Journalists who are providing their communities with essential coverage about the coronavirus pandemic need care and compassion from their managers to do their best work.
Sixteen newsroom, education and industry leaders gathered for the Power Shift Project’s webinar “COVID 19: Taking Care of Journalists and Journalism” led by Jill Geisler, Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership, on Monday, March 23. More than 300 people tuned in to hear tips and advice. The Power Shift Project will host a second Zoom webinar about reporting on the pandemic and under-covered communities at 1 p.m. ET April 1.
“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” said The Washington Post’s Tracy Grant. “There is no story that is worth the long-term relationship you are going to have with your people.”
Grant says editors should ask people if they are comfortable going out on an assignment that could put them at risk of contracting the virus. Be ready to hear and process their response. If there is hesitation or a sign of uncertainty, be ready to ask, “Gee, could we do that story remotely?”
Added Traci Schweikert, chief talent officer at POLITICO, “This is not a time to manage by memo. Personal interaction is the best thing we can do right now.”
TIP: Give People the Support They Need
If a staffer fears he or she has been in contact with a confirmed case of the virus, “Remember, we are not doctors,” said Schweikert. “Ask them to reach out to their healthcare provider.”
That goes for mental health concerns as well. “Ask each employee what they need,” Schweikert said, emphasizing the stance that “I’m not going to tell you how I am going to take care of you, I’m going to ask you.”
Soraya Chemaly of the Women’s Media Center said that amid a crisis, online harassment is a particular problem for women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
“Provide institutional support if you have safety, legal or mental health concerns,” says Chemaly.
Lynne Adrine of Syracuse University said one student was doing a standup report when a passerby coughed on the student deliberately. “We have to talk about that prospect, that people will be hostile toward them.” International students need special care, because they may be unable to go home when campuses are closed due to the virus, or are particular targets because the virus first struck overseas.
Added Howard University’s Shirley Carswell, “Unfortunately, some students see [harassment online] as normal, because that’s the world they live in.”
Nick Davis at Canadian Broadcasting Corp. says newsrooms should be prepared to update their protocols, as for example, Asian Canadians are being scapegoated due to the virus originating in China. “We need to ask people how they can be supported,” Davis said.
Geisler shared a newsroom tip for such attacks, if they come by phone: “All you have to say is I’m under instructions in the newsroom to discontinue a call if I hear racism or swearing.” And hang up.
Sue Ramsett at KWQC in the Quad Cities said the newsroom is practicing social distancing in the studio, anchoring the news from home or remote locations. For those who can’t work from home – such as directors and producers – KWQC is adjusting shifts to a shorter work week, to better protect them.
“Our newsroom smells like Lysol wipes,” said Ramsett, adding they try to identify people with respiratory issues who may be bothered by such scents and give them a different place to work.
Terry Gildea of Public Media Journalists Association said one local radio station bought large boom extensions for their microphones so that reporters could be further away from people when they are interviewing them.
TIP: Recognize Signs of Illness, Burnout and Trauma
“Journalists undergo trauma all the time,” said Mackenzie Warren of USA TODAY. “We’re like first responders. We can recognize the signs of stress and trauma in people, from lashing out to being less productive than normal. Be kind and caring and give people space.”
If someone sounds congested on the phone, Schweikert said, urge them to go get some rest.
If a child is visible in a video meeting, ask the employee if you can say hello.
If you notice someone has been working all night on a story, tell them, “I need you to take off,” said Schweikert.
Jane Elizabeth of the Raleigh News & Observer adds, “We have to model this. They can’t see us working from home 24 hours a day.”
Davis said CBC managers have delivering coffee twice a day to people. “You really see the people who are burned out.” Make a point to check out your overnight and weekend staff, who are often overlooked.
TIP: Pick Up the Phone and Connect
The Washington Post’s Grant said to keep the lines of communication open, be it Slack, email or better yet, the human voice of a telephone call.
“So much can be lost tonally in email and Slack,’” said Grant.
Rachel Smolkin oversees CNN Washington’s digital team and says the hard part of working digitally is losing the connection and energy of the newsroom. She’s gone to WebEx digital meetings each morning. “I find it personally reassuring to see my team’s faces. It’s led to some lighter moments where we see kids or cats or dogs running into the meeting.”
Smolkin tells her team: “If you need me right away, call me or text me.”
Howard’s Carswell said there is such a thing as overcommunicating. “Some days I feel like every 5 minutes we were getting another email. It was hard to tell the importance of all the emails. Try to be as succinct as possible. Highlight new or critical info in bullets.”
