's portrait on the sidewalk instead of inside her home. And she's learned to work quickly, avoiding crowded situations as soon as possible. But she'll take her time, too, when the story calls for it. Rezin Garcia recalled the previous day when she spent hours with a nurse in the COVID unit in Roseland Community Hospital. The nurse at Roseland became emotional for a moment. "I took the photos, but then afterward I asked," 'Are you okay?'" Rezin Garcia said. That experience put things in perspective. "The challenges [I face] really pale in comparison," she said. Like her colleagues, Rezin Garcia noted that this work reminds her "to be present and human."
Preventing the Spread of Misinformation
In addition to working as a health and science editor, Laura Helmuth also mentors journalists. She recently wrote a tip sheet for reporters who were suddenly thrust into coronavirus reporting. Helmuth compiled the tip sheet at the request of The Open Notebook, a website that provides resources for science journalists.
One of her tips is to avoid the pitfall of false balance. "We won't give both sides of the story when one side of the story is based on evidence, and the other side is conspiratorial nonsense," she said. Helmuth also shared another tip: beware of "othering." That refers to when reporters, especially at the start of the pandemic, thought their audience did not include people at higher risk of COVID-19. Journalists must convey the clear message that this crisis affects all of us.
Helmuth also highlighted the challenges of communicating the importance of preparedness. "The problem with public health and preparedness," said Helmuth, "is that it's hard to get people really excited about a risk they can't see, that's in the future."
She noted the importance of hearing directly from scientists and healthcare professionals, rather than from high profile people with no public health expertise. "This is the moment people really need to hear from experts," she said, adding that scientists can write essays for publications like Scientific American, and sign up to be interviewed by journalists. A useful resource is the American Association for the Advancement of Science's SciLine, which connects journalists and scientific experts. Scientists can also contact journalists through social media platforms.
There's also "a real problem with lack of clarity and politicization of what should be strictly public health information based messaging," Helmuth said. She added that when we look back on our experience with COVID-19, following protests against social distancing and endorsements of conspiracy theories, we will be astonished by how inefficient science communication exacerbated the pandemic.
But at the same time, said Helmuth, "it seems like people are very interested in evidence right now and are following the science." Readers have quickly learned the science vocabulary of COVID-19, and journalists have been working hard to make the science of COVID-19 as clear as possible.