The novel coronavirus has defied geographical and political boundaries, infecting over 1.5 million people as of April 10. Unlike disasters, a pandemic’s impact is not confined to a single location, or a group of victims, and the potential for exposure is always present, yet unpredictable.
The age of COVID-19 has brought a number of new norms — social distancing, working from home, school closures and virtual happy hours, to name a few. Journalists are not exempt from these changes. While many things are slowing down, the ever-changing news cycle keeps them on the clock.
All these changes make reporting more complicated, and take a toll on journalists’ emotional and physical health.
Experienced health reporter Heather Mongilio, who works for The Frederick News-Post in Maryland, said she never thought she’d be covering something quite like COVID-19.
In just two weeks of covering the virus, Mongilio worked nearly 95 hours, averaging 10-hour shifts each day.
“There’s just no end in sight, we haven’t been able to take a break,” Mongilio said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be covering this for the next month, for the next two months [or] until December. I don’t know if it’s going to slow down or if it’s just going to be constantly working these 10-hour shifts, hoping that I keep up with all of it.”
Meanwhile, Evan Hill, a journalist on the New York Times’ Visual Investigations team, was on a reporting trip when businesses in the U.S. began shutting down. After reporting in northwestern Syria, Hill returned home to an entirely different work schedule.
Although there are challenges, Hill’s experience abroad offers some perspective on the environment he returned to. Working from home is a great luxury for reporters in stable environments, he said, compared to people who are living in conflict zones like Syria and Yemen where people don’t have the luxury of working from home, or ordering goods from Amazon and grocery delivery services.
“Even though it’s mentally stressing on all of us to be socially distancing ourselves from friends and family, and staying home most of the day, it really is quite a luxury to be able to set up a nice workstation in your bedroom, your living room or your kitchen, and drink your coffee and order things online,” he said.
On top of her reporting beats, Mongilio also hosts The Frederick News-Post’s podcast, Frederick Uncut. Hosting a podcast in quarantine has created challenges like figuring out how to use phone calls instead of in-person guests while maintaining audio quality, and how to create a make-shift studio at home.
“I also do a lot more email reporting that I usually wouldn’t have,” Mongilio said. “Under normal circumstances, you always get the in-person interview. If you can’t do that, then a phone interview. Now it’s email.”
Hill expressed his own concern on how the visual investigations team would handle a new workflow.
“It changes the way that we communicate, it changes the way that we edit videos, it changes the flow of our teamwork and it changes our ability to collaborate,” Hill said. “We can no longer sit and edit things together, look at footage at the same time and make editorial judgement calls in real time when we’re editing videos, so that’s tough.”
It’s not just changing schedules that are creating challenges for reporters. The ever-present threat of illness also affects their work, especially as they try to cover updates related to the disease in their communities.
Mongilio reported on a drive-through testing center at Frederick Health Hospital in mid-March. To do so, she and her team parked across the street.
by Katya Podkovyroff Lewis, International Journalists’ Network