Staying Safe, Staying in Business

How do journalists protect themselves, their colleagues, families and communities when covering pandemic flu? What do we know about running a news operation with many staff members quarantined at home? In this section, four journalists with experience in covering infectious disease outbreaks and major disasters provide some important answers to questions about personal safety and newsroom operations during a pandemic.

“As journalists, we are programmed to run toward danger. We do it daily, covering everything from war and natural disasters to political uprisings. We are fearless when it comes to chasing stories, driven to get there first and leave last. We evaluate the risks of each situation and make decisions about how to best report a story based on past experience and how much we know about the ongoing situation. It’s never an easy call and, when covering a disease outbreak, it’s like nothing else. Not only do reporters not know what they are up against, but they also are, potentially, putting all of their colleagues and their families at risk. So there is a lot to think about.”

– Margie Mason, Asia-Pacific Medical Writer, The Associated Press

On this page...
Margie Mason, AP Medical Writer:
  A moon suit won’t work, but caution will »
  Being careful doesn’t mean losing the story »
  No one is ever ordered to go into the field »
  Sleeping with Tamiflu under the pillow »
Maggie Fox, Reuters Health and Science Editor:
  Building an internal website devoted to flu »
  Briefing bureau chiefs 24/7 »
  Needed: a go-to expert in every newsroom »
  Many proposed stories were not that new »
  How I got my editor to put plans in the newsroom »
  Would our system support it if everybody worked from home? »
Christy Feig, former CNN Medical Producer:
  The TV dilemma: You can’t get live footage over the phone »
  A doctor on call for reporters »
Stan Tiner, Editor, The (Biloxi) Sun Herald:
  Why having a thought out plan helps »
  Be nimble and adapt to the conditions »
  Learn how to practice journalistic triage »
  Trust in the credibility and authority of local news »

Margie Mason, Asia-Pacific Medical Writer, The Associated Press, based in Hanoi, Vietnam:

A moon suit won’t work, but caution will
I always respond with caution whether it’s wearing protective gear or opting to not go to a site. My editors and I frequently have lengthy discussions about how to best cover a story safely.
Every AP bureau in Asia is equipped with protective gear that’s recommended by WHO. We all have boxes of gowns, masks, booties, goggles and Tamiflu.
I routinely wear the booties and mask when covering animal vaccinations and mass slaughters and when visiting villages where someone has recently died.
But if we put on a moon suit when going into villages, we risk alienating the people that we’ve traveled so far to talk to.
In the case of SARS, we solved this by going in only after consulting numerous experts and sources and deciding to not wear the full gear. But we stayed in the car most of the time. We only spoke to a few people and we did so outside and at a distance. We avoided as much contact with the ground as possible. Once back in the car, we sanitized our hands and the soles of our shoes. We also had a supply of Tamiflu in case any flu-like symptoms would occur.

Being careful doesn’t mean losing the story
We often break stories from our desks—working the phones, tapping our sources, and keeping in close contact with those people who are closest to the action.
Another challenge involving gear is to make sure that everyone understands its importance. Sometimes I am in the car with a photographer or stringer or translator and they joke around and are very reluctant to put on the gear. I always ask: “Do you have children?” and normally they say, “Yes,” and I say, “Well, when you go home tonight and you leave your clothes at the door, they probably don’t pose that much of a danger to you, but what if your baby crawls over and starts playing with your boots and sticks her hands in her mouth?” That usually does the trick. It becomes crystal clear that it is not worth taking the risk.

No one is ordered to go into the field
One thing I always do is insist that everybody feels comfortable going into the story. No one is ever ordered to go into the field. There have been times when both reporters and photographers have turned down assignments, and that’s okay.
Every situation in every country is different. There has to be flexibility to deal with the story on a case-by-case basis.
If a more severe pandemic strain will spread easily among people, I don’t think anybody in the news business, regardless of how much planning we do, will be following a step-by-step manual on how to work. I think that if it’s the size of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, we will all be winging it to try to do our jobs.

Sleeping with Tamiflu under the pillow
I can tell you that I won’t be in the office, and I won’t be out on the street interviewing people, and I won’t be going into hospitals if that were to occur. I would likely be home, working the phones, and avoiding contact with as many people as possible and sleeping with my Tamiflu under my pillow at night.
Most importantly, we need to realize that it’s okay to step back and take a minute to think about what we’re doing before we leap headfirst into this type of story. We’re all smart, tough and very versatile people. We will make tough decisions and use our resourcefulness to find a way to tell the story. We always have, but ultimately it’s up to us to inform the public and to record what would be a major moment in history.

