Covering Covid-19

Social distancing and the wearing of medical masks were two common sights on the streets of Vancouver during the COVID-19 outbreak this spring.

How a pandemic changed the rules on reporting—perhaps forever

By Christina Dommer, Austin Everett, Missy Johnson and Joshua Rey

The first reported case of the novel coronavirus in Canada happened on Jan. 25, 2020, in Toronto, when a man returning from Wuhan, China fell ill, called 911, and was placed in isolation at Sunnybrook Hospital. Three days later, B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, reported the first presumptive case on the west coast—a man who worked in China and, upon returning to Vancouver, had placed himself into isolation.

But for much of January and February, says Andrea Woo, a Vancouver-based reporter with The Globe and Mail, “it was an easier story for people to ignore.” The cases that were popping up were people who had recently travelled to China or Iran, two coronavirus hotspots; the early hope was that the virus could be contained. “If you weren’t paying attention to the news,” says Woo, “you could still go about your day and not hear anything about it.”

Things started to change, and change rapidly, by early March. On March 6, Dr. Henry announced Canada’s first known case of community transmission—a woman, in the Fraser Health region, who had no known contact with people travelling from either China or Iran. A day later, that woman was identified as an employee of the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, where two more people—residents of the long-term care facility—had tested positive. On March 9, one of Lynn Valley’s residents became Canada’s first death from the ensuing disease known as COVID-19. By the end of March, there were over 1,000 known cases and 24 deaths province-wide.

The COVID-19 outbreak has had a profound impact on many sectors of the economy, including the media business. As the public has searched for answers, some media outlets have prospered—especially those with broad reach and deep financial and organizational resources. Others have floundered—especially small community publications dependent on advertising, at a time when consumer confidence has been shaken. The journalism business, as a result of this once-in-a- generation pandemic, may never be the same again.

Andrea Woo and her colleague Mike Hager were among the first to go behind the scenes of the outbreak in B.C., exploring the tragic story at Lynn Valley in a March 21 feature in the Globe. As of the end of March, 42 residents and 19 staff at Lynn Valley had been infected; 12 residents had died.

From the earliest days of the outbreak, both Woo and Hager knew that the story would be impossible to ignore. Hager says that the Lower Mainland’s cultural connection to China inherently put it in the coronavirus crosshairs.

“There’s nothing now, but we had more than a dozen daily flights out of YVR to Chinese cities,” notes Hager. “So I just knew, given the flow of people, that it would become a huge local story here.” Hager, who was travelling with family in Arizona just before the border closed in mid-March, says he was “glued to the news” the whole time he was on vacation: “I knew that it was going to be very different when I got back home.”

Meanwhile at the office emails were sent out to Globe staff advising them to get ready to work from home. Woo says that a senior editor at the Globe advised reporters to also consider their mental health during the crisis, while the reporters’ union even sent the newsroom N-95 masks: “Those were the signs that it was something that we were taking seriously, not just a story we were covering from a distance.”

Woo says that deadlines became meaningless in the new COVID-19 reality, with stories and the flood of statistics updated as they came. The boundary between work and home life soon became a blur, she adds: “I roll out of bed, then I’m in front of a computer, and I might be there for 12 hours. Then I roll back into bed.”

“It’s been exhausting to keep abreast of everything,” echoes Hager. “At the best of times, reporters are drinking from a news fire hose. Now it feels like a water cannon every time you log on to access whatever portal you get your news from.”

At Canada’s public broadcaster, changes in how news was delivered, thanks to COVID-19, came swiftly. On March 18, Brodie Fenlon—the Toronto-based editor-in-chief and executive director of daily news for CBC News—announced that all local TV newscasts would be suspended, as the broadcaster concentrated its efforts on national news. As Fenlon wrote in his editor’s blog that day: “We recognize that we are an essential service at this time, but this is not business as usual.”

The move was controversial—with many viewers in smaller communities bemoaning the fact that they no longer would be getting on-the-ground reporting on how the coronavirus was affecting their families and businesses. Less than a week later, some local news was being inserted into the CBC News Network to help assuage those concerns. According to Fenlon, the question was partly staffing—CBC reporters, like workers everywhere, were falling sick or at risk of infection, without social distancing—and partly to address the explosion of daily news conferences being held across the country.

Langara Journalism Review reached out to a number of CBC representatives in western Canada, inquiring as to how local newsrooms were being affected by the coronavirus, but most were hesitant to discuss the corporate moves.

Treena Wood, news director at CBC British Columbia—and other reporters approached in the Vancouver news-room—declined to comment. Helen Henderson, senior director for journalism and programming at CBC News in Calgary, said in a short emailed response that things were “frantic” and that the task of covering the outbreak was “just too much” for her to consider anything else. “We have a crisis on our hands, complicated by many staff working from home,” wrote Henderson.

