Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

How the Journal Sentinel’s DC bureau chief is covering politics during the pandemic

The Covid-19 outbreak has relegated political coverage from the lead to the inside pages or the middle of television newscasts. But it doesn’t mean the presidential contest and state and local political races are being ignored. It does mean political writers face challenges like nothing they have faced before. Craig Gilbert, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has often focused on polarization and voting trends. In recent days, he has been watching the remarkable increase in absentee ballot requests ahead of Wisconsin’s April 7 primary.  

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

Gilbert: I have a pipeline of political stories. Some of them will run later than they would have. The timing issues include not just the competition for readers’ attention but the fact that the context for everything has changed. That makes some stories less important or less relevant. Other stories just need to be reframed.

Are you working remotely? What’s your best strategy for interviewing voters in the age of coronavirus? Do you find them receptive?

Gilbert: I have spent a lot of time over the past 2-plus years interviewing voters on the ground in Wisconsin at fairs, sporting events, trade shows, bars, bowling alleys, etc. That’s obviously not possible right now.  I have access to a pretty good call list of Wisconsin voters. I was starting to use that to supplement in-person interviews, so I will be using that far more heavily in the future.

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

Gilbert: None of these are great, but you are left with social media, opinion polls and anecdotal (individual voter interviews, yard signs?). Not sure what else.

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One metric, of course, is polling. Do you worry that polling during the epidemic will misjudge likely voters?

Gilbert: Polling already had issues of course. But now the crisis could sideline call centers, meaning we become more reliant on internet polls rather than live-caller polls. And of course, we don’t know how our elections are going to be conducted (how much by mail, how much election-day voting at the polls) so that complicates the issues of capturing the true electorate in a poll. But aside from measuring the horse race, polls will still have value in measuring broad public opinion, which is most of what I use them for (as opposed to who’s ahead and who’s behind in the election contests).

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

Gilbert: There is massively more I can do from home as a political reporter than I could have 10-20 years ago. But clearly there are limitations. Not being “on the ground” in the community or at campaign events or other public gatherings is hard to replace, because a reporter always gets ideas and inspirations from being in the field. 

How are you taking care of yourself?

Gilbert: I am working from home. I cancelled a two-week-plus reporting trip to Wisconsin ahead of the state’s April 7 primary.

Gilbert has served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Lubar Fellow at Marquette Law School, and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he studied public opinion, survey research, voting behavior and statistics.