In a socially distanced world, reporters conduct interviews in new—but not always better—ways
By Rui Yang Xu
Reporting in the age of Covid has forced many reporters to rely on Zoom interviews, or socially distanced interviews, to get the job done. For the most part, journalists have adapted—and readers and viewers haven’t noticed any difference in coverage.
Still, for some reporters, there is an element of spontaneity and detail that has been lost in this distanced, digital world. Chris Cheung, a staff reporter at The Tyee, illustrates the issue with an anecdote from a pre-Covid assignment, in which he was interviewing the owner and staff of a Vancouver fireworks store shortly before the city’s impending fireworks ban.
After the interview, the staff gave him a tour of the cramped store. “They were able to physically show me which ones were their favourite (fireworks) from behind the counter,” Cheung says. “Having that interaction was really important.” When you’re not in the same space, it’s hard to paint a picture of what a person looks like, acts like—or describe their body language. “Zoom, you can do that to a degree,” says Cheung. “But I think a lot of the spontaneity, you’d miss out on.”
Mike Howell, a long-time municipal affairs columnist and reporter for Glacier Media, says that covering Vancouver City Hall has been made difficult by not being physically present. “What I really miss now is the daily interaction with people, which is a big part of the rhythm of the job,” says Howell. “I miss the scrums, because I would get a lot of other stories outside the council chamber that way.”
Howell says that, through those interactions, he was able to improve his stories by being able to observe a scene or situation. “It’s really difficult to cover stories about homelessness and drug addiction if you’re not actually talking to people, one-on-one, who are going through a crisis.”
On top of that, Howell says that getting in touch with government officials for more information has become increasingly hard in the Covid era. “When you’re covering a city budget, and there’s all these numbers flying around, and you want to clarify stuff, I always found it easier if I could talk to some of the head finance people right after the mini-meeting, in the lobby, to clarify things.”
While some of the loss to reporters is spontaneous—not being able to chase down a finance guy at City Hall—the other loss is in how the balance of control has shifted from reporters to government officials.
Penny Daflos, a reporter for CTV Vancouver and host of the “BTS with CTV Vancouver” podcast, notes how Covid press conferences, held by B.C.’s ministry of health, happen only twice a week now—and because they’re entirely remote, with reporters queued up on the phone, the government can direct the flow of information.
“You only get one question, plus a follow up, per outlet—and they can mute you,” says Daflos. While reporters used to be able to ask an organic follow-up question in the pre-Covid era, she adds, “now it’s much more structured and the government has much more control than they did before.”
And Daflos thinks that this new format—and the loss of accountability it encourages—seems likely to stay, post-Covid. “My impression is they’re satisfied with how things are right now,” she says. “If anything, what we’ve seen (in early January) is that they’re dialing back access even more, rather than improving access and the ability to ask questions.”