Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Chicago Tribune’s primary coverage changed by pandemic

Tuesday’s primaries in Illinois, Florida and Arizona were the first to take place after state and federal governments significantly tightened public health guidelines in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Some states have now delayed their primaries. Others, such as the April 7 Wisconsin primary, are still on schedule. To give journalists a glimpse of what primary day coverage looked like during a public health alert, we emailed the Chicago Tribune’s award-winning political writer Rick Pearson Tuesday to get his take on covering an election upended by a looming epidemic. He also sent an update on Wednesday.

Give us your thoughts on the precautions you are all taking in covering today’s Illinois primary?

Pearson: First, those who can work from home have been allowed to do so. As a result, only a handful of editors and reporters are in the office.

In the newsroom, our reporters and editors are updating a live blog throughout the day. We’re constantly pushing out email alerts and social media updates, giving readers real-time updates on the latest news as it happens.

Our reporters out in the field checking on polling and voting snafus are practicing social distancing guidelines as are many of the people that we’ve interviewed. That includes older, potentially vulnerable voters who aren’t being shy to speak about defending the right to vote—while cautioning they don’t want people too close to them.

How is it different than how you’d otherwise be covering it?

Pearson: On one level of staffing, candidates have cancelled any victory celebrations due to the guidance of the CDC on public gatherings and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. So, rather than having to send staff to cover those, most of the candidates are making themselves available by phone.

All in all, despite plenty of snafus, things should work relatively smoothly tonight for vote counting with one caveat — due to pre-election encouragement from officials, we’re seeing a record number of vote-by-mail ballot requests. Those ballots have to be postmarked today but still count if they arrive to election officials afterward. That could mean some close contests won’t be decided for a while.

Still, rather than a story about winners and losers, including the Democratic presidential nominating process, the story is likely to focus on coronavirus.

We checked in with Pearson Wednesday to get his final takeaways.

Pearson: I’d note that we didn’t have record low turnout in Chicago and its suburbs despite polling place snafus and concern of coronavirus. The Democratic presidential contest was called early, which actually helped us have more time to get granular on the results, point to differences from a close 2016 contest, and note demographics of importance using AP VoteCast to show the 42% of self-identified liberals virtually split between Sanders and Biden, which should have been the Vermont senator’s base. Biden then cleaned up on self-identified moderates/conservatives to win easily. As for upcoming primaries, I’m not sure what we’ll face though the vote-by-mail push is real despite potential problems as a one-stop alternative.