Covering COVID-19: Journalists share their stories of reporting on the deadly pandemic (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - They’ve covered hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters in their award-winning broadcast news careers. But the deadly coronavirus pandemic that’s gripping the world is a different story for journalists Alex Giles, Kaitlin Stansell and Jasmine Turner.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Jasmine, who started her career at WECT-TV before moving on to become a reporter and weekend news anchor at WWBT-TV in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. “The one thing I’ve tried to do as we’ve navigated these unchartered waters is ask people who have more experience than me, ‘Have you ever lived like this in this career?’ Any doctor that I interview, I ask them, ‘Have you ever experienced this?’ It almost seems like, at least for the first week, it felt like a movie.”
“I just think the uncertainty of it is one of the craziest parts about it,” Alex added. He too began his journalism career at WECT-TV, before becoming a reporter and weekday news anchor at WBTV-TV in Charlotte. “Just the fact that so many people are unsure exactly what lies ahead in just the next few weeks, with these curves and charts and graphs, and trying to analyze the data based on what other countries have been experiencing. At the end of the day we’re all just kind of playing it by ear.”
“I will say it does compare somewhat to hurricanes,” Kaitlin said. She is a reporter and weekend news anchor at WCSC-TV in Charleston, South Carolina, and another former member of the WECT News team. “But the biggest difference is that hurricanes, biggest reason why we are evacuating or why businesses are closing is so visible. The damage. Whereas with this, you can’t see it. It’s kind of hard to comprehend, and it has been really surreal to report on it and to live it.”
While many news reporters and anchors in the industry are now working from home in the new norm of ‘social distancing’, all three of these journalists are still going into their respective television stations for at least part of their work schedules. They often answer phone calls or emails from distraught viewers whose health and financial security are threatened by a viral enemy.
“Every call is about someone’s personal circumstance and how they are going to be impacted,” Kaitlin said. “I try to answer the question as best I can. All the information translates into someone’s specific personal issue at that moment, so I try to just give them as much info or help as I can. On one hand, there’s been a lot of media bashing surrounding this. But on the other, you have people relying on you for this information. It just shows you how important your role is.”
Jasmine made it a point to mention how different it is interacting with someone she is going to include in a story. Like many reporters, she is doing more interviews by Skype and Facetime. There are times, though, when she and a videographer will meet their subject in person, and the practice of social distancing takes over.
“When things started to really have to change so intensely, you thought to yourself, ‘Is this really happening?’,” says Jasmine, a graduate of Elon University. “Something so simple as going to meet a new person to interview them, and you both back up. Instead of going in for a handshake, you say ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, social distancing!’ All the small things and the small ways that were just a part of how we lived and how we worked. have changed.”
Part of reporting on a major breaking news story is documenting how the community reacts when the circumstances unfold. A good reporter will often turn away from the event to read the faces of the eyewitnesses, the people immediately impacted by what is happening. Alex told us he had one of those moments on March 12th, and he says it will be a night he won’t forget.
“They (the newsroom) had called me and said ‘We’re moving you off your story, the NBA just shut down the season,” the University of North Carolina alum remembers. “We have an NBA team here in Charlotte, the Charlotte Hornets, and they said, ‘Get down to the arena, see if there are fans out there that you can talk to about this!’. I went down there and talked to a couple people who were walking on the street. It had happened just minutes before I even got there, because our station isn’t far from where the arena is in Uptown Charlotte, talking to the people they hadn’t even heard the news yet. I said, ‘Did you hear the NBA season is canceled?’ They said “What? Why?’ I said, ‘Because of this coronavirus pandemic’. At that point it still wasn’t in the forefront of people’s brains that it is at this point obviously. I think that night is the one that I’m going to remember.”
These reporter/anchors also have personal stories that weigh heavy on their minds during these tense times. Alex and his fiancée were supposed to get married in May, and are now looking at potential backup plans. “On a personal level, we know there are much more important things happening. But, that’s a big day in our lives. So that’s been a stresser,” he said.
Kaitlin has a family member who suffers from diabetes, a pre-existing health condition putting them at higher risk for contracting the virus. The University of South Carolina grad also thought she would be starting to make plans for her wedding, which is scheduled for March 2021. “First of all, everything is closed. Second of all, I feel guilty for even wanting to do that right now because of everything that’s happening and people out of jobs. It feels weird to be planning a wedding right now.”
Jasmine’s husband works in the healthcare industry, which is also heavily impacted by the current pandemic. She can’t share the same quality time with her parents and other loved ones that live close-by. It’s ‘Hello!’ from a distance of at least six-feet, or a phone call to make sure they are okay. “One thing I’ve said is, I will never take giving someone a hug for granted ever again when this is over. I miss hugging my Mom so much! It’s the small things,” she said emotionally.
My interview with Alex, Kaitlin and Jasmine covered many other issues, including where they turn for reliable information on the pandemic, how their communities are dealing with the multitude of cases, and the constant flow of information they receive even when they are not on the clock. I hope you enjoy the conversation with these three outstanding professionals as much as I did.
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