Pandemic no excuse for lazy reporting

By Jim Pumarlo, Newsroom Trainer

Jim Pumarlo

Editors and reporters are facing some of their biggest challenges in gathering news during the pandemic. Access to everyday sources is increasingly limited with no relief on the horizon.

Reporters no longer can walk into offices unannounced, and appointments are restricted. Remote work remains the norm at many places.

And don’t expect immediate responses to phone calls. Individuals are often consumed by Zoom meetings as the new norm for communications.

Logistics are demanding enough to connect with your regular corps of newsmakers. Then consider everyday readers – the local names and faces who provide so many distinctive stories – who may be approached by a reporter for the first time. They are likely more hesitant – at least extra cautious – as they protect personal health.

Solid reporting still can be done during these extraordinary times, but it takes extra effort. Small and large newspapers are generating excellent stories not only on the pandemic but also on the everyday churn of news.

At the same time, it’s disheartening to see those newsrooms that have taken the shortcuts, all to the detriment of substantive content.

  • Residents object to a proposal under consideration by a school board. The reporter, watching a TV broadcast of the meeting, quotes the speakers but fails to identify them.
  • The primary election determines which candidates for local offices will advance to the general election. Winners are reported – but no vote totals and no apparent attempt to get comments from any of the winners or losers.
  • Three longtime city employees retire, representing nearly 100 years of service. The communications director is the sole source for the story, which is basically a brief bio of each employee.
  • Any number of announcements from new sports coaches to political candidacies to community initiatives are handled by press releases only – no conversation with a reporter.
  • A major employer reopens after being shut down during the pandemic. The story recites what is on the company’s website.

Navigating the pandemic unfortunately has resulted in far too many single-source stories without the benefit of Q&A by reporters. Press releases are published verbatim. Questions are posed, and responses returned via email or text message. Government actions are reported, but there is no follow-up on how decisions affect residents and businesses.

Reporting indeed demands additional effort during the pandemic. It also takes more planning as contacting individuals often requires multiple inquiries.

So take the extra steps. Connect via Zoom or telephone. Zoom offers reporters the option to record and post video of their interviews. Also, digital recording via Zoom offers automatic transcription so reporters can use bits and pieces for tweets, Facebook and other social media, and video clips for YouTube. Meet face to face, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. In-person interviews allow reporters to describe the environment and elaborate on details that distinguish feature stories.

At minimum, reporters need to be honest and transparent with readers. Let them know the nature of the “interviews” – whether information is gathered by an exchange of emails or text messages, participation in a virtual event, or watching a broadcast.

And don’t forget the long-term impact of lackadaisical reporting. Sources will become accustomed to “feeding” stories word-for-word to reporters and may well be more reluctant to engage in an interview.

I remain a firm believer that local newspapers have an edge in the fractured media landscape by being the premier clearinghouse of information in your communities. Your newspaper family represents a valuable, collective set of eyes and ears. But you must use those resources to remain the go-to source for news and advertising.

Consider this event that caught the attention of an entire town and was reported in media across the state.

A speeding vehicle crashed into a historic building causing extensive damage to the business and upstairs apartments. The building was immediately condemned until next steps were determined. Onlookers streamed to the site; roads were closed.

The post went up on the newspaper’s website. The report included comments from an eye witness to the crash, but otherwise relied solely on press releases.

Two days later, the same two stories appeared verbatim in the print edition. Still no interview with the business owner, the employees present when the accident occurred, or the upstairs tenants who felt the building shake. No identification of the displaced residents or information about assistance for temporary shelter. No mention of fundraising efforts or accompanying contact information. No initial dollar estimate of the damage. The fundamental 5Ws and H of all stories were nonexistent in the report.

For other aggressive reporters, what is the tool you’ll use for your live channel? When a story breaks, how fast can you be there live and broadcast in real time? Do you have a URL set up, and do your readers know about it?

Then consider other missed opportunities for the newspaper to shine in its coverage and distinguish itself from competing media. Connect with the building inspector and an engineer to offer perspective on how such a crash resulted in such extensive damage. Chronicle the origins and tenants of the building, one of the more historic structures in the downtown. Work with city officials to videotape the damage and post it on the website. You can add to the list.

Newspapers across the country are fighting for their survival due to economic repercussions of COVID-19. Circumstances have prompted editors and publishers to regularly promote the message: “We’re here 24/7 reporting on the stories in your community.”

Such pronouncements are only as persuasive as the supporting evidence.

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.

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