Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Preparing to reopen: Texas newsroom weighs safety, story, community responsibility

Beth Frerking, The Dallas Morning News

As Texas enters its first phase of reopening Friday, journalists aren’t quite sure what to expect.

What will open? What won’t? Who will visit restaurants, businesses and other establishments allowed to operate at 25% capacity as of May 1?

Those are some of the questions Beth Frerking and journalists at The Dallas Morning News are preparing to report on in coming days.

“This is actually really one those times where I don’t have any preconception of what I’m going to see,” said Frerking, the DMN’s News Vertical editor. “We just have to be out there and look for it.”

With health an ongoing concern for news teams during the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists must consider their safety while finding stories that reflect their communities. Until now, that reporting has been and will remain done largely from their homes. More interaction outdoors and in businesses poses different challenges.  

“We want to make sure that we’re representing people from all over Dallas,” Frerking said. “And that does mean, often, reporters getting in their cars and going places.”

The same safety standards in place now will apply come Friday – wearing masks and gear, observing social distancing, not interviewing people if they aren’t also wearing masks, communicating with editors when reporting from public areas. “That’s a tricky one, you know, because you want to fully reflect what is happening in people’s lives,” she said. That can be hard from a distance.

Frerking described the importance of observation. Last Friday, various members of the news team noticed that people in the community had started to push the boundaries a bit – not observing social distancing, playing basketball, visiting parks packed with people. Six or seven DMN reporters fanned out across the city to report and came back with stories about how people were spending their time. That resonated with readers. “They reported that because they could. They could literally go out in person, drive to places and see it with their own eyes. That’s so valuable, to kind of really show — what are people doing.”

“There are ways in which we’re doing things really creatively that we’ve not had to do before,” Frerking said. Time-lapse videos of food bank lines, photos from helicopters, and stories from inside testing labs are all answering questions readers are interested in – safely.

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Much of what the DMN has found is that the community wants answers to basic needs: Who is open? Who isn’t? What are the rules?

“Really popular with our readers are these very basic, consumer-focused stories that are like just basic questions like, ‘What does that mean?’

“There are so many questions as this starts rolling out,” Frerking said. “Everyone is watching us.”

Tips:

  • Encourage tipsters in whichever way works best for your community. The DMN gets a lot of engagement from readers in its Facebook groups and through callouts in stories, Frerking said.   
  • Have a plan, but be ready to pivot. “I think we’re going to hear from a lot of people that, ‘Hey, this is happening here.’ So we need to be ready to go to those places,” Frerking said.
  • Editors should continue to stress safety to staff in the field. The DMN is “erring on the side of caution and, really, conservatism in terms of what we’re asking our reporters to do, or reporters or photographers. We’re extremely aware of this and we’re socializing messages about safety.”
  • Staff in the field should maintain their distance, even when the instinct is to get the story. Frerking suggests being creative – sidewalk-to-porch interviews, look at activities through windows, following up with an in-person contact by phone, shouting across a crowd. “We need you to keep your distance.”
  • Many public spaces, such as courthouses, have required masks be worn indoors and have placed chairs six feet or more apart. Frerking advises standing to take notes, and not touching anything. “We’re really urging [field journalists] to be extra cautious,” Frerking said.