Coronavirus and the Newsroom: Guidance to keep your team safe

March 13, 2020 11:30

Newsrooms across the country are working tirelessly to cover the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, turning to experts, combating misinformation and fighting fear with facts. They’re doing an outstanding job.
“The motivation, morale and gungho spirit to keep on top of this story rivals the first Gulf War,” says KOMO News radio program director Rick Van Cise.

Newsrooms are also working hard to explain their coverage to audiences. Melissa Luck, KXLY news director, told us her company specifically asked news directors to do so. "We need people to understand that we have questions and concerns, too, but we're committed to doing this right," she says. Here's her editorial.
As the virus spreads, though, a growing number of newsrooms are facing a new question: How to continue covering the news while staying safe and healthy themselves.
Newsrooms typically plan for disasters as serious but time-limited events. Breaking news with risks to safety to mitigate for just an hour or day. Not for sustained, snowballing situations in which we’re being asked to limit social contact – exactly what a journalist’s day centers around.
Severe weather and natural disaster procedures can be a good place to start. Allison McGinley, WKMG news director and RTDNA board member, says, “Our crews make decisions on what is safe and then let management know – just as if a situation got dangerous or weather became severe.”

We talked to news leaders in some hard-hit areas, including Washington State, to see what they’re doing. Luck wrote:
"Our company as a whole is planning for the worst-case scenario. What happens if our buildings have an infected employee? What steps would we need to take? What if there was a large community quarantine order? We're trying to determine how many people we would need to designate to stay at the station to get newscasts on the air. We're also exploring who can truly work from home and how that would work." 

Bill Dallman, KOMO-TV news director and RTDNA board member, sent a list of guidelines (below), saying, “KOMO started implementing most of the procedures shortly after the first cases in Washington State on Feb. 29th. He also included an important reminder: “Remember, this is our calling. This is when people need us most and when we provide critical information in a time of need.”

Matt Mrozinski, KING-TV, told us, “At KING 5, we have tried hard to eliminate unnecessary risks. We understand that just one positive case could disrupt our ability to serve the audience. At worst, it could shut down the newsroom.” See KING’s procedures below.

Guidance for Newsrooms

Updated 6/6/2020 with guidance in planning for reopening

Newsroom managers, your team's safety must be your first priority. News teams, your first job is to keep yourself and your family healthy. All news staff should follow CDC, state and local health official's guidelines for safe physical distancing. Doing so – and communicating with your audience how you are doing so – also models good practices to your audience.
Avoid the newsroom
  • Remind all employees that they may not come to work with any symptoms. Be as flexible as possible with leave and communicate company policies frequently and clearly.
  • Stagger shifts to reduce the number of people in the building to only essential personnel.
  • Practice safe physical distancing in the building at all times. Limit access to master control and production control.
  • Encourage all staff to avoid the newsroom whenever possible.
  • Do not require field crews to report to the newsroom.
  • Clean desks, equipment and vehicles at the end of shifts. Assign equipment to as few people as possible. Find tips for safely disinfecting electronic devices here and here.
  • Wash hands often!
Working Remotely
  • Hold meetings by phone or video meeting, rather than in person (Try Facebook video chat, Zoom or Skype).
  • Equip digital and producer teams to work remotely.
  • Maximize the use of remote units.
  • Photographer/Reporter teams should meet offsite.
  • Conduct interviews by phone or video chat instead of in person (here's a useful app for going live to radio and here are tips for remote interviews).  Accessibility tip: Use lower thirds and full screens for video and audio interviews.
In the Field
  • Pool coverage and tap into streams and satellite feeds whenever possible. Accessibility tip: Ensure Sign Language Interpreters are always visible when airing press conferences.
  • Conduct in-person interviews outdoors at a distance of 6 feet apart.
  • Protect mics with disposable covers and don't use mics that touch interviewees.
  • Boom-style microphones can be rigged using light stands, tripods or other available rods or poles. Sanitize microphones after each interview.
  • Do not allow interviewees to touch equipment.

As of April 3, the CDC "recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission." Some jurisdictions are requiring residents to wear face coverings when outdoors or in public places. News crews should follow CDC recommendations and all state and local emergency guidelines, including wearing face coverings when recommended or required. Note that the CDC also recommends medical-grade masks be diverted to medical professionals, and suggests cloth alternatives.

Planning for reopening

As many cities and states begin to enter the initial phases of reopening, newsrooms may be considering returning more staff to the newsroom.

Most newsrooms have been relying primarily on skeleton crews in the newsroom with the bulk of the team reporting remotely, in some cases including anchors, meteorologists and producers.

As of the beginning of June, nearly all newsrooms we’ve spoken with are still approximately 70 to 90% working from home, though a few in less-impacted areas have returned to full staffing.

Considerations for returning more staff to newsrooms will vary dramatically based on local conditions. In planning for your newsroom, consider not only state, county and local mandates for places of work, but also local COVID data like case trends and hospitalizations. Newsrooms in metropolitan areas may have additional considerations, including the availability and safety of public transportation.

Several newsrooms report plans continue remote work through the end of the year or indefinitely, either due to ongoing COVID conditions, or after finding success with remote work. Some are working to increase work-from-home capabilities for their teams.

A majority of the newsrooms we’ve spoken with plan to return staff to stations more slowly than official guidelines would allow, often some 2 to 4 weeks or more behind their local reopening phase. A well thought out approach for return mimics the phased approach: perhaps beginning with managers, adding anchors and on-air talent and finally more remote-friendly roles like digital teams.