Maggie Fox, Editor, Health and Science, Reuters:

Building an internal website devoted to flu
This is a story like nothing else. If a severe pandemic flu strikes, it’s going to be all around us, all the time. We’re not going to be able to go in and out.
At Reuters, we started preparing for this in 2005. We designated a whole team of reporters who were responsible for bird flu. We also set up an internal Web site, which was something that we’d never done before—a bird flu Web site where all the reporters and editors could go to.
I spent countless hours putting stuff on it—links to all of the WHO information, links to all the CDC information. We set up a boilerplate. If reporters have 15 or 20 minutes to write a story, it’s a lot easier to have a block of information that they can put in, in which they haven’t mixed up viruses and bacteria. I’ve also got all of the contact numbers if we need to call experts quickly.
When swine flu broke out in March 2009, most of our dedicated bird flu reporters had moved on to new beats. But I had kept up my focus and interest and this paid off when the first cases turned up in southern California. The CDC did a very technical and hard to understand briefing, but I was immediately aware that this could be the start of a pandemic.

Briefing bureau chiefs 24/7
I roused our bureau chief in Mexico City, and the bureau chief in Los Angeles, both of whom had been completely unaware of the story. We did not use the “P” word but started global phone briefings to make sure people were ready.
It was clear that a lot of media had closed their health coverage and laid off or retired many specialist reporters—they were very slow to catch on to the story and to get up to speed on it. I would imagine it was a struggle for them—because it was big struggle for our bureau chiefs in various cities to get up to speed and I was briefing them 24/7.

Needed: A go-to expert in every newsroom
We set up a dedicated swine flu Web site with background and guidance, but I found to my chagrin that colleagues would not use it and really wanted me to be a standby resource for their questions and story ideas. It made my life extremely difficult and I was unable to write nearly as much as I wanted to. I have now proposed having a “go-to” expert in the major bureaus to be a resource for both personal and professional queries.
Also, we had twice daily conference calls, set up a dedicated e-mail group and used the instant messaging group that already existed for bird flu. I sent out a morning guidance e-mail—twice a day at the height of the story because we have bureaus in all time zones and we did not want Asia to be left getting lame advice at the end of the day.

Many proposed stories were not that new
One thing that struck me—the minute a reporter or editor finds out something new about the flu, they assume they are the first to know it and that we need a story on it. I spent huge amounts of time telling people, nicely, that we had already covered whatever particular angle they were flagging.
One of the things I try to bring home to our reporters is they should know now who their local state health officer, sheriff and local school principal are because they are really going to be important. They are might be working in their home at some point, and Reuters is going to go from being a big national news agency to being a local news agency.
We are now more up to speed but journalists being journalists, a lot of my colleagues have ignored this story all summer and I am sure the winter will bring a renewal of “new” discoveries about flu that are no such thing.

How I got my editor to put plans in the newsroom

I learned at these flu conferences that if you want people to have good measures to protect themselves, you have to make them make it a habit early on. You can’t just wait until the pandemic hits and hand out a bunch of plans and apply them and give people masks and say, “Protect yourselves.” So, I got my editor to put plans in the newsroom.
I also talked to my editor about how we keep people working, keep people filing. If they come into the office, how do we protect them, and will we provide treatment? Will we get Tamiflu for people? Will we vaccinate? He didn’t even miss a beat, and said: “What about liability? What if we vaccinate people and they get sick and they sue us?”
We now have a corporate pandemic flu plan that includes careful decisions on which stories we can drop when things get crazy. We have done work on making sure correspondents globally have laptops and that we have people cross-trained to do one another’s beats. We have guidance on when it is safe to go cover a hospital and we have advice on buying hand sanitizer, arranging for social distancing, and on encouraging sick staffers to stay home, as well as considerations for liberal leave policy. Separately, our managing editors have their own corporate pandemic flu planning group and we have regular conference calls.

