In early February, only eight weeks ago but in a parallel universe that no longer exists, I invited Billie Sweeney, a senior staff editor at The New York Times, to tour the new CPJ office and visit with old friends. For nine years, from 2004 to 2013, Billie worked as CPJ’s editorial director, overseeing all of our press freedom coverage.
Billie had joined us from the AP, where she was the New York City news editor, and left us for the Times. Since the start of the outbreak, Billie has been part of a team of editors handling the Coronavirus Live Update, a key feature of the Times’ COVID-19 coverage.
As part of CPJ’s response to the pandemic, we’ve been running Q&As with journalists in a variety of roles and with different responsibilities. Editors shape and define news coverage, but their voices are not always present in the public discussion. That’s why I reached out to Billie with a few questions. Her answers, sent by email on April 6, have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The New York Times Coronavirus Live Update has become a go-to resource for people in New York and around the world looking for the latest information. How and why did you decide on the Live Update format?
Well before the pandemic, live briefings had become a regular tactic in The Times’s coverage of fast-moving, high-interest stories. The international desk, for example, had recently published multi-day live briefings on political unrest in Hong Kong.
We’d been covering the coronavirus epidemic in China extensively in its initial weeks, using a variety of traditional formats, but when China decided on Jan. 23 to lock down the city of Wuhan, the gravity of the story became clear. Our desk, led by the Hong Kong news hub, began live coverage that day, and the briefings have continued uninterrupted ever since, quickly becoming an organization-wide effort, led by people from all across the newsroom, and drawing contributions from every corner of The Times. It’s the organization’s longest-running briefing ever.
Can you tell us about the process you use to select the stories? What do you view as your particular role in informing Times readers?
The briefing is the front page to The Times’s reporting on the pandemic, and aims to deliver news, investigative and feature coverage in a compelling and urgent way. It’s also a direct extension of The Times’s mission: It uses our expertise to help readers understand the world at a time when everything seems so uncertain. As part of that mission, The Times decided to provide free access to most of its coronavirus news to readers who log in.
In practice, shaping the coverage is incredibly difficult: Editors sift through reporting contributions from around the world and assess news that is breaking around the clock to create a rich, cohesive snapshot of the day’s events as they unfold. The pandemic has profoundly affected every aspect of our lives—the economy, schools, medicine, science, international relations, sports, the arts—and the briefing aims capture all of that.
I noticed that the Live Update has a distinct conversational voice that is different from the tone of daily news coverage. How did you develop the voice and what are you seeking to communicate?
The briefing is intended to convey developments with speed, clarity and context. Urgency can demand simplicity, but it can also deliver grace and style.
Briefing items often summarize our investigations and in-depth news coverage, linking to the full version. That also allows for a more informal approach.
The coronavirus story is fast moving and complex, and there has been a great deal of inaccurate information circulating spawned by the panic but also quite frankly public officials, including the president. Do you see your role as quickly debunking rumors, and setting the record straight? How do you go about this?
Casting a skeptical eye and reporting in a critical way are always important, and the briefing has been a powerful reminder of that. Another aspect of my job involves assessing reader comments about international news coverage; based on what I’ve seen, readers are engaged as never before.
Search data tells us the same—that there is an incredible demand for reliable information. We’ve drawn readers from closed societies like Iran, who come to the briefing for clarity and understanding, and we are seeing readers everywhere return to the site multiple times a day for updates.
Analyzing the misleading statements of any world leader quickly and putting them into a factual context is an essential part of what they’re looking for.
What has been reader response to this initiative? What are you changing in light of reader feedback?
The number of readers has been high from the start, and has grown as the epidemic has spread. The briefing editors are constantly adjusting to meet readers’ needs and expectations.
That can involve scope: A topic that a month ago might have been examined through the lens of a single country is now being looked at on a regional or global basis. It can also involve focus: Items that directly address readers’ everyday lives—how to assess face masks or convert your home into a workspace, for example—are a growing part of the mix.
We’ve also added three, related live briefings, examining the markets, lifestyle issues and New York. More changes are being considered.
When you were at the AP, you oversaw coverage of the 9/11 Attacks in New York. Any lessons learned from that experience that you are applying to your current role?
Keep going. Every day is important, but keep every day in perspective. Commitment and persistence are rewarded; so is the willingness to reassess and adapt.
And one more thing that the briefing has reminded me of: You have no greater asset than your colleagues. It’s inspiring to see people from every part of the organization and from every region of the world working around the clock on a common goal.
Finally, what advice do you have for journalists in the US and around the world who are struggling to cover this unprecedented story, in which access to timely, accurate information can be a matter of life and death for many readers?
It’s also a matter of life and death for journalists. The Times recently published its internal guidelines for reporting on the pandemic. Top editors have always stressed a first, fundamental question: If reporting a story carries risk, is the story worth it? Then, a safety assessment: Can the story, even if important, be safely reported? If the answer to either of these questions is no, the approach has to be adjusted.
CPJ’s safety advisory for journalists covering the coronavirus outbreak is available in English and nearly 30 other languages. Additional CPJ coverage of the coronavirus can be found here.