Washington state was the first COVID-19 hotspot in the United States. Since its first case was reported on January 21, more than 10,000 people have been infected with the virus, and at least 511 have died.
Seattle-based journalists experienced the challenges of covering the pandemic before their colleagues in other parts of the country, and quickly learned strategies for social distancing and overcoming other reporting obstacles while covering the rapidly changing story.
CPJ spoke with four journalists in Seattle about their experiences covering the pandemic over the last several weeks. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Nina Shapiro, staff writer, The Seattle Times
COVID-19 has completely changed everything. Right as things were just starting to [escalate], I was wanted full-time for coronavirus coverage.
When things started ratcheting up, my colleagues and I put together a callout to readers, asking them how the virus has affected their lives and if they would mind being contacted by our newsroom.
[In the first two weeks], we had 1,500 responses on how the coronavirus has impacted the community. It’s been this reserve of sources that we can keep referencing for ideas and contacts, and has really expanded our reach from Seattle proper to suburbs to the rural areas.
One of the first stories I did, I connected with someone from Yakima, which is on the eastern side of the state, about concerns over hospital closures prior to the outbreak. It was really helpful to get that perspective from all over the state while sitting in your home office.
Another person who I was talking to early on was like, “oh, it was so great talking to you, I feel like I got some socializing in today.” Sometimes as a reporter you feel that you’re intruding, but in this case, in a number of ways actually, you feel like a welcome call.
I often write about really wrenching subjects. It just ends up being the nature of what I do [as a social issues reporter]. The biggest stress with the coronavirus so far is the constant pressure of having everything happen at once. I usually do in-depth stories and get to know people very well—I find that the most satisfying and rich [way to do reporting].
When people are dying, you want to do that to convey the humanity of what’s happening. For me, that felt fulfilling and also there were moments of great compassion and even beauty in this story.
Reporting an in-depth article on a man who passed away from coronavirus was a relief to the grind of such a quickly evolving news cycle. I felt like I could do the story justice and pay honor to this individual and his family. There was an amazing nurse who found a way to connect with the family and served as a go-between, she even helped give last rites while the priest was directing her. If you have some space to really follow these stories, you see the beauty and ingenuity in the midst of all of this craziness. The family had found a way to be with him even as he died.
Lauren Frohne, video journalist, The Seattle Times
In order to do my job well right now, I kind of have to do everything wrong. Everything we’re taught as visual journalists, we really can’t do. We can’t spend time with people and be in their lives until you just disappear into the scene and they don’t notice you. We can’t get close to what’s happening. You can’t put a lavalier [lapel] mic on people. I’m exclusively using my 100-400mm lens because it helps me keep a distance from people.
It’s so natural to just get closer to people as you’re around them, even if you’re outside and you basically have to, I told one editor as I was trying to figure out how to do this story. Everyone keeps saying, ‘Well you’re the expert on how to do this.’ But I’m not the expert. I’m relearning how to do my job with all new tools and relying on things differently.
Since the first cases were announced here, I’ve been exclusively making stories about the coronavirus, and pretty much our whole newsroom has as well. Because so much unfolded here, it was this cascade of things unfolding all at once, starting at the beginning of March. Every week has been focused on that.
We haven’t been in the newsroom since March 10, which has really been a big change. Newsrooms are buzzing places where ideas are exchanged, people come by your desk, and there’s some serendipity to that in terms of the stories you think of doing. It’s been really hard to figure out how to maintain that when we’re all just chatting on Slack and Zoom and phone calls. That can feel a bit overwhelming day-to-day.
With the story I recently did on a patient who passed away from the virus, it was really hard because the main subject of the story had been exposed [to COVID-19] since he had visited his dad the week he [the father] got sick. The family was incredible and very open to that vulnerability. Only one of the eight siblings could be there in the ICU with their father. She filmed what happened so she could share it with the rest of them, and then she also shared that with us and they were okay with us using even those moments.
