Print and broadcast journalists who do the spadework of daily local and national breaking news reporting are being challenged like never before to cover an all-encompassing, relentlessly complex and fast-moving story. So many of those in the trenches of coronavirus coverage for major TV news organizations are women. In telling the stories of frontline workers and keeping government officials’ feet held to the fire, they’ve become frontline workers themselves.
“I’ve never felt more responsibility as a journalist and as a White House correspondent to get actionable information out to the public,” says Kristen Welker, a correspondent for MSNBC and NBC News. “You’re constantly asking yourself, ‘Am I doing enough? Am I living up to this moment? Am I asking the toughest questions of the president to make sure we’re continuing to do our job to hold him accountable for his words and his promises?’”
Variety’s conversations with more than a dozen prominent reporters and anchors from ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC News and Nexstar, the nation’s largest owner of local TV stations, found that to a person, journalists believe the pandemic and its wide-ranging repercussions is the biggest story of their careers.
“I feel like I’m able to make a bigger contribution professionally in this moment than I ever will in my life,” says Erin Burnett, anchor of CNN’s nightly 7 p.m.-hour “OutFront.”
Covering the pandemic is unlike any previous experience they’ve had on big, tragic stories because in this case, their own lives are, unavoidably, deeply affected and put at risk by the very thing they are reporting on. The coronavirus outbreak has touched every aspect of American life, from public health to public policy to how we live and work in public spaces. The relentless and seemingly endless onslaught of daily news developments is also taking its toll.
“I’ve covered transformational news events. This is different,” says Kate Snow, NBC News senior national correspondent and “Nightly News” Sunday anchor. “This is not just a few days of coverage and it’s over.”
Working mothers are juggling live shots and help with science projects and reading lists. Reporters in the field worry about the potential of bringing a fatal germ home to infect their families. Reporters of color face racist comments — including one delivered testily in the Rose Garden by the president of United States — and the emotional exhaustion of covering a merciless outbreak that “disproportionately kills people who look like me,” in the words of CBS News’ Jericka Duncan, who is African American.
Duncan has done extensive reporting on how the COVID-19 outbreak has affected marginalized communities and exacerbated economic disparities. She was among the first national TV reporters to focus on how hard it was for many African Americans to get tested for the virus. She traveled to Philadelphia to interview a doctor who spent $100,000 of her own money to secure testing options for poor communities. Last month, Duncan conducted an in-depth interview via videoconferece with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who flatly stated that her city is battling two pandemics, COVID-19 and the plague of gun violence.
“It’s necessary as a journalist to point things out to the public. It drives you as a journalist to make sure you’re constantly speaking the truth and trying to understand how we got where we are,” Duncan says. “It’s a necessary function of what we do as journalists — to shine a light on things we weren’t thinking about before.”
Duncan, like so many other reporters, is doing this while grappling with homeschooling her 6-year-old-daughter, Journey. Duncan’s home base is now her living room in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. When it’s time for her to do a live shot, she gets out an ironing board, a stack of books and an iron to prop up her iPad. When she’s done, she makes a point of putting it all away.
“I’m trying to create some semblance of normalcy,” Duncan says. “I don’t really want to have a big ironing board in my living room all the time.”
For millions of working mothers, an enduring image that captures the disruption of the pandemic moment is sure to be that of MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle on the job from her home while her 11-year-old son Reese had his head in her lap — just out of camera view. The behind-the-scenes picture that circulated quickly online underscored the multitasking that so many parents have faced after schools and child care centers shuttered.
Ruhle had been working side by side with Reese on a school newspaper project in the home studio she set up over her garage. She lost track of time and then suddenly heard a voice in her earpiece telling her it was time to go live.
“I didn’t want to just push him off the chair next to me, so I just pushed him down a bit out of the frame,” Ruhle says. The response to the BTS photo reinforced her sense of privilege at being able to bond with family during the quarantine.
“If we didn’t have the privilege to get to work from home, I wouldn’t have seen my kids for these last 12 weeks,” Ruhle says.
The daily grind on the coronavirus beat runs the gamut of news with life-and-death public health consequences, political gamesmanship in Washington, economic devastation on Main Street, the crippling of public education and the question of how the events of this year will affect the presidential election in November. Reporters feel a heady obligation to get the information right, especially when it could affect the health of millions.
“I’ve worked my whole career to get to a point where I can meet the moment with what I consider my best set of skills. We’re in perpetual breaking-news mode,” says Harris Faulkner, the Fox News veteran who has anchored a daily 1 p.m. hourlong broadcast devoted to coronavirus news and information, including answering questions from viewers.
