Making the News When You Can't Leave the House: How KQED Is Reporting During COVID-19

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KQED's morning news anchor Brian Watt, working in his home studio (aka basement/garage). (Brian Watt/KQED)

Now that Gov. Gavin Newsom has released a roadmap on how he plans to eventually unwind the restrictions California has enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus, here at KQED we’re thinking about what that means for our journalism.

As we start to consider loosening up some of our reporting and travel restrictions for the newsroom, we wanted to explain what our thinking and guidelines have been during this critical time. To do that, we put some questions to KQED News Executive Editor Ethan Toven-Lindsey.

Q: We’ve been sheltering in place for about a month now. Thinking back to before we realized just how infectious this virus is, when do you feel things shifted to this level of worry?

A: I feel like some of the folks in the KQED newsroom, and in the larger local and national media, knew what was really happening for weeks and months. Alexis Madrigal, an Oakland resident who works for The Atlantic and has been heading the COVID Tracking Project, was talking about how bad things were going to get relatively early on, and the rest of us kept getting signals, but couldn’t separate them from the noise. Looking back now, I feel like some of our KQED Science colleagues, such as science reporter Lesley McClurg, were sounding key warning bells, but none of us were ready for the massive mental and logistical shift we were about to encounter. Still, at KQED we’d started planning remote production work shifts and essential staff rotations in early March, but with the thinking that those efforts were worst-case scenario planning.

So, trying to think back, it feels like it was Wednesday, March 11 when the rest of us became believers. It was that day, with the stock market reacting the way it did, combined with the president’s Oval Office address, that confirmed our fears. The next day, we held a KQED editorial meeting and decided we needed to reframe how we were covering the crisis, and how we were staffing it. That Wednesday was probably the day when everyone in the newsroom became a coronavirus reporter.

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Q: Some people are saying this is going to change everything, or accelerate what already exists in the world. How do you and your newsroom think about that possibility and all that uncertainty? How do you do journalism in a moment when everything is different?

A: It does feel like everything is changing so fast, doesn’t it? But I think the news industry has been preparing for this moment for a generation. Our reporters and editors have been covering the shifting landscape of the Bay Area, and beyond, for years ... I do think that we had to challenge our assumptions and training and muscle memory during and after the 2016 election. We’ve also had to refocus our work and mindset as we’ve covered climate change and the state’s horrific wildfires.

In some sense, KQED journalists are well-suited for this moment. After our wildfire reporting, we worked with several organizations to explore and rethink how we cover trauma and traumatic events. And according to some research we’ve heard, journalists are actually people who are more able to process and deal with traumatic events. I think that’s true at KQED especially.

Finally, I think because of our public media mission, and our knowledge that our business is built on a nonprofit membership model, our reporters and editors have always seen themselves as advocates for and members of the broader community. Our journalism has always been centered with people — our region, our community — in mind, and so being willing and able to change the way we do things when our community demands it, is simply part of our DNA.

Q: How do you guide editors and reporters on how to avoid exposure while also getting their stories done? Will that change going forward?

A: The safety and security of everyone at KQED is always central in our minds. Radio reporters, for eons — well, at least since I started cutting tape in the late 1990s with razor blades — have despised "phone tape." That is an interview with someone recorded over a telephone line, as opposed to in person. For one thing, it reveals that the reporter didn’t sit down and look the interviewee in their eyes when asking the questions. But it also sounds weaker and less clear than in-person audio recordings. And because of that, editors and radio newsroom leaders have always preached that reporters don’t just get phone tape

Today, our reporters are expected to get phone tape. I do not believe our reporters should be going out into the field for interviews that they could be recording over a phone ... for their safety, for the safety of the person they are interviewing ... and for our collective public health. They could be the vector that spreads this thing, and so relying on phone tape is now a good thing. Plus, there is now technology that can allow an interview via phone to be recorded in better quality audio, and then uploaded to KQED.

Those technological changes are also allowing our hosts and anchors to produce and broadcast the news, and Forum and our other shows from their own homes. Most of the hosts and anchors you hear now on KQED are broadcasting from home. There is a “last mile” of audio production that needs to occur in our offices, but we are making every attempt to keep that staffing to a bare minimum.

Finally, we will be trying to follow any governmental and medical advice as we change our reporting advice and guidelines in the future. You may start to hear and see our reporters in the field again, but when you do, know that we’ll only have made those decisions with the sober reality of the best standards from medical and public health professionals.

Q: What about photos and television? Are things any different for photographers and video producers?

A: As we've reported on, regional and state authorities deemed media and KQED as an "essential service." As a mission-driven news team, we are deeply committed to serving our community and providing the Bay Area with information and inspiration.

What that means is while we have to make difficult decisions to limit the ability of reporters to go out into the field, we are also making difficult decisions to identify ways to produce and capture visuals and video.

For instance, the producers, journalists and staff of our weekly TV show "KQED Newsroom" have restructured the format and logistics of the production of the show, but the technical challenges of a studio show do require some sort of physical presence. Because of that, we have reduced but not eliminated the number of folks reporting on set on Friday, but are following social distancing and PPE (personal protective equipment) guidelines. Our producers are also going out into the field to collect and record footage for the show, but doing it in a safe and healthy way.

And finally, our photo intern Beth LaBerge, who shoots many of the photographs in our digital and written stories, is a critical member of the news team. We've worked closely with her to do it in a safe fashion, but she continues to photograph from the field for important stories on a case-by-case basis.

During the crisis, she has photographed nurses, gig workers and Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fact, as an indication of how essential Beth has become, she was selected to be the only photographer let into the governor's tour of the Bloom Energy factory in Sunnyvale during his visit in March, and her photos were used by the New York Times for their coverage of the event.

Q: Is there a layer of social emotional scaffolding that you’ve felt has been needed in this new normal? What’s different this time?

A: Reporters are now working from home with their kids and their partners. Editors are now being asked to assign and work on stories about how their own lives will be forever altered. And producers and audio engineers and announcers are working from an office that is designed for 400 people and is staffed, in person, by 5.

In the past 10 years, KQED’s reporters have covered wildfires, earthquakes, global financial collapse, political upheaval, immigration and asylum, climate change and so much more, but the story of a global pandemic and its impact on our lives and our local community call us to a different kind of work.

With all the previous work, even in catastrophic wildfires or political change, there was the knowledge — or at least hope — that when the reporting was done, and the story was told, that life would get back to normal. There is an understanding, already at this point in this crisis, that will be nearly impossible.

Q: What lessons from this pandemic do you think your newsroom will be able to apply in future disasters?

A: Honestly, it is too early to consider that question. The work and the response to this pandemic may not apply to any future disasters. And the lessons we are learning right now still feel too new and fresh to even put into words. I guess the only lesson that comes to mind is simply be prepared to think about covering the unthinkable.

But how do you do that?

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