Journalism during COVID-19: Part 2
Okay, so what was your day-to-day like pre-COVID? And what has it evolved to now?
Before was 9-5-ish, but a lot of what I do is covering the government beat and hospitals. It was a lot of meetings, so days would vary. Sometimes I’d have to be at a meeting at 7AM; sometimes I’d have to be somewhere at 8PM. You never really know. But I would be in the office for anywhere between five to eight hours a day. I do a decent amount of reporting over the phone just because I tried to vary my sources a good amount. Valdosta is not super big; you can basically get anywhere within 20 minutes. If you do need to run out and report on an arrest or there's some kind of press conference, you're usually pretty close.
So once COVID started becoming more pronounced in the states and what not, what did your role look like then?
I would say the majority is staying in my apartment and making phone calls all day and writing. It's a little different, though, because I cover the hospital system in Valdosta. When they had their first case of coronavirus, they had a press conference, and I was there. When I would get updates, I would go and report in-person. Of my colleagues, I was definitely the one that was out the most, but under no circumstance would I say I was out frequently. I would say the most I would be out to cover things was every other day, but I would say it was closer to probably once every three days. I don't know if that's super interesting. But yeah, it's all about just being home a lot.
Were you having to cover more stories and do more things to get information out quickly?
I wouldn't call myself data journalist by any means, but I do enjoy science and math, so I did create (in-conjunction with a public health professor at UGA) a COVID-19 database for South Georgia. So I update that every single day. I just wrote a story about an outbreak in Echols County; they went from having very few cases to they're now the third-most per capita in the entire state in nine days. The only reason I know that is because of this database. That's all to say that I have to look at this report. At first it was once a day, then I was looking at the Georgia Department of Public Health numbers twice a day and reporting them. That means not only am I updating my database, but I'm also writing stories off of them twice a day. We're back to once a day now that there's a little bit of a plateau. So I would say that that was the biggest difference for me is that at noon and at seven o'clock every single day, I needed to be free. Whether or not I was on the clock, I needed to be near a computer in order to send stuff out—that was probably a month and a half for twice a day.
So what does it look like now kind of for the foreseeable future?
We were supposed to go back this week—no, wait, it was the 26th…whatever day. The days just all blend together. I listened to a podcast, which was actually pretty interesting. There was a neuroscientist that said that your brain basically discerns different memories and keeps certain things starker in your memory if something unique happened. Because we're sitting at home all the time, our brain is having trouble figuring out what day is what, and I can 100% attest to that.
Our parent company is based out of Alabama, and their headquarters are in Montgomery. Montgomery became a hot spot actually, a week or two ago. So while we were supposed to go back yesterday, we got notified I think it was last week. We don't know when we're going to go back to the office now. It's all in flux.
So where did the idea for the database come from? Give me all the deets.
I wish there was a cooler way to tell you this. Because I work in south Georgia, we try to keep our focus fairly local. When that first case hit South Georgia Medical Center, which is a big hospital down in Valdosta, I had already spoken to some epidemiologists, but I wanted to understand more about trends. At that point, the virus was kind of moving around, but hadn’t really touched much in the South. It kind of felt like this amorphous thing. So I got in touch with some professors and epidemiologists, and I was speaking with Mark Wilson, and he’s the director of the public health program at UGA. We were just talking back and forth, and he mentioned this database if I wanted to look at it. I thought it was great, so I asked if I could use it as a template, and he said yes. I started tinkering with it. As things have changed, I've adjusted. So before it was very basic: It was just the cases in Lowndes County. It also had the death numbers and hospitalization numbers. That was about it. It's now changed. I keep track of all 10 counties in the South Health District. I keep a curve of the state of Georgia as well. I keep up with state and district testing numbers too because it's really important, particularly as the state of Georgia has ramped up its testing efforts. Now there's been a little weirdness with that because I think it was broken last week or the week before last; 14% of testing numbers recently actually hadn't been just regular tested but been antibody tests, which don’t tell you if you currently have the disease but tell you if you have the virus in the past, and that might have kind of inflated numbers artificially. So this is kind of in my DNA. Every single day, I'm looking at it—sometimes on my phone. The health department technically updates three times a day, but I'll report once a day, but they actually update five to nine times a day, so I try to keep an eye out just in case something weird happens, but it’s just a lot of scrolling through spreadsheets.
I think it's important to know what your area is. There's only 10 counties in this district; I would guess that there's 159 counties in Georgia. So maybe the tests jumped up 10,000 in the entire state, but what does that really mean for your area? I think that's what I've been trying to do. There are some professors, but no one down here has really kept track of it, to my knowledge. So I don't know if I'm a lone wolf, but I'm trying to give as much information as I can to people - that's the biggest thing.
