Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

How the Inquirer is covering the ‘invisible’ presidential campaign

What does a venerable newspaper like the Philadelphia Inquirer do when coronavirus overtakes the presidential campaign of its “hometown” candidate? After all, Joe Biden, the Scranton-born former senator from neighboring Delaware has his campaign headquarters just blocks from the newsroom.

“Joe Biden is very much a local story for Inquirer readers, referred to for years as ‘Pennsylvania’s third senator,’ not entirely jokingly,” said Tom Fitzgerald, the Inquirer’s political editor in an email Q&A.

“We cover his virtual campaign events and also have been doing more thematic stories, such as a recent one about his difficulty breaking into the national news cycle in the pandemic, overshadowed by big-state governors and the president. “

But Fitzgerald sees a broader purpose, too.

“It’s even more important to cover politics now, both because the pandemic has raised plenty of issues and concerns, and as a strategic matter, to give readers something besides all virus all the time.”

What strategies do you give reporters for interviewing voters in the age of coronavirus?

Fitzgerald: We’re still trying to adjust to how to interview voters. We’ve used call-outs on social media by reporters: ‘I’m working on a story on such-and-such, DM me or call me at this number please?’ We also have a regular online feature, Curious Philly, which lets readers ask us about anything, and we answer the best questions. We’ve been using it somewhat to engage readers on political topics. And we’re trying to figure out ways to convene groups, or “panels” of voters to participate in virtual interviews. For all the means of fast communication, though, so much of political campaigning is high-touch, in rallies, town halls and field ops.

Without rallies to attend, what becomes your best yardstick for determining the energy behind a candidate?

Fitzgerald: Polling is probably the best, or at least the most accessible metric, because the best polls have a good deal of rigor behind them. Yet there’s not a lot of good public polling available below the statewide level – in congressional races, or state legislative contests, for instance. Fundraising is useful, but campaigns have been telling us it’s difficult to raise money in this environment, so how good a metric is it? Endorsements, or support from party organizations or activist groups can provide clues in the more local races, but all of that activity seems muted now.

 I am concerned that polling will be inaccurate in identifying likely voters, especially in states that do not have “no-excuse” absentee balloting or voting by mail. Coronavirus seems likely to depress turnout at traditional in-person polling places, at least in the short term, but poll respondents may be hesitant to tell a poll taker they are afraid to go.

In the midst of this epidemic, what is your biggest challenge as a political editor?

Fitzgerald: Trying to figure out how the epidemic might affect voter behavior and, practically speaking, how to report on a campaign that has become, at least now, kind of invisible.

 Are you saving political stories for a time when the competition for the readers’ attention won’t be so great?

Fitzgerald:  It doesn’t feel like the readers have as much bandwidth for purely political stories right now. Our political coverage lately has focused a lot on news related to the coronavirus, such as the effort in Pennsylvania to join other states and postpone its primary, and the effects of the situation on campaigns, from the Democratic primary for president to state legislative seats. (hard to contact voters in person, hard to get in the news cycle, hard to raise money, etc.) And the politics of this crisis for Trump, the “disappearance” of Biden from the national conversation.

At some point, I expect, as do other editors at The Inquirer, that there will be an increasing appetite for non-coronavirus stories. When that is, who knows? And will there even be a traditional campaign left to cover?  

How are you taking care of yourself?

Fitzgerald: I try to get enough sleep and take as many walks as possible – while keeping the right distance between me and others, of course.