Here are some additional questions to consider when planning for reopening:
  • Are you making accommodations for staff who are at high risk or wish to continue working from home?
  • Are you providing staff with masks? Are they required in the building or in common areas?
  • What are your cleaning protocols?
  • Are anchors physically separated in studio?
  • Can desks or studios be dedicated to particular staff?
  • Can meetings be held via Zoom instead of in person, including for staff who are in the building?
  • Can sneeze guards or plexiglass screens be installed between desks, in control rooms and in reception areas?
  • Can physical layouts, especially of common areas like kitchens, cafeterias and other group gathering spaces be adjusted to maintain social distancing?

Care for Your Team
  • Accommodate staff needs, including those at elevated risk and caretakers of those with increased risk.
  • As schools remain closed, parents are in immediate need of childcare or accommodation to stay home with kids. Newsrooms can pool resources to support parents.
  • Constantly reevaluate staffing levels and schedules to reduce individual workload. Look for opportunities to shorten workdays and relieve pressure on staff.
  • Find opportunities for days off – and proactively encourage them. Remind people to log off after their shifts and to take breaks. Burnout is a real risk.
  • Communicate with your team frequently. Keep communications short and skim-able.
  • Reach out regularly and proactively to each member of your team, particularly those on different shifts, to check in.
  • Check in with your team daily by video and begin by asking your team what they are doing to take care of themselves.
  • Model self-care to your team.

Journalists, remember, what you do matters. There's more to come as this situation continues to develop – it’s a “relay marathon,” as RTDNA’s Dan Shelley says, not a sprint.
"The impact on all of our lives is real. As journalists, we're used to covering tragedies and emergencies, but we're separated from them. This is in all of our lives and communities," Luck says. "Our job of informing the community has never been more important." 

As news anchor “Write Like You Talk” author Jeff Butera said on Twitter, “Inform, don’t inflame. Be relevant and measured.”
And wash your hands!

TEGNA Guidance:

We are limiting employees in our building to only those absolutely necessary to put on newscasts.  We are offering technical help for stations so anchors, producers, digital, assignment editors and weather can work from home.  No field crews (reporters, photographers, MSJ’s) are coming into the building. Our crews are no longer conducting interviews in person. They are all conducted via FaceTime, Skype, Zoom etc. If an interview absolutely must take place it is outside and with a six feet distance. Only boom or stick mics.  

KOMO-TV Guidelines:
  • Use your phone to interview subjects in the field, using speakerphone audio and phone picture (Skype, Facetime etc)
    • This can apply to stories other than Coronavirus/COVID-19 stories
  • Limit in-studio guests- Use FaceTime or Skype for live interviews.  This includes doctors
  • Use URL of state websites to stream and record press conferences.  These Newsrs are jammed, let’s use a stream and not attend when we can.  One crew per Newsr.
  • Use Chime-In to request video from viewers and/or potential guests
  • Use Live U- Phone App.  We can put your report live on the air as a source in Live U Matrix
  • Crews should try to meet in the field, edit in the field, any other strategies to limit traffic into the station
  • For sporting events and community events (if they aren’t all canceled) use satellite feeds, etc.  Don’t attend games or practices if possible.  NO LOCKEROOM entry, use podium
  • No air travel for news stories or conferences until further notice
  • Job openings- conduct interviews by Skype, do not bring candidates in the building
  • Keep your spacing in meetings.  6 feet from one another.  Call-in rather than in-person as an option
KING-TV Guidelines:
Hello from ground zero of the U.S. COVID-19.

We are all in this together so I wanted to share with you what life is like in our newsroom. Hopefully you can learn from some of our precautions and help share your own. Like others, we are learning as we go and making changes to protect everyone.

At KING 5, we have tried hard to eliminate unnecessary risks. We understand that just one positive case could disrupt our ability to serve the audience. At worst, it could shut down the newsroom.
  • Our meetings take place in small groups in open areas.
  • You simply do NOT come in if you have any symptom of anything. We make everyone comfortable in doing that.
  • We do not shake hands. We try to maintain that 6ft space as best we can. “Social distancing.”
  • Most field crews do not report to the building. It is all take home cars and remote editing. We hand off TVU’s in our back alley. “Drive-thru TVU.”
  • Anyone who can work from home does.
  • Sanitizing gel and wipes have been distributed to crews. (What little are left).
  • Cleaning services have been increased.
  • We ask photographers to be mindful of sanitizing the lav mic or (cringe) do not use one if you have concerns.
  • Work stations are wiped down before use.
  • Hand washing is a top priority. Use soap and water in house, and conserve the sanitizing gel for those who do not have access to soap and water.
  • Schools closed today so we will likely have to accommodate shift changes for those families - where we can.
  • Remember that you have at risk employees or employees with at risk family members. Honor their requests.
  • Ask for help. Call up corporate. Be ready to backfill.
KXLY work-from home experiment:
It started as just a company directive: find out if a reporter could produce a story entirely from home? Could we do it? What technology gaps do we have? Our amazing anchor/reporter Ariana Lake took up the challenge today and did just that. She never left home and did two packages AND two live shots. She also brought viewers along for the process through social media. We learned a lot about what we need to equip field crews with - but we also showed our community how they can prepare for this and also that we are learning what we need to do to bring them the information they rely on, even if we can't do it the traditional way. Follow the story here.
Thank you to Ellen Crooke (TEGNA), Bill Dallman (KOMO TV), Blaise Labbe (Sinclair), Melissa Luck (KXLY), Allison McGinley (WGME), Matt Mrozinski (KING TV), Andrea Stahlman (WLKY), Rick Van Cise (KOMO Radio) and many additional comments submitted via survey for sharing their newsrooms’ coronavirus procedures with us.