TIP: Newsroom Leaders Need Support, Too
Grant said that last week, she was trying to set up a remote newsroom for three dozen staffers in Laurel, Md., and move her 84-year-old mother from Chicago to her home in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron called her to set her priorities: “You need to take care of your mom. You take care of everyone in the newsroom. You need to take care of your mom and yourself.”
Said Grant, “Sharing your humanity costs nothing and means the world to people. It meant the world to me.”
Grant reaches out daily to staffers who are in quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus. “It’s important they not feel they are cut off from leadership.”
Julie Moos of the National Press Club Journalism Institute started a newsletter for journalists covering the crisis (https://www.pressclubinstitute.org/covering-coronavirus/). They want to know what their peers are struggling with, and are experimenting with ways to stay connected to their communities. The newsletter provides resources about how to listen differently when interviews are done by phone or email rather than in person.
Moos stressed the importance of structure and routine in a crisis. “It’s a relay and people are passing the baton virtually. It is helpful to see the way people are collaborating.”
TIP: Keep Interns in the Loop
POLITICO is working to make sure its intern program goes on, although the structure may need to change as the virus and the summer progress.
But RTDNA’s Dan Shelley says that many local broadcast teams have been so stretched taking care of their own employees, they’ve had to suspend intern programs.
“We’re going to be doing this for a very long time, under increased emotional and financial pressure,” said Shelley. “This is exacerbating the stress on the local newspaper industry. It’s likely to exacerbate stress on smaller newsrooms. We’ve got to remain vigilant.”
The Washington Post’s Grant said she hopes to start a group of 30 interns in June, but circumstances may force that to change. “Remote work isn’t the full Washington Post intern experience.” And it may be too much to ask employees who are already working remotely to manage interns too.
Howard University’s Carswell cautioned, “There are two kinds of employees: One who is terrified, and the other one who is seeing this as a chance to make their mark and they may do something risky as a way to impress their employer. I worry about interns from that perspective.”
TIP: Be Flexible About Schedules and Time Off
Smolkin said that hours should be as flexible as possible, so that parents can take care of young children who are now at home due to schools and daycare being closed. Staffers should be encouraged to take the time off they had planned, and managers should model similar behavior.
Keep in mind that many people are also taking care of elderly parents and neighbors, Chemaly added, and that women are frequently playing primary caregiver roles.
TIP: Seek New Opportunities for Staff and Coverage
Elizabeth of the Raleigh News & Observer said everyone has been assigned to a new beat. The newsroom is closed because a few people were exposed to the virus.
Sports reporters are covering press conferences, taking photos and doing social media. “They have been a big source of replacement energy.”
Freelancers provide limited arts coverage, and the restaurant critic has been reviewing places that offer drive-in access to takeout meals. She hired a freelancer to help with a new feature that promises answers to anyone who poses a question about the coronavirus. More than 1,000 people have reached out with questions, she said, providing emails so staffers can then reach out to them for sources and interviews.
Ramsett said the Power Shift Project is about providing opportunities. Managers should take time to “Identify rising stars and say, ‘how’d you like to be general manager for a few hours?’” and let them do the job.
KWQC account executives are finding out which small businesses are still open and helping to spread that word as public service announcements, Ramsett said.
The coronavirus story is providing an opportunity for newsrooms to show how vital they are to a community. “If we are going to survive, we need people who will sign up and become paying customers for life,” said USA TODAY’s Warren. Reporting this story is “developing the seeds of a relationship (with readers and viewers) that will last forever and will pay real dividends.”
TIP: Manage Your Work from Home Life
Christine Paige Diers of the Public Media Journalists Association said, “I would highly recommend people set a schedule. If you can, separate your work place from your living area. If you can’t, shut your laptop at the end of the work day.”
Jean Marie Hodges of Gannett said her team shares tips from a Google Doc at the beginning of each remote meeting. One of her favorites was to reach out to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to, and to look for signs of stress in people you normally work with.
Virtual happy hours can also be good for teams, Hodges said. Moos added that at McClatchy, staffers would have celebrations and farewell parties via Slack.
TIP: Remove Obstacles for Your Team
RTDNA’s Shelley said managers should remove obstacles from their team’s path. “Make sure members of the news media are designated as essential employees” when states enact shelter in place guidelines. In New York, an elected official in Buffalo tried to keep journalists from covering events, despite the governor’s ruling that they are essential workers.
American University’s Amy Eisman said, “In terms of leadership, my interim dean used a great term — ‘there is no they. We are they.’ We have to make a lot of decisions ourselves. That means clearing out the path in academe. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t actually have to do right now.”
“You don’t have to be Pollyannaish but you can be upbeat,” Eisman said. “Continue to give them the support they need to learn and to work in a little bit of different way.”