Well, I think it's important because, I was just talking about this yesterday with my dad. I'm not a science person. But when you show a graph and say that numbers have increased, but then you also say, ‘Well, we also have increased the testing capacity.’ Then yes, the numbers have increased, but you're also comparing it to data when there was limited testing capacity. So like, I don't know, it just seems like you need to provide more information or something to give it context. Does that make sense?
It was probably almost a month ago—and this was back when Kemp decided to reopen things—and they were saying there was a decrease in cases, but according to their own data, we weren't. There's still some questions about that. Like were those cases actually from last week and you’re retroactively adding them? It's kind of hard at times to really grasp what the state’s actual numbers are and then trend lines from it. I've not really written that much about it just because it is not really in our purview. You're not going be able to figure it out unless you have constant watchdog reporting. I think that's the biggest thing: Making sure that what the government's putting out is what's actually happening.
Well, that leads nicely to one of the questions I had, which is kind of a cliché question, but what do you feel your “duty” is as a journalist when it comes to reporting in general but more specifically, during a global pandemic?
Geez, so I always say that the most general sense of journalism is: I'm holding power to account and I'm giving voice to the voiceless. That's the most cliché answer. But at the same time, whatever. The way I look at it is that I'm going to do things that no one else cares about, but when I report on it, a lot of the time, people actually care. But it's not going to happen if I wasn't there. And I think that's one of the big things I get concerned about with journalism and media deserts is that if you don't have someone there to report on something, people won't know and maybe they won't actually care and who knows you can get away with.
In regards to the pandemic, though, I think as it's gotten more politicized, my role has stayed the same, but I would say it's been perceived differently at least from what I've noticed. I know people say don't read the comments, but I try to be really transparent with my job. So whenever I post a story, for the next few minutes to hours, I will look at the Facebook comments. If someone has a question or concern or says something that's not true, I try to address it so I can try to keep things as open as possible and help educate people and keep a clear flow of information. I think it's really important, more than anything, to be able to say, ‘Hey, these are the numbers, but let's give you actual some context of what that means.’ I’ll give you an example. Down here, it was probably two to three weeks in, and there was this really big groundswell from a lot of our readers being like, ‘Hey, we'd love to know about recovery numbers and why there aren't any.’ And some people did not say it that nicely. Some people were very angry. So I wrote a story, interviewing an epidemiologist from Georgia Southern, and he was saying, at this point, recovering numbers are meaningless. We don't know nearly enough about the about the virus. And whether or not people read that, I hope they did, but I would say over the next two to three weeks, almost every single day, we would get asked like, ‘Can we get recovery numbers?’ And I would just have to constantly go back like, ‘Hey, guys, it's really unclear, but here is a story we can go back to.’ So I think it's trying to keep a level head, but also knowing that people are scared. People are nervous. Some people are angry. It all really depends. As politics has kind of weaseled its way into the pandemic, I've started to see - just from our readership - that there's been more people that outwardly just don't care and don't want us to report the numbers. But I think it's really important, particularly because epidemiologists say there is going to be a second wave—it just depends how big and where it's going to happen. I would be more than happy to continue this longer than people want, but that's just out of caring for them. I want them to know in case something does happen. I hope it doesn't though.
When COVID started becoming more prevalent in the states and larger news organizations were covering it, what were your initial thoughts, if you can remember?
One of my friends works in Seattle at Amazon, and I remember, it was probably 2-3 weeks after the first case in Washington happened, and he got an email from one of his co-workers that he might have had a interaction with who tested positive. That was back when coronavirus didn't really even register that much. It was still pretty unknown. It was just like, ‘Oh, that's the thing over in China.’ I remember thinking it was weird. Probably less than a week later, I was listening to a FiveThirtyEight podcast, and Nate Silver (the founder and editor-in-chief) was saying that it was going to hit and be pretty bad. He’s not an epidemiologist, but he’s a data guy. I think that was the first time that I paired with my buddy that I was like, ‘Oh, maybe this will actually do something.’ I don't know if I knew what was going to happen, and I certainly didn't expect what did. One of the weirdest things was when they canceled the NCAA Tournament. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is happening very, very quickly.’ I remember when they stopped in the middle of an NBA game and cancelled the rest. ‘We need to get the players off the field.’
