Taped to the employee entrance door at the Toledo Blade newspaper is a health advisory that demands we must take our temperature before coming to work. Anyone who has a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher must not enter the facility.
We are also encouraged to wash our hands often, don’t touch our faces, maintain social distancing, wipe down our gear with disinfectant, and isolate ourselves if feeling ill.
These COVID-19 precautions are a new normal that photojournalists not only should abide by, but document. But how do we stay safe while covering a fast-spreading, potentially deadly virus?
This concern, along with other critical issues facing visual journalists during this pandemic, was discussed during an NPPA Town Hall webinar on Facebook Live on March 22. The Zoom broadcast was open to NPPA and non-NPPA members and can viewed on the NPPA Facebook page.
NPPA President Andrew Stanfill kicked off the Town Hall by describing the coronavirus as the biggest challenge facing our industry in quite a long time.
“It’s something that’s hitting us like the recession, and at the same time as being concerned about our people’s health, and how we cover this thing and make sure everyone’s safe while they are out there working,” Stanfill said.
He said the NPPA is working to address these issues in several ways, and this webinar was the first one of them.
Stanfill then introduced moderator Brett Akagi, news manager at KCTV5 News in Kansas City, who agreed that it’s more important than ever that visual journalists come together like this.
Akagi proceeded to introduce the panel: Chris Post, the NPPA safety and security committee chair; Mickey Osterreicher, NPPA's general counsel; Joe Little, storytelling director at NBC-7; Jill Geisler, Loyola University Chicago; Julie Wolfe, news director at WHAS 11 in Louisville; Al and Sidney Tompkins of the Poynter Institute; Matt Mrozinski, KING-5 director of photography in Seattle; Katie School, of CNBC; Houston Chronicle photographer Marie D. De Jesús; and Cathaleen Curtis, photography director at the Buffalo News.
Akagi said that everyone is thinking about safety these days, so his first panelist was Chris Post, a former emergency medical technician.
“What are some of the things we should be looking to do out in the field, whether we’re still photographers, videographers, reporters, anybody who has to go out there as journalists to cover this?” he asked Post.
“As everybody’s well aware, social distancing and handwashing whenever you can,” Post answered.
“That’s most important. If you start feeling ill, talk to your employer. Bring those issues up right away and communicate what’s going on. If you do come down with any sort of symptoms, distance yourself from anyone you work and live with. Those are the big things,” said Post.
Post said he is concerned about violence toward the media, as well as counterfeit masks and fake COVID-19 tests. He also said he isn’t aware of any news agencies advocating for masks or personal protective equipment issued to their people who are out and about.
“These are tough times, guys,” he said as he held up a white piece of paper with black letters that read, “Hang in there everyone … I love you all.”
Up next was Cathaleen Curtiss, who said she advises her photo staff to be very adamant that they keep their distance, not to go into people’s homes, and to ask for phone numbers of all subjects.
“It does interfere with spontaneity and those natural photos we all love to see, but I prefer they call ahead and meet the people on the porch or driveway or go for walks. I’m looking at this as a marathon, not a sprint. I want to keep them healthy and safe, and I want them to keep the people they run into healthy,” Curtis said.
Marie D. De Jesús agreed that it’s a marathon, “and that we need to pace ourselves and be able to take it easy because what if the shit hits the fan for real?” she asked. “The other day I went to a home and said, ‘Hey, you have a wonderful front yard, do you mind if we do the portrait here?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, thank you!’ She was worried I would want to be inside the house.
“I think those are the conversations we have to be having, and more than ever we need to establish the healthy channels of communication with our managers. This is the moment we need to go directly to them and hope the managers are receptive because we are the ones out there,” De Jesús continued.
“The last few nights I sent my partner to another bedroom. Let’s start that aspect of simply taking care of me and my household. Cleaning my gear, not going inside of homes anymore. Thankfully our managers are OK with us saying no, and that has been liberating, because emotionally you want to be able to do the best you can, but at the same time have peace of mind that you are taking care of yourself, your family and sources,” De Jesús said.
“I know Maria said it’s OK to say no,” said Julie Wolfe, “but me and our company have put in some really strict safety rules, and they aren’t suggestions. Our policy is ‘you are not allowed to do this.’ Crews are so used to getting those great shots and sound, and every day I have people ask me, ‘Can I do this?’ and the answer is no.
“What I try to tell them is that instead of trying not to get sick, assume you already have it and try not to spread it. It’s not worth it to spread it to that feature interview. If you talk to the mayor, governor and the health department all in one day, you don’t want to be the one responsible for infecting those folks. I think that mindset has been really helpful for them,” she said.
“There is tremendous pressure and stress, and I feel responsible for my team and want to keep them and my community safe. We can be the pollinators and honeybees going from person to person, and I don’t want that to be us,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe added that if journalists are going on TV every day and telling people to keep social distancing and flatten the curve, then turn around and do the exact opposite, that just breaks down our trust. It is important for us to live what we are telling people to do.
As photojournalists continue to cover this pandemic on the front lines, the fear of becoming exposed is real. We are not immune. So, when asked by Akagi if he had any media members who have come down with COVID, Matt Mrozinski’s answer wasn’t shocking.
“Funny you should ask that because just today we had a staff member test positive for COVID,” he admitted.
“It’s a very real thing here. We always knew that eventually this was going to happen to us. We try to take every precaution known to man, but I’m sure this individual won’t be the last. When we heard that news, we were obviously concerned. The person’s doing better now, but you start thinking about who did that person work with, who was the last person they came in contact with anyway? Fortunately, there were very few people that reporter came in contact with, and the individuals who worked alongside that person are quarantined at home,” Mrozinski said.
“Some of the rules we had in place here really prevented this from being a lot worse, like keeping crews/pairings together as best as humanly possible and letting them work out of separate cars. My goodness, this could have been through the newsroom. Yeah, right here at home at KING-5, we have it,” Mrozinski said.
Joe Little, an MMJ in San Diego, said that from day one the pairings at his station have been assigned and will stay together for the duration.
“It’s that further level of containment,” he said. “No shared gear. No shared cars. No shared crews. And we have fewer and fewer people in the building. If one person goes down, we hope to keep it isolated. It’s a challenge because we can’t go inside homes and restaurants, and I can’t use my lavalier,” Little said as he bowed his head in frustration. “But we adapt, persevere, overcome, and we keep working.”
Staying safe was certainly a hot topic, but there were other important and relevant discussions throughout the nearly two-hour webinar, such as managers needing to listen to the fears of their employees; balancing positive and negative news stories; being mindful of addictions while being at home more; reaching out to people when you need them; and being aware of your rights when covering hospitals, and understanding HIPAA regulations.
Akagi concluded this first NPPA Town Hall with this message: We are going to get through this. We are going to survive.
“We just need to keep our wits about us, and I know that this town hall has reached out to a lot of you and will help you out. We really appreciate everyone who tuned in tonight,” Akagi said.
The next NPPA Town Hall webinar is on Wednesday, April 1, 8pm (EST). The topic will be working freelance/independently. The following week will be geared toward students.
To view the first NPPA Town Hall webinar, go to the NPPA Facebook Page.
Lori King is a staff photojournalist at the Toledo (Ohio) Blade newspaper and an adjunct photojournalism/multimedia instructor at Kent State University, University of Toledo, Wayne State University and Owens Community College. She can be reached at [email protected].
NPPA's Town Hall schedule is here.
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