As the world endures a pandemic, societies are turning to technology for help. But what is its role in this new normal, and how should journalists cover it?
We reached out to Reuters journalist Paresh Dave to learn how life on the technology beat has changed since COVID-19 and what are lessons he’s learned from reporting in Silicon Valley.
How has your coverage changed since coronavirus hit the U.S.?
Dave: In mid-March, my colleagues and I in San Francisco joined a global effort covering the novel coronavirus the Reuters way. Part of that is bringing global perspective to stories. I regularly partner with colleagues in Asia and Europe on stories, but now the communication among us is happening nearly daily because the issues we are tracking, such as app-based contact tracing, are evolving quickly and there are unprecedented debates happening between countries and Silicon Valley.
We also are interested in the role technology plays in what many are calling the “new normal.” So I have been able to work on more “soft” features than I would normally, like one that gave a view into these software developers who are ponying up from their own pocketbooks to meet the demand for websites they built years ago to play popular card games like Codenames online.
Photos and videos are important for Reuters and its clients to draw people into our stories, but arranging photoshoots in the current environment can be tricky. That has left me and other reporters with a new task of arranging subjects of stories to take selfies or have someone in their house take interesting shots to go alongside stories.
Fortunately, some stories that I had been working on for months as part of my regular Google beat focused on topics including online shopping that remain top of mind. I have been able to use my existing reporting to detail how the current circumstances have added a layer of complexity for companies.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced covering tech during lockdown?
Dave: Many tech workers and companies are trying to help out to fight the virus in various ways. Getting their ear when they are focused on this aid work can be slow-going, so it feels like I am relying on email exchanges versus phone calls more than usual.
But the simplest challenge has been knowing when to work. The days can run long when you’re working from home, and there is always an itch to keep reporting since this is a global story and you could literally be chasing a new source in every time zone.
I also miss being in the newsroom, where you can overhear other colleagues’ interviewing and reporting techniques. We’ve lost two months of that quiet knowledge transfer now.
What are some of the most interesting trends you’ve noticed while reporting during the pandemic? How permanent do you think some of the social changes like Zoom will be?
Dave: Zoom was a popular conferencing system in Silicon Valley before the pandemic, but people mostly dialed in by telephone – or at least I did. What has changed is more of the people I am interviewing are eager to do video calls. It still is not as great as in person, when a source can more naturally draw something out on a whiteboard or hand you something to read but not keep or screenshot.
But video conferencing feels like it is getting smoother every day and there certainly are facial expressions and other animations that are worth seeing, especially when an English-speaker like me is talking to someone for whom English may be a secondary language.
A lot of your recent stories have focused on companies like Google analyzing data on social distancing / contact tracing. What are some of the highlights you’ve learned about from our global response to coronavirus?
Dave: The reporting has served as a reminder about how much data these big companies collect about their users, and at the same time how little they do with it. Measuring whether traffic to beaches and parks is down for some reason in a normal summer could be interesting data for governments and advertisers, but Apple and Google have largely left it to boutique companies that have a smaller number of users to analyze data in that way. At least until this extraordinary situation.
It also is fascinating to see companies responding to feature requests from users in a way that feels faster than usual, whether it is Zoom’s recent security overhaul or Instagram now allowing livestreams to be viewed on desktop browsers.
Have you discovered any helpful technologies that reporters might use while covering coronavirus?
Dave: Not in particular. But like many others, I am learning through friends about ways to use existing tools – like participating in virtual bar trivia contests via Instagram Live.
How are you taking care of yourself during the pandemic?
Dave: I caved about a month in and bought a simple office chair, as it looked like stay-at-home orders were going to last a while and my bed and couch were not getting any more comfortable.
In addition, with life becoming more stable for some and the deluge of breaking news slowing, I have been able to take more frequent breaks during the day.
Most fortunately, I have a slice of peaceful outdoor space that makes for a safe/isolated spot to do some reading. Just need to remember to put on sunscreen as it starts to warm up here.