CBC Calgary reporter Jennifer Lee said in an email that her job had seen a dramatic shift in the weeks since the outbreak: “Long hours, the unrelenting news cycle, working from home, doing interviews only by phone… The newsroom has really had to bend and adapt to a bunch of changes at once—including losing staff to self-isolation.”

While organizations like CBC and The Globe and Mail have deep pockets and lots of resources to throw at a story like COVID-19, smaller community publications across B.C. are struggling—primarily because they are driven by advertising (most are freely distributed), and advertisers, by late March, were dropping like flies.

Cameron Thomson worked at the Salmon Arm Observer for almost a year, ever since graduating from Langara journalism in the spring of 2019. “It was such a great place to learn and know how the industry works and really hone your writing skills,” says Thomson of his experience in Salmon Arm.

On March 20, Thomson received word from his employer, Victoria-based Black Press Media, that he was being laid off. When he first heard about the coronavirus in early 2020, he thought he wouldn’t be affected—since his community of 18,000 residents, 500 kilometres east of Vancouver, is isolated from major population centres. But when people in the Interior started to get infected, Thomson knew it was going to be a big deal across the province.

“We started writing more stories about how our city was closing certain things,” he says. “And bans on public gatherings were put in place across the province and how that would affect local businesses. And on and on.”

Once businesses started pulling their ads from the newspaper, however, the publisher started making cuts. “I wasn’t anticipating how it would affect my job,” he says. “That was a connection I didn’t make until just before I got laid off.”

As Thomson understands it, he’s one of several reporters laid off by Black Press in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak (most Black Press papers rely on advertising for the bulk of their revenues). Thomson says he isn’t just worried about the number of journalists being laid off; he’s also worried about their mental health.

“Hearing about how many people have died, day in and day out, can take a real toll,” says Thomson, who has temporarily relocated to Tsawwassen to live with his parents.

Laura Brougham is another Langara grad who was directly affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Since November 2019, Brougham had been working as an editorial assistant at Victoria’s Page One Publishing Inc., which publishes several magazines on Vancouver Island. She was in Europe in March when the outbreak hit, but managed to get back to B.C. on March 19, expecting to start a new contract on April 1. That contract was cancelled by Page One, she was told, because of COVID-19.

While disappointed with the job loss, Brougham acknowledges that “it’s an unprecedented situation.” Her longer-term hope is that the pandemic will lead to people taking journalists more seriously—at a time when, in the age of Donald Trump, there is little trust in the media. “Despite every expert and everyone talking about how serious [this pandemic] is, there are still some people who just don’t believe it—because it is the media who is saying it.”

Community publishers, like Black Press and Page One, suffered immediately during the coronavirus outbreak because of a sudden lack of advertisers. But what happens when your beat—the thing you report on, day in and day out—suddenly disappears?

Patrick Johnston, a sports writer for the Vancouver Sun and Province, had been following the COVID-19 outbreak since January, but it wasn’t until the NHL and other sports leagues started closing off locker rooms that he realized the importance of the issue. Then it hit particularly close to home: Johnston found himself trapped in Phoenix, on a trip to cover a Canucks game against the Arizona Coyotes on March 12 that never happened.

“It’s never seen as real until, all of a sudden, everything changes,” says Johnston, who went into self-isolation upon his return flight to Vancouver on March 13. He has been working from home ever since.

“This isn’t that different for me, given my routines,” he says. “I don’t see my colleagues and it’s been a challenge. I’ve adapted perhaps better than others might, because I’m kind of used to it. But it’s not fun being stuck in one place when you used to roam around.”

Brendan Batchelor is the Canucks’ play-by-play voice for Sportsnet 650. He too was in Arizona when the NHL suddenly suspended its season, and says he is fortunate that he hasn’t been laid off, like many others in the business.

“I’m quite lucky that I haven’t had any real hardship that others had to deal with,” he acknowledges. “I’ve had to come to grips with going from a life where you’re really busy to suddenly staying at home self-isolating—and not really having anything on the calendar.”

Batchelor hopes that his work life will return to normal soon—though when that is remains to be seen. As for Johnston, he wonders about the longer-term impact COVID-19 will have on how he does his job: “You wonder… will we return to the [locker] room access that we had?”

While it has been hard to find silver linings in the grey cloud of this pandemic, some journalists are embracing the new way of reporting the news.

Mike Hager, for one, says he relishes being able to wear sweatpants and ponchos around the house. And since everyone else is going through the same isolation that he is, there’s a common sense of solidarity that makes it easier for him to interview others.

“Granted, I’m usually interviewing people hit by it already, or working in healthcare. But I think that extends to most of humanity right now,” Hager says. “There’s less pretence when you’re interviewing people in power.”

With any luck, that sense of solidarity—and lack of pretence—is something that will endure.

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