I would say I’m a pretty big journalism and news junkie in general. I try to stay abreast of as much as I can. But it's weird because we've been confined to our homes for so long. There’s been nothing really else to talk about besides coronavirus for what, two and a half months? I spend most of my day reporting on it, updating databases about it, looking at figures and statistics, interviewing people. And when my friends call to chat or check in, the conversation almost inevitably leads to coronavirus. I was just like, ‘I can't talk about it.’ My whole life has more or less been consumed by this, and I'm not even a healthcare reporter. I have healthcare experience and have healthcare reporting experience, but I did not anticipate me covering a hospital to all of a sudden, ‘You are now going to be the person who spearheads our pandemic coverage.’ Our entire newspaper—all of our staff—covers it in some capacity. But if anyone has a question about it, it comes to me first.
So I'm curious, out of all the stories that you're writing every day, have there been any that have been more impactful to you than others, either negatively or positively?
I have two that I can point to. One of them was maybe like a week after our first case here. I have a freelance reporter friend (he covers criminal justice stuff), and we were talking on Twitter, and it kind of got into my head, like ‘What's going to happen if this gets into the prison system?’ I have a source that I ended up basically profiling. He’s in jail for life. He also has asthma; he has underdeveloped lungs. So I’d been working on the story for probably a week, and a couple of days before I published, the first inmate in the state actually contracted coronavirus. It was kind of a whole thing, and I somehow managed to get more or less the authority on prison health in the US, Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown. He was pretty plain that if it gets into the person system, it might wipe some people out. I don't know; it was pretty harrowing. I was very proud of that story. I thought it would impact people a lot. Readers were split. Some people do not want me to cover someone or do not care what someone who’s in prison for murder says, but others did.
The other story: We actually had an outbreak in a post office location. In basically a week, we had eight postal workers at one USPS office who all got coronavirus. I had been reporting on that, but I finally got in touch with one of the postal workers’ wives. Because one of the postal workers was sleeping like 22 hours a day, so it was just impossible to get ahold of him. His wife was asymptomatic, so she was taking care of him. I would speak with her as an intermediary about how he's doing and everything. We’re getting ready to publish it online, and about hour before it's about to publish, I just give her a call—to make sure everything's okay. And it's all of a sudden, Ricky is in Tifton at their hospital and is in the ICU and she can't go see him. So it's a whole different story. He recovered, which is great—very thankful for that. But I think that was the biggest thing: With all these numbers I’ve been tracking down, we weren't sharing any people and how they've dealt with it, particularly in the beginning, because no one really knew was like to get coronavirus. It was this really amorphous idea. So, I would say those are the two stories that I'm proud of and I think actually helped readers understand what it's like to be in the shoes of an essential worker, like a postal worker, and then someone who has no possibility of social distancing or has limited-at-best sanitation measures in a prison.
Get ready for this wild question: In years to come, how do you think you’ll reflect on this time as a daily news reporter for a small town in southern Georgia during a global pandemic? It’s such a unique situation. How do you think it will impact your career as a journalist going forward?
I think you're always going to remember your first “big job,” so I think I would’ve remembered it regardless, maybe not the finer points. But I will say, I would imagine, outside of whatever job I have at that point, this probably is going to be my starkest memory in terms of actual work life. I won't remember specific days because, like we talked about, brains are just goop now—they don't do anything anymore. But everything has changed so rapidly that I think I’ll remember that. And I think it’s impossible to forget just sitting in your house all day. It's such a strange feeling. That's one of the biggest things. I can walk outside, but walking outside is more or less the extent of what I do. I go to the grocery store with a mask on, if I really feel crazy, but that's like the highlight of my day. Honestly, I think it will probably be a really strange time in my life.
So I've tried/I'm trying to see more positives in this situation. I think there's a lot of skills or maybe situations that you find yourself in during this time that might be useful later on. You’re cranking out like three stories a day and working on all these other pieces.
I think you’re right actually. I like longer stories; I really like digging into things, and sometimes that can be to my detriment, which my editors know. This is really forcing me to pump stuff out all the time. I still do the stuff that I want to do, but I've really got to juggle things well, and it's definitely forced me to do that.
My last question is: Why journalism? You studied applied physiology and kinesiology in college and even considered going to med school. Why this route?
I think my story is a little different than most people's. I think the majority of journalists grew up wanting to write or being good at English, and that was their path. I was very different. I'm a science/healthcare guy by trade and by schooling. I started doing some light sports blogging, and that kind of led me into thinking maybe I should be a sports reporter because I love sports. Very, very quickly, I realized that I love journalism because of telling human interest pieces and investigative pieces. I didn't really like sports reporting. I liked the elements of journalism that were imbued in the sports stories but not the actual sports side of it. So I quickly shifted to hard news. I have a real fascination with online speech -- that’s my mentor’s area of expertise, and I was already super fascinated by that whole realm. That's kind of led me down this road to being an enterprise reporter and a government reporter, which if you told me that three years ago, I would have looked at you like something had gone horribly wrong, but I would not want anything different.
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