Fox News is one media outlet that has faced criticism for its handling of coronavirus coverage in its primetime opinion shows, as numerous high-profile Fox News hosts downplayed the threat of the deadly contagion.
Faulkner stressed that she is doing more research than ever for her show. She has fact-checked President Trump and other officials on air, and she flags questionable information when she hears it. Where she used to spend an hour in hair and makeup and meeting with her team, now she’s on editorial calls and reading reports from the CDC and WHO.
“When you get mixed messaging at the news conference with the task force, that makes my job harder,” she says. When I see points of conflicting information I will say to audiences, ‘I need to track that down.’ You can’t fact-check the medical research in real time.”
Communicating complicated medical information on live TV has been the specialty of Dr. Jen Ashton during her 8 years with ABC News. She’s never had more on-air time than in recent months as a co-anchor with Amy Robach of the daily 1 p.m. program “Pandemic: What You Need to Know” that replaced the afternoon edition of “Good Morning America” as of March 18.
“Covering this pandemic highlights something that should be Doctor 101 in communications — say what you know and say what you don’t know,” Ashton says.
The fact that Ashton still maintains a busy practice in New Jersey as an OB-GYN helps her handle the pressure of reporting in a crisis. “If you understand what it’s like to talk to a scared patient, you understand how the people listening to you feel and how to talk about the severity of this story.”
The growing political rancor around the coronavirus in recent weeks has sent reporters heading to statehouses and public squares to cover protests by those agitating for a faster reopening process. For Kayla Sullivan, reporter for Nexstar-owned Fox affiliate WXIN-TV Indianapolis, that has meant interfacing with crowds of people who eschew face coverings. “They do get close to you. I got called ‘fake news,’” says Sullivan. “It’s not the safest situation, but we’ve definitely covered those protests.”
Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent for CBS News, sees the fact that reporters are also steeped in pandemic concerns as good for the reporting process, for a change.
“We are conditioned to separate ourselves from the story we’re covering. When you’ve been in the field for several years, it’s a real skill to be able to put aside your emotions and thoughts in order to cover a story as objectively as possible,” Jiang says. “This is the first time I feel like I can’t do that. I’m living through the pandemic too. … I think it enriches our reporting. We’re experiencing what Americans are going through together. I think it makes our storytelling better and makes our questioning stronger.”
Jiang, who came to the U.S. as a 2-year-old from her native China, has had her mettle tested more than once by exchanges with President Trump. During a May 12 White House news conference, the president dismissively responded to a question from Jiang about coronavirus testing capabilities with “Maybe that’s a question you should ask China.” To which Jiang responded without missing a beat: “Sir, why are you saying that to me specifically?”
Jiang says the extraordinary times sparked by the coronavirus outbreak put into sharp focus the discrimination that Asian Americans have experienced as Trump and others make repeated references to the “Chinese virus.”
“It did generate a lot of conversation, and that can be productive,” Jiang says. “It’s important that we report on the crimes that are happening so that it is not normalized. That’s why diversity in the newsroom is so critical. It’s about having perspective and understanding.”
Aishah Hasnie, a Fox News correspondent based in New York, says her background as a Muslim allowed her to collaborate with fellow correspondent Lauren Green on a report about how Muslims dealt with fasting for Ramadan last month amid the pandemic and the hardship of not being able to gather for prayer services.
“That came directly from relatives and friends asking me whether it was safe to fast,” Hasnie says. “We have to pay attention to all of the families who are hurting.”
Vicky Nguyen, investigative and consumer correspondent for NBC News, says early in the lockdown, she started to feel uncomfortable being on the street wearing a mask as an Asian American. She penned an op-ed for the “Today” website and on May 13 hosted a virtual town hall with other NBC News correspondents and prominent Asian American political leaders.
“This did hit close to home for me,” Nguyen says. “This was a new fear for me. It’s a good opportunity to remind everyone that there’s one enemy here, and it’s the virus. It’s not attributed to any race of people, and we should be aware and speak out about discrimination. At the end of the day, coronavirus doesn’t care what color your skin is.”
“It’s so important now to do that field reporting and show people how the pandemic is impacting different parts of our country in different ways.”
Stephanie Ruhle, MSNBC
The national press corps is often criticized for living in the bubble of major urban centers. That has been burst by the sudden shift to work-from-home mandates that have changed the way reporters do their jobs.
“In a normal news cycle, media is accused of working in a media vortex. In our jobs we are often meeting in a conference room at Rockefeller Center, far removed from normal life,” says MSNBC’s Ruhle.
The depth of the economic crisis was driven home when she did a few special MSNBC broadcasts from the Atlantic City boardwalk, to capture the loss for small seasonal businesses. During a pandemic, reporters and anchors working in a remote unit have fewer frills than usual.
