Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Journalists’ advice to the Class of 2020

The National Press Club Journalism Institute is spotlighting the next generation of journalists, students graduating from college or Master’s programs this spring into a challenging job market. Read on for advice we’ve received from journalists across the industry.

Frankie McLister (Arizona State University) asked Robin Roberts (Good Morning America): How do you keep going and how do you come off so “down-to-earth” on air?

ABC NEWS – Robin Roberts

Robin Roberts: How do I keep going? My dear mother taught me that everyone’s got something and not to compare my despair with anyone else’s. Also I learned that optimism is just like a muscle that gets stronger with use. Early in life I made it a habit to be optimistic.

How do I come off so “down-to-earth” on air? First of all thank you! What you see is what you get. I’m no different in person than on the air. Treat people with respect, show a genuine interest in them, be your authentic self and be of service to others. 

Blessings, Frankie McLister, I wish you all the best. Remember when fear knocks, let faith answer the door.

Jane Turchi (Texas A&M University) asked Kat Lonsdorf (NPR):  Do you have advice for how to build strong relationships with sources and discover interesting, creative stories?

Kat Lonsdorf: My advice would be to do as much research as you can before you go somewhere new. Make as many phone calls as possible, talk to local reporters, read all the books you can get your hands on, and ask people who have been to the area before what they thought was interesting. Before I went to Fukushima, I became obsessed with it – I spent hours just poking around on Google maps, for example, so I was familiar with the area before I got there. People will appreciate the work you’ve done once you’re in the new place. And then once I was there, I was curious about everything. Talk to everyone you meet – servers at restaurants, shop keepers, hotel staff. Ask them what they think. Spend time with people and really get to know them, if you can. Show them that you care, and then let them lead you to the hidden stories.

Read Kat Lonsdorf’s advice to the class of 2020: ‘I was a journalism grad in a recession; what I got was a second education’

Elise Dean (American University) asked Sean Rameswaram (Vox): I would love to learn the process of making on-air hosting sound so effortless. 

Sean Rameswaram: Thanks so much for listening, Elise. When we set out to make ‘Today, Explained,’ one goal outranked all the others: make a news show that felt human. What you hear is our dream fully realized. you laugh, you cry, you lean in, you skip back, you’re outraged. I hope listening to our show reminds you of your agency to do something about the most important issues in the world.

With regard to how we decide what to cover, the team is deeply collaborative. We all pitch ideas and improve each other’s work throughout the production process. And as far as the voice of the show is concerned, I’ve been trying to find and perfect it for about a decade, so if you haven’t started yet you better get cracking!

Tony Thai (Arizona State University) asked John Moore (Getty Images): How do you feel about your photos? Do you let your emotions help you pick photos or is it just known by your brain this a good photo?

John Moore: In my role at Getty Images, I’m almost always photographing for our editorial news wire service. As such, I will edit a take of images that tell the story of a coverage in a fairly broad way. So I don’t have to edit too tightly, as I would if I was editing an actual picture story for a publication. In my looser edit, seen on the Getty Images site, I will send both “process” pictures, often of people doing things, and also, hopefully, more emotional frames, which engage the viewer on a deeper level. 

The goal is always to both educate with images and to make people feel something about the story. Although single images usually have more iconic resonance, I also try to be more explanatory through multiple picture series or stories. 

All that said, here’s the shorter answer to your question: I edit with both my heart and my head, but the images that touch people most, they come from the heart. 

Lou Buhl (Wayne State University) asked Sarah Alvarez (Outlier Media): what is her advice on how to do the work that matters most while still being able to pay the bills? Also how to stay strong as a female journalist in the age of the internet and online trolling and harassment.

Sarah Alvarez: I’m truly flattered you would be interested in my advice and will do my best to give you something useful. Like I say to all my sources, you’ll have to let me know what happens. It’s the only way I’ll know if the information was any good.

It might sound counterintuitive but one of my guiding principles is, I’m willing to walk away at any moment. Reporting and working in news and information is bound up with what I care deeply about. That’s a privilege my ancestors have worked for me to have – very specifically – and I’m going to stretch in this space and stay here as long as I can.

Still, if I can’t do this work in a way that is consistent with my values and in spaces where my dignity is acknowledged I’ll just do different work. I’m not willing to go broke. I won’t work in an environment where power and respect aren’t easily shared. As long as I’m able to make choices about the work I do, those are choices I’m going to make.

I encourage you to think about why you do this work. Be really honest with yourself. You’ll have to keep that close and check-in with yourself. Ask yourself, often, if you’re putting out into the world what you hoped you would. Are you getting what you need? 

Protect your hunger to do your best work! Your value is with you – not your work – so always know you can do something else, create value in other ways. That goes for the trolls too, any place you work for needs to help protect you from abuse. If they can’t they need to help you navigate through abuse by paying for the resources you’ll need. 

I asked two of the women I respect most, Candice Fortman and Katlyn Alo, for the advice they would give you. Candice says, “The power in your work will come from understanding the needs of your community, not by assumption, but by asking them what they need from you and treating them as collaborative partners at each step. Do not underestimate their ability to know what they need and to be able to guide your hand in producing it in ways that make it useful.”  

Katlyn says, “We work on getting information to people who need it most and who are faced with systematic barriers to accessing that information. If that work were easy, more newsrooms would be doing it. Don’t mistake something no one has ever done before for something that’s impossible. We have a duty to correct the course of an industry that has balanced its books on advertising over creating business models for equity.”

