Local Broadcasters Connect with Viewers’ Practical and Emotional Needs in Crisis

Local Broadcasters’ Town Hall

Freedom Forum fellow Jill Geisler was joined by local broadcasters who are connecting with their communities’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fundraising for food banks, hosting mental health forums and offering financial advice for the newly jobless are just a few of the ways local radio, television and digital news outlets are connecting with their communities’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Freedom Forum’s Power Shift Project teamed up with the Radio Television Digital News Association for a local broadcasters’ town hall on May 27, 2020, the sixth program in the series COVID-19: Taking Care of Journalists and Journalism. The webinar series is part of the Power Shift Project’s mission to create workplace environments free of harassment, discrimination and incivility, with an emphasis during the pandemic on the health and humanity of the journalists and the communities they serve.

Freedom Forum fellow Jill Geisler led the session, with 14 broadcast journalists sharing ideas, and 117 viewers.

RTDNA executive director Dan Shelley said the pandemic had produced a “voracious increased appetite among news consumers for the kinds of stories that you are producing on the local level.” To ensure the safety of news staffers, RTDNA produced guidelines to keep teams safe while covering the pandemic.

In Seattle, where pandemic lockdowns hit early, KING news director Pete Saiers said, “A lot of people were thrown out of work almost overnight. They couldn’t pay the rent, they couldn’t pay for food, they couldn’t pay their mortgage.”

Within three days, KING had created a new franchise, “Your Money, Your Future,” for which anchor Michelle Li produced two stories a day, based on questions emailed from viewers. KING used Zipwhip to text with viewers in real time.

“There is desperation out there,” Saiers said. “But we are also getting emails from people who remind us why we are in this business.” That included praise from the state’s commissioner for the Employment Security Division for information the station provided about seeking unemployment benefits.

Money issues were also a focus for KBAK/KBFX in Bakersfield, Calif., where morning news reporter Tyrah Majors partnered with a local credit union to provide advice for viewers in a program titled “Focusing on Finances.” The weekly show offered tips on cutting unnecessary expenses, avoiding scams, and how people can help rebuild their local economy.

Giving back to local communities inspired Waco, Texas’s KWTX to launch two hourlong country-music themed fundraising specials for central Texas foodbanks.

KWTX has hosted Food for Families for 30 years, but the coronavirus crisis spurred the station to move the food drive up seven months to meet immediate needs, said assistant news director Robyn Geske.

The fundraiser went from idea to the first hourlong broadcast within two weeks, Geske said. That included launching a web portal so that people could target their donations to the local food bank of their choice. The station raised $127,232 for 19 food banks in Central Texas.

“In times of need like this, people want to get involved, but they don’t know how,” said news director Rick Moll of WSLS, serving southwest Virginia.

WSLS’s Food for Frontline fundraiser gave viewers a way to give back by donating meals for local first responders to the coronavirus crisis, Moll said. The drive “put $30,000 back into local economy to help struggling restaurants, we’ve given a platform to viewers as well as fed some folks who really deserve it,” Moll said.

Covering Election Day in a Pandemic

Election days are coverage challenges under normal circumstances, but for WISN news director Ben Hart in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s night-before decision that in-person voting would go on in Wisconsin presented added angst.

“When we sent our news crews out, we had to be prepared for the crowds,” Hart said. “Security became the most important concern for our group. We had thousands of people standing for hours because municipalities had condensed the number of polls.”

WISN staffers used mic stick extensions and created “standup islands” that kept reporters at a safe distance for in-person interviews. Reporters talked through masks, and Hart discouraged shots that could create unnecessary exposure to the virus. Those guidelines are being revised and used daily, he said.

“We are leaders and we are responsible for setting the tone for how not to be exposed … for giving people information they need to survive and thrive,” Hart said.

Leoneda Inge, the race and Southern culture reporter for WUNC Public Radio in Chapel Hill, N.C., wanted to do a story that reflected the disproportionate impact the virus is having on African Americans. She found a fourth-generation funeral home director in Durham, who let her attend a funeral that was held using state guidelines. “African American funerals are like family reunions,” Inge said. “They are bigger than weddings. People of color are almost willing to risk (infection) to say goodbye and to see family.”