“My appreciation for field reporters has never been so high,” Ruhle says. “Being out there, there’s nowhere to eat so you’re packing all your food before the day starts. You’re bringing multiple changes of clothes, and God help you if you have to go to the bathroom.”
The public health threat from COVID-19 has greatly hampered traditional aspects of the reporting process — the shoe-leather work that cannot be replaced by social media posts and prepared statements from government officials.
“It’s so important now to do that field reporting and show people how the pandemic is impacting different parts of our country in different ways,” Ruhle says. “We’ve seen it go quickly from a public health crisis to an economic crisis.”
ABC News correspondent Eva Pilgrim risked her health to follow first responders in New York as the outbreak began to spread. The backdrop of her reporting — a desolate New York City — added context to how quickly life had changed in the nation’s largest city.
“Talking to them about the emotional toll and the stress of knowing that they were constantly coming into contact with [COVID-19] was a way to humanize what was happening,” Pilgrim says. “It was crazy to see the city of New York just empty. You never see that, even in the middle of the night. Actually being able to hear from [first responders] changes the way that other people can relate to the story.”
Fox News’ Hasnie also has made a point of getting out of her midtown apartment to do her live shots outside even if more of her reporting is being done by videoconference calls these days.
“That has been one of the biggest losses — that human interaction,” Hasnie says. “Interviewing someone face-to-face sometimes leads to a conversation going in a much deeper direction. It’s been hard to lose that.”
White House reporters trying to press the federal government on its shortcomings in responding to the coronavirus threat have to work that much harder for the access and insights they need for in-depth stories. “I can’t just hover around the West Wing press area when I know a Cabinet member is going to be walking by,” Jiang says.
Kaitlan Collins, CNN White House correspondent, broke the news on May 7 that one of President Trump’s valets had tested positive for COVID-19. That was a difficult story to report but important given the implications for all those who work at the White House. “They really did not want that out there,” Collins says. “I think that’s when it became really real for people inside the White House.”
Covering the White House in the Trump era has been a roller-coaster ride from day one. But the pandemic conditions have put the world on edge — which means reporters feel they’re under constant scrutiny from critics waiting to pounce on perceived missteps.
“It’s a necessary function of what we do as journalists — to shine a light on things we weren’t thinking about before.”
Jericka Duncan, CBSNews
“It’s so crucial to make sure you’re setting the right tone at all times. You say one snarky thing, and people will discount everything else you say,” Collins says. “That’s always true of a White House reporter, but it’s been especially true during the pandemic.”
Heightened pressure and unusual working conditions have made the high-stress job of reporting the news on live TV even more demanding. CNN’s Burnett anchors her show from the network’s Hudson Yards headquarters in New York, from a studio that she describes as “a large closet” that’s empty but for a robotic camera.
NBC News has put its White House correspondents on a strict rotation of one week of working at the White House followed by two weeks of working from home. Welker, who also is a “Weekend Today” anchor, figured out with her husband how to Velcro an iPad on top of a camera to create a teleprompter for her anchoring duties.
Despite the separation, journalists say they’re relying on their colleagues to a greater degree.
“This has forced us to work even more so as a team,” Welker says. “In this moment more than any other we’ve been forced to work together.”
NBC News’ Snow discovered that piling up pillows around her on a bed helped with the audio quality in recording pickups and voiceover for her segments. She also faced COVID-19 head-on when her husband became ill with the virus and was quarantined in the family’s basement.
Perhaps the hardest part of working from home for Snow has been reporting gut-wrenching stories such as the increase in domestic violence amid lockdown conditions with her two children in close quarters. “I have to separate myself from them and put headphones on — for their own mental health,” Snow says. “I’ve been crying a lot.”
Draining as it is, the pandemic has only reinforced the sense of purpose that led these reporters to journalism careers in the first place. WXIN-TV’s Sullivan is a native of Indianapolis. She was overjoyed last year when she landed a job in her hometown after working at smaller stations in the Hoosier State. She feels a sense of pride every time she delivers credible information to her friends and neighbors.
“It’s an honor to do this job. When I’m on air I picture myself talking to my grandmother or my mom,” Sullivan says. “This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was in the fourth grade.”
Others share Sullivan’s sense of responsibility. CNN’s Collins sees herself as representing the American public and the questions they want answered. ABC News’ Pilgrim says the volume of direct messages and feedback she’s received on coronavirus-related topics has made her realize how confused Americans were about the health threat and the lockdown protocols.
Knowing that good journalism can have a big impact on the world is the fuel that keeps reporters going in good times and bad — and never more so than now.
“Every day I walk into the White House,” CBS News’ Jiang says, “I try to pause and think about how important this work is and how grateful I am to do it.”