Will James, housing and immigration reporter, KNKX (a local NPR affiliate)
The past month has been such blur. Around the time the COVID-19 cases started at the retirement facility and people started to get sick and die, the scale of the crisis became clear and the whole newsroom has mobilized to cover the coronavirus.
The virus has made it trickier to reach sources and has complicated my reporting. A lot of reporting on homelessness is done in-person because many or most of our subjects don’t have phones. They have sporadic internet access on a good day, and with everything closed now, including the library, a lot of that internet access has been cut off as well. So, we’re kind of in a situation where we need to track down and meet our subjects in-person and also keep our distance from them at the same time.
I went out in the field to report on homelessness in mid-March, and that was the last time I’m going to do that. It was a bit of a learning experience. I went in with a plan to take precautions to protect myself and my sources, and some of those plans broke down. I counted on my ability to find some place to wash my hands during the day and there just wasn’t anything. I did my best to control the environments I was interviewing people in and take them away from other people, but it turns out it’s really difficult to control those things and people end up brushing up against you. To be honest with you, I don’t know when I’m going to do that again, or if I’m going to be able to do that again in the near future. I didn’t want to talk about going out in the field and make it seem like something that I’m regularly doing because, the truth is, I don’t know.
My biggest concern is bringing something from Seattle to someone who is homeless in Olympia or Tacoma where there isn’t as big of an outbreak, because if I get sick, I’ll probably be fine, just demographically and because I have access to healthcare. But if I give it to someone who is 70 years old and homeless, that’s a whole different story. That’s at the top of my mind now, if there’s a way to responsibly do this.
The homeless population has been getting information from their service providers, from outreach workers, from shelter staff, from people they already trust. There has been an effort to educate the homeless population to every extent possible about what is going on. I’m covering this as a crisis on top of a crisis. It’s like there is this immense emergency on the West Coast to begin with—a public health emergency of homelessness—and now there’s a pandemic on top of it, and it is really very complicated.
The reaction of the people who are homeless is a little bit mixed. To an extent, there are some people who are scared. A lot of homeless people have underlying health conditions—hepatitis, HIV, COPD—that make them very vulnerable. In other cases, it’s like they’re already in a day-by-day, hour-by-hour scramble to survive, and this is kind of one more thing on top of everything.
A pandemic is destabilizing, it’s scary for a lot of us who don’t have to deal with existential threats all the time. But there are a lot of people who deal with existential threats every day, and this is one more thing on top of everything that they’re dealing with.
Wudan Yan, independent journalist
I’m primarily a magazine writer, and I had a lot of stories due before this started really blowing up that were not coronavirus-related. It’s been very difficult for me to focus on anything else that is not the coronavirus.
The stakes are really high when reporting on COVID-19, not just because of the health risk, but also the pressure of keeping up with a rapidly evolving news cycle.
Since this started, my routine has been: get up, wonder what fresh hell the day will bring, send some pitches, do some reporting.
I’m mostly a science and health reporter. I didn’t go to journalism school. I have no formal training in breaking news, but I think one of the exhausting things about the coronavirus is that it’s made all of us into breaking news reporters because the information changes so quickly. There are mental health consequences as a result of that.
Normally, as a magazine writer, I have time and I go through a public information officer at an institution. But that slows me down tremendously at this point, so I usually just go directly to the source. I was just working on something with other contributors to the New York Times for a series on what happens when your lab closes because of COVID.
A few people told me, ‘Oh, you have to go through the media office.’ And I was like, ‘I’m just not going to pursue this [source] anymore. I have all of these other possible openings, other people aren’t just driving me in circles.’
I think PIOs [public information officers] are becoming a little more understanding. They know that the news cycle moves so fast. If it’s more expedient for them to be involved, they will be. Though I haven’t had that many access issues in terms of getting people to talk to me.
I’ve been finding sources mostly online. I live in Seattle and the benefit of living here is that it’s a large city, but it’s also small enough so that, if I need somebody, they’re probably two degrees of connection away or less.
[Editors’ Note: The spelling of the Will James’ employer, KNKX, has been corrected.]