Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

How many journalists have COVID-19? Why we don’t know

Image from BrieAnna J. Frank‘s video of  interactions between protesters and reporters (Phoenix)

We know about high-profile journalists who have battled COVID-19 —  Lesley Stahl, Chris Cuomo, David Von Drehle, and others. And we know of those who have shared their experiences through stories, tweets or on-air accounts. But we don’t know how many journalists in the U.S. or around the world have tested positive or been presumed positive for the virus.

Privacy in healthcare and medicine is essential, but it also means news organizations are limited in the information they can require from employees. And of course, freelance journalists don’t have HR departments or news organizations tracking their sick days.

The National Press Club Journalism Institute last week asked leaders at 17 of the country’s biggest news organizations — from broadcast networks to wire services to major newspaper  and digital organizations — for the number of journalists in their organizations who have tested positive or been presumed positive, and for their policies to protect workers who may have been exposed. A majority have not responded, some have declined to answer and two did so only on the condition of anonymity.

One major newspaper chain, which asked not to be identified publicly, said only one journalist and four employees overall had tested positive for the coronavirus company-wide. That would be far below national infection rates. One global news service, which also did not want to be identified, declined to disclose the number of employees who had tested positive. But a company official said it requests employees who test positive to notify human resources personnel.

“Employee medical information is confidential,” Constantinos G. Panagopoulos, a partner at Ballard Spahr, said in an email. “Disclosures with respect to specific disabilities/diseases/sicknesses cannot be required, although they can be made voluntarily.  Employers can ask employees to let the employer know if the employee is experiencing any COVID symptoms.”

While such rules apply to all employers, the nature of their work leaves journalists vulnerable to the virus, making voluntary reporting important for their health and that of colleagues.

Two members of the 24,000 member NewsGuild-CWA have died, said union president Jon Schleuss in an interview. One was AP deputy technology editor Nick Jesdanun and the other was former New York Times reporter and editor Alan Finder. (At least 30 other journalists have died globally, according to tracking by Poynter.) Schleuss attributes the low number of known cases among journalists to early decisions in many newsrooms to begin remote work.

He pointed out that an early March journalism conference in New Orleans, which attracted investigative reporters and editors from across the country, may have prompted many newsrooms to initiate quarantine measures after news broke that one attendee tested positive.

“Seems like newsrooms — and I don’t know if it’s really that conference — but it seems like newsrooms started to have people work from home faster than a lot of other businesses,” Schleuss said.

Schleuss would like it to stay that way for some time.

“Right now people need to be able to work from home if they can. And that’s, I think, regardless of whether there’s a proper amount of testing, or contact tracing, until there’s a vaccine,” he said. “I don’t want workers to be going back into the newsroom if they don’t have to, even if there’s a 0.1%  chance of getting infected. It’s just not worth the risk.”

Unions representing primarily broadcast news workers recently proposed COVID-19 related guidelines for employers that included the adoption of “strict contact tracing plans to self-isolate those who may have been exposed to anyone who tests positive or exhibits symptoms consistent with the virus.”

The newspaper chain that responded to the Journalism Institute questions said it asks individuals to notify a manager or the human relations department if diagnosed or showing symptoms. Employees who work in the same work environment are notified that they may have been exposed to a coworker who tested positive.

The global news service said that if an employee who tests positive has been in a company office or in contact with another employee within 14 days of testing positive, the company informs all employees who had or may have had direct contact or been in the vicinity of that employee. The area and its surroundings also would undergo a thorough disinfection cleaning as required by local authorities and guidelines, the official said.

In an email, Panagopoulos, the partner at Ballard Spahr, said the law firm advises employers: 

  • “If an employee is exhibiting symptoms, she/he is placed on leave for 14 days.  The employee is asked to let HR know how he/she is doing and told that if he/she tests positive for COVID, we request, but do not require that the employer be informed in order to help protect other employees. 
  • “If an employee is sent home due to symptoms, all employees he/she was in contact with are reminded about handwashing/personal protection, etc. The employees are told that someone (not who) they have been in contact with is home sick, and are asked to carefully monitor their own health and take precautions at home. 
  • “If an employee informs the employer that she/he tested positive, the response depends on the employer/the workplace/the job/etc.  In general, however, where possible, we recommend that employees in contact with that person be sent home for a 14 day quarantine.”

Undercounting the prevalence of COVID-19 among journalists could obscure the ripple effects of the virus on journalism and slow news organizations’ ability to identify patterns — for example, which roles are at greatest risk — that could help keep journalists and their families safe. Meanwhile, journalists are attacked while reporting in the field and criticized for wearing masks by unmasked protesters, increasing the possibility of infection among those who must work outside the safety of their homes.