Happy graduation. I’m sorry most of the traditional ways you would celebrate are not available to you because of what’s going on in the world. As a graduation gift, I’d like to commission a piece from you. Pitch me a few options. I’ll pay you $500, I’ll edit you and I’ll help you find the right place to publish it. 

Will Bjarnar (Marist College) asked John Branch (The New York Times): The best piece of journalism ever written, for my money, is Branch’s “Snow Fall.” How did he find that? How did he approach it? At what point did he know how to take information and flip it into a story that people would reference in a class/ marvel at for years to come? Was there ever a realization of that kind? He’s a fascinating person and a brilliant writer, one who I’ve admired for years. I’d want to pick that brain.

John Branch: Will, Snow Fall began just like every other story begins — a news nugget, a passing mention. An astute editor mentioned the subject of avalanches to me. It felt like a ripe topic, this force that kills dozens of Americans each year, including several top skiers that season, but goes largely unnoticed because they rarely kill more than one or two at a time.

Like every story, reporting began with research and phone calls. I soon focused on the Tunnel Creek avalanche, because there were witnesses and survivors. One call led to another and another — as I like to say, journalists merely pick up stones and look under them. It was months before we involved our graphics team, and even then I couldn’t envision what Snow Fall would become. I just wanted to tell a story.

The lesson? It applies to every story, but also every journalism career: Go with an open mind, be insatiably curious, follow your gut, find truth. And don’t think you know where things will end up, because none of us do. That’s why we report. That’s why we live. 

Jenna Ortiz (Arizona State University) to Helene Elliott (L.A. Times): She inspired me to aim high for goals that I didn’t think were possible for journalists. I was fortunate to have met her a few years ago when I attended a journalism conference as a high school junior. She was so polite and helpful.

Helene Elliott responds: My advice to her is to never stop being curious and never forget that everyone has a story to tell. The platform and technology that you use to tell a story may change, but there always will be value in a compelling story that is well told. 

My other bit of advice is to never become complacent. Always think beyond what happened to consider why it happened, and what else might happen as a result. Always listen when you’re interviewing someone, instead of sticking to a list of questions. Remain open to possibilities, in journalism and in life. 

Molly Stellino (Arizona State University) to Ed Yong (The Atlantic): If I could meet any journalist and ask their advice, I would choose Ed Yong because he exemplifies the importance of good reporting during turbulent times and masterfully educated the public about the big-picture implications of the virus. His work is insightful, incisive and integral to our society.

Ed Yong responds: Hi Molly. Hi everyone. 

Above all else, work to the highest possible standard, always: Protect your work and your work will protect you. ~ Be professional: File your copy on time, to word count. ~ Park downhill at the end of the day, leaving a sentence or paragraph or piece unfinished so you don’t wake to an empty screen. ~ Cherish good editors: Don’t be precious about your words, and find the people who make your words better. ~ Actively deconstruct the work of good journalists in an attempt to decipher and reverse-engineer what makes their writing sing. ~ Pay attention to structure, and learn how to report well; remember that most writing problems are actually structuring problems, and most structuring problems are actually reporting problems. ~ Embrace nuance, and convey uncertainty. Ignore easy answers in search for deeper truths, but don’t fall prey to cheap contrarianism. ~ Recognize that you will often know relatively little about what you’re writing about, so be humble, and learn interview techniques that will delineate, probe, and stretch the limits of your own knowledge. ~ Be accurate and nuanced, but know when to let a piece go and move on to the next thing. ~ Note that it is better to be right than to be first, but it’s nice to be both. ~ Remember that you’re not writing to impress your sources or other journalists; you’re writing to help your readers make sense of the world. Take that responsibility seriously; view journalism as a profession and a craft whose standards you must uphold. ~ Prize thoughtfulness over salaciousness, depth over volume, light over heat. When you make mistakes, correct them quickly and transparently. ~ Remember that women exist, that minorities exist, that disabled and queer and trans people exist; interview them, tell their stories, and don’t do what the majority of journalists do which is to disproportionately give voice to loud white men. ~ Judge your peers for the quality of their work, rather than judging their work based on who they are; aim to be judged according to the same standard. ~ Give your loyalty to people and not to institutions; the former probably care about you and the latter probably do not. ~ Be extremely mindful about how you use social media, reaping in all its benefits as a reporting tool while skirting around its pitfalls as an emotional void. ~ Be cautious about all the advice you receive, including this, recognizing that everyone is speaking to you from some combination of luck and privilege. ~ Recognize your own luck and privilege, and work to uplift others around you. ~ Accrue social capital so you can spend it on people. ~ Be bold. Be fearless. Be kind. Be kind to yourself. ~

Good luck. 

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Stephanie Bates (Arizona State University) said to Tom Rinaldi (ESPN): “In my opinion, Tom is the best storyteller in the business and that’s what journalism is all about. Your ability to tell a story is what will set you apart from others.”

Tom Rinaldi responds: As you take the next steps in your journey, I trust your passion will be ignited by the adventure of not knowing where it will lead you. That’s the power and wonder of the story.

While I am in no position to offer definitive career advice, I can suggest a simple set of words it has taken me years to land on, words I try to keep in sight, three ideas it has I try to set my compass by.  




Here’s hoping they can guide you and serve you in the stories you’ll be telling, and the ones I’ll be eager to see land in the world.