Funeral goers wore masks, and Inge used a long mic pole to keep her distance. “Everybody was trying to follow the rules and stay 6 feet apart. You could tell it was hard to mourn that way.” As the funeral goers dispersed, the people who couldn’t get inside due to distancing guidelines serenaded them in the parking lot, a song Inge captured as an emotional coda to her story.

In New Orleans, where an avalanche of coronavirus cases made the city a “hotspot,” WWL executive news director Keith Esparros found his viewers needed some respite from bad news. “They wanted some hope.”

The station found a survivor named Tonie Williams, who was desperately trying to find the young nurse she credited with helping her survive the coronavirus. She only knew the nurse’s first name was Stephanie. WWL tracked her down, for an emotional virtual reunion that produced an outpouring from viewers.

“These stories are absolutely critical to tell, especially in those really dark, early days,” Esparros said. The station decided to end each news day with some positive news, whether a decrease in the number of new infections or a profile of a 101-year-old man who beat the virus.

In Philadelphia, KYW Newsradio community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg has covered the virus from myriad angles, from a story she spotted on Facebook of a woman whose 18-year-old son’s refusal to social distance resulted in nine family members being infected, to a man who left his nursing home a week before the virus struck. Philadelphia-born producer and deejay DJ Jazzy Jeff spoke to Gregg about surviving COVID-19, and Gregg covered local hair salons that switched their businesses to selling wigs to survive, as well as a group of African American doctors who raised money to do testing in underserved communities.

Media Groups Share Content Among Stations

For Luisa Collins from Entravision, vice president of news for Entravision Communications, the word “juntos” – together – inspired the news group’s efforts to connect viewers with experts who had the information audiences were seeking about the coronavirus.

Collins’ division produces content for 24 stations in Spanish and English, reaching 1.3 million viewers. Each morning, the media group hosted Facebook Live interviews on topics from economic assistance to mental health and domestic violence. Parts of those interviews would air again on evening news programs. Content was shared across platforms, radio, TV and the web.

Austin Kellerman, director of digital communications for Nexstar Media Group, said his team connected viewers with lawmakers in three dozen virtual town halls, hosted through Zoom, for its 115 stations.

Nexstar launched daily coronavirus streaming content, information that could be used in any market, including stories of hope amid the crisis. WRIC in Richmond provided special programming for Spanish speaking viewers.

Internally, staffers shared drinks and insights through virtual happy hours. Kellerman makes a point to tweet praise to coverage in the many markets he oversees. “Social media can be a great way to give somebody a pat on the back. In times like these, we can all use a little support.”

Focusing on Children’s Mental Health and School Needs

Children in the Panama City, Fla., area faced major disruptions over the past two years: Hurricane Michael in 2018 and the pandemic this year. WJHG decided to host an hourlong town hall to address the mental health needs of children and teens, said anchor Jessica Foster.

In Nebraska, NET, the NPR and PBS station, pivoted from long-form reporting to daily coverage, said news director Dennis Kellogg, producing more than 800 stories in three and half months, including daily minute-long television updates. Each week for 10 weeks, the governor came in to face questions from viewers and listeners in virtual town hall events.

NET also produced a 30-minute radio documentary, “Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska,” detailing the efforts rural students took amid the crisis, sometimes driving for hours to find a WiFi hotspot to access the internet and complete their school work.

On Homelessness and Strife in Tourist Towns

In San Francisco, KCBS sent reporters to interview homeless people, who were often unaware how they could access help during the crisis, said Jennifer Seelig, director of news and programming. “Homelessness has been a huge issue for us in the Bay Area,” Seelig said. “COVID has exposed how significant a problem it is.”

Radio reporters at an all-news station like hers are “one-man bands,” so coverage protocol required the use of mic sticks, gloves and masks to prevent infection.

In rural Minnesota, WTIP covers a county of 5,000 people, one of two counties in the state that had no confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Typical news stories focus on the moose population, fishing and wildlife management. But when three businesses in the tourist town had burned to the ground, and the post-COVID economy was on the rocks, news director Joe Friedrichs decided to do a program that was mindful of maintaining the community’s health while discussing how to rebuild the economy.

The station invited viewers to write in questions for the program that included a physician, a county administrator and a local businessman who rents canoes. More than 50 viewers wrote in to take part, evidence of the radio station’s role as a platform for bringing multiple perspectives together.

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