Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Post readers still want their Fix of politics news ‘as a kind of escape’ from coronavirus

Every Thursday at noon, a team of  Washington Post reporters go live online to answer reader questions about politics. Even as the nation’s attention focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, politics remains a subject of interest, especially to Washington Post readers. So “Politics Live with The Fix” is still a go-to chat for many. As The Fix editor Natalie Jennings noted, “The Fix team is coming to you from our homes in and around Washington D.C. this week, where we’ve been looking at all the ways the coronavirus touches politics — from the White House to Capitol Hill to the campaign trail.”  We wanted to know how the landscape had changed for Jennings and team members Amber Phillips, Aaron Blake, Eugene Scott and JM Rieger. Phillips responded to our questions.

 As people hunker down at home, how are you interacting with readers and how does that compare with how you did before the pandemic?

Phillips: Chats offer a more direct way for readers to connect with Post journalists than other channels, like email or social media, since reporters are responding in real time. In all our chats, not just on The Fix, readers tell us they appreciate this access to Post reporters. On our side, these chats give us an opportunity to lift the curtain on our reporting for readers.

In the Fix chat and in my 5-Minute Fix newsletter, I hear from readers who say they just want to talk about politics separate from coronavirus, as a kind of escape or break from the main news. I am also making an effort to respond to readers’ emails more than I used to. I want to hear what they’re interested in during this pandemic. As you can imagine, our chat on Thursday (March 19), the first time the country was really under social distancing guidelines, was very busy!

How is your audience changing with this pandemic?

Phillips: Anytime there’s a big political news event, like impeachment and now coronavirus, a broader audience comes to our chat to use us as a resource to better understand what’s happening. We also know that a lot of people read the transcripts of the chat after it’s done. 

Your March 19 chat still had a number of presidential election questions. But what challenges do you face as journalists in responding to questions that are increasingly focused on the virus, the WH response, the congressional stimulus and more?

Phillips: Everything in our political coverage and analysis has been dominated by coronavirus, so it’s definitely a challenge for me, at least, to keep up on regular electoral news (presidential, Senate and down ballot). One trend I have noticed is that we are sometimes forced to be real-time fact checkers to President Trump’s repeated misleading and wrong claims about coronavirus in his daily press briefings and tweets.

As political writers, what impact do you think the pandemic will have on reader interest on electoral politics?

Phillips: I think it will heighten interest in not only who controls the White House but also Congress and state governments. So much of the pandemic response has been driven by states and localities; those are the politicians most affecting people’s lives during this with their decisions. Also, we don’t have precedent for a major global pandemic hitting the nation just eight months before a presidential election. 

What percentage of the questions that you get do you actually have the time to respond to on any given Thursday?

Phillips: We work really hard to answer as many questions as we can, but every week there are questions we don’t get to. On busy days, we try to focus our energy on answering questions that we see a lot of people are asking. For example, during impeachment, a big chunk of the questions were about the role Chief Justice John Roberts could play in setting up the trial, so we answered just one of the dozen or so questions about that I’d estimate we received. 

As you all are working from home, can you describe how that process works as each of you decide which questions to tackle?

Phillips: It’s a mix of things. Even in the office, we would do this chat from our respective desks. (Technology!) We try to put questions we are answering in a queue, so we can see what other people are working on. We have a good sense of each other’s expertise and can suggest or flag questions for our colleagues to answer. Then, to help guide readers, we start the chat with an intro that highlights who’s working on what to direct readers’ questions to subjects we understand best.

…are most questions submitted ahead of time or are most live?

Phillips: It’s a mix — we try to promote the chat in stories and in The 5-Minute Fix newsletter I author — but most of the time we see questions pop up as the chat goes live. We do hear from a number of people that they build this chat into schedule, and they say they look forward to it. It seems like that sentiment has increased as people are at home and want some semblance of normalcy. Another big driver of the conversation for our live chat comes from people who don’t submit questions, but who chime in to debate an answer we gave.

How are you taking care of yourself?

Phillips: I’m doing lots of yoga and reminding myself of the important role journalists play in this crisis: To keep people informed.