Would our system support it if everybody worked from home?
We’ve done exercises in which everybody in a certain area worked from home that day on their laptop to see if our system would support it and so far it appears to.
But what if the laptops crash? With a pandemic, are technicians going to want to go out there and fix their laptops at their houses? I’m thinking not.
We’ve also set up editorial training exercises. Our training manager sent me her scenario on how it would unfold, and it was clear that she had no idea how the WHO works, no idea how the CDC works. Initially, everybody thought we’re going to just call the CDC from 800,000 different places and there would be someone on the other end of the phone to answer our questions.
These are issues we never had to deal with before. With Katrina or Bosnia or Lebanon, we could fly in equipment or just send in correspondents who knew what they’re doing. With this one we won’t be able to do that.

Follow Reuter’s external Web site on swine flu »

Christy Feig, former Senior Medical Producer, CNN:

The TV dilemma: You can’t get live footage over the phone
Television is a little bit different than print. I can’t really get a story by picking up the phone and talking with someone. I’ve really got to have a camera there. With infectious disease that presents a whole other kind of complication.
In 2001, CNN hired a team out of Britain to serve as our security advisors on all of these kinds of things. They’re medical advisors, security advisors, and they have a lot more information on this stuff than we do. They think about the “Don’t set your camera down there.”

A doctor on call for reporters
We’ve got Tamiflu stockpiled in certain places and HAZMAT suits in certain places. We train teams in certain areas. We have a doctor on call who will brief anybody before they go in. They are the first people the reporters talk to when they come out. And anyone can decide at any particular time that they don’t want to go in.
We’ve got some interesting things going on in preparing for this. If you’ve been in the CNN center in Atlanta, there is the huge food court and the Omni Hotel. It’s a bubble, and they’ve actually got plans in place to take over the whole bubble with people that they can just keep inside the bubble for months on end if they need to, and that’s where they can broadcast from. They and the broadcast studio in New York are the only ones that can carry the network by themselves. I don’t want to be in the bubble—but it actually might work.
We’ve also gotten a new technology room where we can feed video over the Internet, so there are some things they are trying with technology that are quite phenomenal.

Stan Tiner, Executive Editor, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Mississippi:

Why having a thought out plan helps
When a disaster such as Katrina or a massive health threat is upon us, we are likely to be overwhelmed. Opportunities for success and survival are connected to a good plan thought out well in advance, one that is strategic and involves communication and engagement with every person in your organization.
The Sun Herald’s emergency action is updated from time to time, and it’s the working document from which we were able to publish a newspaper on the day after Katrina. Its elements cover everything from a possible bomb threat to anthrax, and now pandemic flu.
The little eight-page newspaper we published on the day of Katrina was tangible proof that a community institution was actually working. It was evidence to the community that the center was holding, while in those early days other institutions they depended on were not delivering on expectations; some were not delivering at all.

Be nimble and adapt to the conditions
During Katrina our building sprang many leaks, but our best journalism was produced in that soggy newsroom. No employee of The Sun Herald died that day, but 60 of them lost their homes.
The scale and scope of Katrina was greater than any plan could have anticipated, but for the most part the plan, like the building, held together.
We also were nimble and adaptable to the conditions. Newspaper people are clever, and they responded to the enormous challenge with heroic efforts. And the empathy created by shared pain and circumstance gave our journalism unusual insight into the story as it unfolded day by day.

Learn how to practice journalistic triage
Because there were literally thousands of big stories all around us, we learned to practice journalistic triage, investigating the massive information field, producing and publishing those stories that we deemed most necessary to serve the people of South Mississippi with the news that would help them survive the initial shock of the storm.
Because of the horrible and complete nature of the losses suffered, we could have gone on for months reporting nothing but stories about the loss of life and architectural and cultural and personal treasures. We were mindful, though, of the emotional trauma that was evident in almost all Katrina survivors. So we deliberately sought out stories of the many acts of heroism and selflessness shown across South Mississippi.

Trust in the credibility and authority of local news
Early on we had a choice of two incredible stories and wonderful images that would have made our front page any day. One was about the recovery of bodies in Biloxi, where a photographer had captured a stunning image of firefighters tenderly carrying out the bodies of victims in clear plastic across a mountain of debris. It was a photo that all of us would love to have on the front page, but instead we ran a lead photo of a mother and son, uniting after a couple of days of separation and worry. The picture captured the moment of that first hug against a backdrop of utter and complete destruction. The headline proclaimed hope amid ruin. It was part of a plan to help our people recover in body and spirit on the road back from Katrina.
The power of a news organization to tell its unique story is important when faced with pandemic flu. The credibility and moral authority of a local newspaper or television station should not be overlooked.

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