Reporting in a pandemic

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

By Wilson Gomez

As the COVID-19 lockdown in California enters its third month, journalists and journalism students are finding new ways to interview sources and report the news. Journalists, particularly photojournalists, are taught to get close -- to interview people in person, whenever possible, and to shoot photos and videos at close range. Now,they have to follow social distancing rules like everyone else to keep themselves and their sources safe.

Here are some tips for journalism students trying to report the news in the age of COVID-19.

1. Know your rights. Journalism has been classified as an essential service, which means law enforcement cannot punish you for being outside on assignment. While that gives you a bit more freedom than the average citizen, it also means that you are being entrusted to do your civic duty and report on what is happening. Don’t abuse that trust. Also, just because an officer isn’t legally allowed to stop you from reporting, that doesn’t mean that they won’t try. Know your rights but if it comes down to it, de-escalate the situation and fight it later.

2. Report at a distance. While in-person interviews are usually considered the gold standard of reporting, social distancing guidelines make them difficult to do. Reach out to contacts via phone calls, social media or email. Phone call recording apps are available on both the Apple and Google app stores, though the quality of the recording varies depending on the app, type of phone and whether you use “wifi calling” or not. Remember that if you are recording a phone call, you must let the other party know that you are going to do so, and first get their consent. California law requires that both parties must agree to being recorded.

3. Keep your distance. If you do manage to get an in-person interview, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises to keep a distance of more than six feet between you and your subject.

4. Clean your equipment after each use. If you take any equipment with you -- a camera, tripod or voice recorder -- clean it with disinfectant wipes once you’re done. If you do not have access to disinfectant wipes, Consumer Reports states you can use 70 percent isopropyl alcohol to disinfect surfaces, though that can discolor plastic.

5. Prepare for your reporting adventures. Journalists, particularly photojournalists, should carry protective equipment and carefully think through what they need when they go into the field. View San Francisco Chronicle photographer and Journalism Department alumnus Jessica Christian’s video on how she shoots during the pandemic for some great tips.

6. Wash your hands with soap and water often. You should wash for at least 20 seconds in order to get any potential bacteria off your hands. Hand sanitizer is fine in a pinch, but given that it’s sold out in many places, washing your hands is the best option.

7. Be mindful. Just because you are not showing symptoms doesn’t mean you aren’t infected. Take extra precautions with subjects who are most vulnerable to the disease, including people who are immunocompromised, older than 60, or have diabetes, asthma, or heart disease.

8. Words matter. Don’t be vague and avoid sensationalism. Our job is to inform, not to cause panic. Remember that most people skim headlines and don’t read the whole story. So don’t write a headline that could alarm readers unnecessarily. Use respected sources who can combat some of the hysteria.

9. Keep in touch. Stay in constant contact with your professors, editors, and teammates. The more you communicate, the easier it is to coordinate your efforts and the less confusion there will be.

For additional resources check out:

Coronavirus Toolkit, Student Press Law Center

Tips for Reporting on Pandemics, Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma

Tips and Tools for Reporting on COVID-19, Knight Science Journalism, MIT