The coronavirus is not just something reporters cover for the health beat –it’s affecting every aspect of people’s lives including work, education, travel, sports and entertainment. Several European countries along with a handful of counties in the Bay Area have instituted strict lockdown policies. Professional sports have been canceled and thousands, if not millions, of bars and restaurants have shuttered. Some Olympic trials have even been postponed, leading to speculation the games might be canceled or postponed this year.
At a time when the flow of accurate information is critical to society, major news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post are encouraging journalists to telecommute. The Los Angeles Times is even restricting air travel.
Six CBS News employees – including a correspondent stationed in Italy –have tested positive for coronavirus. There is a concern that journalists could spread the virus through in-person reporting.
Nicole Acevedo, an associate producer for NBC News Latino, said the NBC News digital team was asked to work from home last Wednesday to test the outlet’s ability to operate with employees scattered throughout the region. The day went relatively smoothly. For the next two weeks the team will not be reporting to the office.
“Most of us, especially the reporters, have the ability to work remotely, especially if we get sent out to cover things on the ground,” said Acevedo. “But it’s different when everyone works remotely. Usually, if anything is wrong on the ground, there’s someone in the newsroom that can help you respond if you need technical assistance.”
Acevedo said working remotely affects everyone differently. Some might be used to working in fast-paced environments and being at home might slow down their productivity. She also feels privileged to be able to work remotely, acknowledging that many people like delivery workers don’t have the opportunity to do so.
“If we’re able to work from home to deal with this bigger issue of containing this virus from spreading in New York, at least we’re doing our part and we’re able to continue and do our journalism,” she said.
FIU journalism professor Lorna Veraldi acknowledged that not every important story can be covered remotely. But she added that not every story requires you to be in the field either. Much of the information needed to keep the public up to date on the coronavirus is available over the phone, online, by email and through social media.
“No one ever won a Pulitzer Prize for standing on the corner with a microphone and camera and asking a few people coming out of polling places who they voted for or a few shoppers coming out of Publix what supplies they bought,” said Veraldi. “It might be a cheap and easy way to produce some video for a local television broadcast or cable newscast, but it doesn’t do a lot to increase the public’s understanding of substantive issues.”
Veraldi believes journalists should come up with creative ways to gather and relay this important information without putting the public and themselves at risk.
“I think journalists, as much as any other Americans, have a duty to minimize harm,” she said. “In the case of coronavirus coverage, that means doing whatever they can to help mitigate this serious health risk.”
“Beyond washing their hands and covering their coughs, journalists and their editors need to weigh the importance of the information they may gather from being out circulating in large crowds against the possibility that they might be contributing to the spread of the virus to vulnerable populations or sending the message that it’s okay to go out and mingle. So, yes, whenever possible, journalists should be encouraged to work from home or from the office rather than to expose themselves and others to the transmission of the coronavirus.”
In light of the rapid spreading rates across the nation, the Society of Professional Journalists has either canceled or postponed regional conferences and has posted resources online to help journalists remain safe while reporting.
The Poynter Institute is offering a webinar session titled “How to Effectively Teach Online” for journalism professors and teachers who have been forced to transition their classes to remote instruction.
Acevedo’s advice to fellow young journalists, who might be eager to accept new challenges in hopes of proving themselves and advancing their careers, is to be honest and speak up with any valid health concerns.
“I was supposed to travel this month for an enterprise story I’ve been working on,” said Acevedo. “I was like ‘Maybe I can do this,’ but the little voice inside my head told me it didn’t seem like a good idea. I voiced that concern and we [rescheduled the travel for a later date].”