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Coronavirus: What it’s like to report the news during the COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus: News reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic
WATCH ABOVE: The pandemic has thrown hundreds of thousands of Canadians out of work and has caused those working to change how they do business. That includes journalists working in television news at Global. Sean O'Shea reports.

Everything in Canada changed with the coronavirus pandemic.

Businesses have closed. Thousands of employees have lost their jobs, at least temporarily. Companies that could continue to function by adjusting their workforce quickly assigned their staff to work from home.

This is what has happened in Canada’s television news industry, too.

Almost overnight, the way journalists research, record and report the news has been altered as television broadcasters try to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

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What does it mean for Global News journalists who normally work in the field?

“We do far fewer interviews in person. We use our computers, we send cameras and do it over the phone,” said Mike Drolet, a senior broadcast reporter with Global National news based in Toronto.

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“Living in isolation has made us adapt,” Drolet said.

Adapt is right. It is a huge change.

Coronavirus: Ontario state of emergency extended
Coronavirus: Ontario state of emergency extended

In my almost 33 years as a television journalist with Global News in Toronto, and before that working with other broadcasters and two newspapers, I’ve seen an established pattern for how many of us work.

For the longest time, I’ve driven each weekday morning from my home to the original Global headquarters in North York, Ont.

Starting my day officially at around 10 a.m., I plop down at my corner desk, make phone calls, deal with editors and managers, then head out with a camera crew, returning in the afternoon to write, edit and present the story, usually in Global’s Studio 2 from which our evening news originates.

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My new, if temporary office is a white, 2004 GMC cube van. For years, it’s been used to transport production equipment from place to place. Frequently,  I’ve used it as a support vehicle for a consumer investigation, usually involving an unscrupulous contractor about to be caught in the act of deception.

Coronavirus around the world: April 14, 2020
Coronavirus around the world: April 14, 2020

Now, the van has been scrubbed spotless, its walls draped with sound-dampening moving pads, fitted with tables, chairs, a wifi router, and a 2000-watt inverter to provide power for our computers and live broadcast transmitter. This is a clean, comfortable, safe van — and my new home.

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Each day, I meet cameraman/editor Patrick Capati. We use the workspace as home-base to produce whatever COVID-19-related story is decided on each day. I’ve worked with Patrick exclusively for five weeks. It feels good to work with one person, not a group, these days. And, we can sit two metres apart.

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Other Global News journalists have found their own ways to function while trying to stay safe and respect social distancing.

Reporter Miranda Anthistle and her cameraman/editor, Robbie Ford take separate vehicles to cover a news story.

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Robots and drive-thrus: how some funeral homes are holding services amid COVID-19

“Him in his car, me in mine,” Anthistle said in a short video explaining how their system works.

Veteran Toronto crime reporter Catherine McDonald is teamed with cameraman/editor Adam Dabrowski. Prior to COVID-19, the pair might leave the station together for a crime scene, courthouse, or another location. Now, they may rarely even see each other.

In one case, Dabrowski is deployed to meet an interviewee. He positions the subject, then lights and focuses his broadcast camera. He also sets up a smartphone camera on a light stand to beam back the interview to McDonald, who is working and watching from somewhere else, probably at home.

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Later, after McDonald has reviewed the elements of her television story, she’ll write it and collaborate with Dabrowski remotely. The pair will usually only meet if McDonald needs to record herself on-camera for the story, something known in the industry as a stand-up. Or, if she is assigned to do a live report.

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Elsewhere, Global News journalists like reporter Shelley Steeves instructs interviewees on what they need to do to record and send her video for her report.

“Since we can’t be together in the same room I need you to shoot video of what you’re doing, okay?” she asks a willing story subject. In normal times, Steeves would be there in person, asking questions and capturing the video needed for the story.

Steeves, based in Moncton, N.B.,  also reminds the woman to make sure the video is oriented in landscape, not portrait mode–sometimes known as the long way, not the tall way.

“For TV we have to do it sideways, not up and down,” she earnestly instructs, pointing out a key bone of contention for journalists dealing with video provided by individuals who don’t work in television.

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Canadians look at new ways to shop for groceries amid COVID-19

The pandemic has not lessened competition for stories between television networks, but broadcasters have again realized the importance of collaboration. A similar spirit exists during federal and provincial election campaigns.

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Rather than having each broadcaster send its own camera crew to a press conference with the prime minister, a provincial premier, cabinet members or other officials, broadcasters arrange a pool and send only one, or possibly two. This reduces the number of journalists in confined spaces.

The changing ways to work in the field during the pandemic reflect an effort to manage newsgathering efforts and public safety at the same time.

“Our journalists have a commitment to covering this incredibly important story but they also have a commitment to keeping themselves safe, keeping their colleagues safe, keeping their community safe,” said Mackay Taggart, Ontario Regional Director of News for Global News.

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Coronavirus crisis has been a bonanza for delivery services

“Finding the balance between those things has been a challenge but incredibly important as well.”

Like others working at home, Global journalists have encountered experiences not taught in any journalism school.

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“If you told me I’d be voicing stories from my bedroom floor or interviewing guests from my living room or snuggling my son seconds to an interview I never would have believed it,” said Caryn Lieberman, a senior digital broadcast journalist at Global News in Toronto.

Working in television news during a pandemic crisis also means you can’t guarantee what’s going on in the background of the interview you’re conducting.

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While Katherine Aylesworth was in the midst of an interview using Skype from her home, a routine event now, the Global National associate producer in Toronto didn’t count on the sudden backdrop that was presented on her side of the screen.

Her oblivious roommate, it turned out, could be seen puttering around behind her, slowly in search of a snack in the kitchen. It was all captured on video and, naturally, posted later on Twitter.

Reporting for television news in the COVID-19 era is possible. However, it’s not always pretty.