Covering COVID-19: Advice from Report for America corps members

There is, perhaps, nothing more insidious than an enemy that goes unseen.

The public lies in wait as governments restrict movement and gatherings, and while offices, restaurants, schools and shops are forced to temporarily shutter, newsrooms only hustle harder. Reporters across the world are rushing into the melee to inform the people, and here in the U.S. our press strives to keep the public up-to-date with the latest developments of this unprecedented crisis, but challenges dangerous misinformation and helps people make sense of the sometimes contradictory comments from public officials.

As this global story plays out locally, Report for America’s corps members are in the field doing that critical work. We asked several of our colleagues in the field about their reporting experience, how they contextualize the story for local readers, and what steps they’re taking to protect themselves. Corps member ChrisAnna Mink, a former pediatric infectious disease specialist, understood early the potential toll of coronavirus, and has continued her coverage as Stanislaus County, CA, confirms its third case. Wyatt Massey, a religion reporter in Chattanooga Tennessee shows us a glimpse at the wide-ranging effects of the outbreak while health reporter Eleni Gill is in Honolulu, which is starting to report its first cases.

All responses were received by email and have been edited for length and clarity. 

ChrisAnna Mink

Children’s health reporter for the Modesto Bee, covering California’s Central Valley

How did you prepare to cover the spread of the virus locally? In what ways have you broadened the scope to contextualize its global urgency?

I’m a pediatric infectious diseases specialist. So, I was a little ahead of the curve for knowing that this coronavirus was going to be a problem – though NOT as much as we’re seeing – and we were going to be covering it. 

I talked to my editors and they let me do an early story. In that article I included world and US data, CDC updates and then tagged it locally with interviewing our county public health doctor and included recs that people could do. That has been my approach for most of the stories…actually Brian, my editor, keeps me in the lane for staying local. 

We also did a live YouTube using a Q and A format – I think it was well received.

What steps should the press take to ensure responsible reporting that doesn’t cause panic among the public? 

  1. Stick to facts from reliable sources. 
  2. Establish a good working relationship with local public health. I’ve been really lucky to have already worked with county public health with stories before this outbreak, which made it easier to reach out.
  3. Don’t show pictures that are overly dramatic. Public health asked us to stop showing pictures with masks – actually, I think McClatchy decided not to do that for most stories.
  4. I try to include actions that individuals can do – e.g. steps for getting prepared

As a physician, how have you viewed the arc of coronavirus reporting, and what might you suggest they do differently?

I am impressed with mainstream media’s reporting. They’re getting useful and reliable info to the public.

I don’t like when outlets seem to flood their stream with coronavirus stories, when some of the articles don’t offer much substance.

How have you adapted your reporting to angles/stories that involve coronavirus?

We’ve really tried to include local people for stories but that’s been hard with HiPAA. Most of the COVID-19 cases have been in adults, so there’s another reporter in the newsroom who has interviewed [patients.] Readers seem to like having local stories to lead into updates about what’s happening with the virus nationally.

How have you protected yourself?

We haven’t been able to talk to any patients, as there are only 2 in our county so far. If I were to talk to someone with infection, I would follow CDC recommendations.

I’m already fairly neurotic with hand washing, cough hygiene, minimizing touching surfaces (e.g. ATM, grocery carts, gas pumps) etc…guess it comes with being an infectious diseases doc.

Recent coverage:

March 6: Though no reported coronavirus cases in Stanislaus County, health officials at the ready

March 11: Stanislaus County confirms first cases of coronavirus

Wyatt Massey 

Religion reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press

How did you prepare to cover the spread of the virus locally? In what ways have you broadened the scope to contextualize its global urgency?

I originally assumed my coverage of the coronavirus would involve covering church and faith-based ministry closings. Then, on Friday afternoon, we broke the story that the area’s first confirmed case of the new coronavirus was the pastor of a major downtown church. He operated in the city for weeks, meeting with hundreds of people, before being tested. Being a local paper, we have focused on the regional/state outbreak, specifically creating a timeline to gauge the potential impact.

How have you adapted your reporting to angles/stories that involve coronavirus?

Covering faith and religion, my job on Sunday was to show how churches were adapting — how some told people to stay home and watch a live-streamed service and how others kept their doors open. Going forward I will focus on the live-streamed church experience and how not having people in the pews affects church finances.

What steps do you take to ensure your reporting doesn’t cause panic among the public?

In our area, we have tended to need to focus much more on conveying the urgency of the problem than correcting for creating panic.

How have you protected yourself? 

I don’t do in-person interviews unless absolutely necessary. And I wash my hands regularly when coming and going to the office.

Recent reporting:

March 15: Livestreams, empty pews and the few Chattanooga places that kept their doors open Sunday

March 16: As coronavirus concerns shut down Chattanooga, neighbors are mobilizing to help neighbors

Eleni Gill

Public health reporter, focused on native Hawaiians, for Honolulu Civil Beat

How did you prepare to cover the spread of the virus locally? In what ways have you broadened the scope to contextualize its global urgency?

I kept in touch with infectious disease doctors and our public health department daily. I read all of the good coverage coming out globally.

How have you adapted your reporting to angles/stories that involve coronavirus?

We’re looking at how other populations could be infected, such as the houseless population. We’re also conducting a new Q&A project where we collect questions from our readers and answer them in stories more than once a week.

What steps do you take to ensure your reporting doesn’t cause panic among the public?

I try to always include the symptoms to look out for, remind people that most cases are mild and they may be asked to recover at home. I try to include context and rational thinking from scientific and medical experts but remain realistic and cautionary. Giving specific action items to people helps, I think.

How have you protected yourself?

We have had three travel-related cases here so far. I wash my hands, disinfect my work station, and try to keep distance and avoid the common kiss on the cheek greeting here in the islands.

Recent Reporting:

March 11: Answers To Your Questions About Coronavirus In Hawaii

March 17: Coronavirus Q&A: Should I Avoid My Grandkids?


Resources for COVID-19 Reporting

  • The Lenfest Institute has compiled a list of resources for reporters covering the COVID-19 pandemic. The article includes updated reporting resources from outlets including Poynter, Journalism That Matters and ProPublica. The list also includes tips for working remotely and self-care methods for journalists. 
  • Reporters can use First Draft’s resource hub to help ensure information is accurate and responsible. This resource offers news-gathering tools, ethics guidance, data sources and more. 
  • Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at Poynter and Sidney Tompkins, a licensed psychotherapist, produced a video to help journalists manage stress while covering COVID-19.
  • Craig Newmark Journalism School professor Jeff Jarvis compiled this Twitter list of experts and journalists he trusts to share reliable information about the virus.
  • Subscribe to Melody Schreiber’s Not a Doctor health and science newsletter for information on the latest COVID-19 headlines and on how to prepare for the pandemic. Schreiber, a former GroundTruth climate change reporting fellow, also includes a Q&A discussion board to collaborate with readers.