Editor’s note: Check out the Student Press Law Center’s guide to covering the coronavirus pandemic for resources and tips to help with your reporting.
Daniel Albert, editor-in-chief of The Clipper at Everett Community College in Everett, WA just finished sending the latest issue of the paper to the printer on March 5 when he got the notification that students and staff had 22 minutes to evacuate the campus due to COVID-19, a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person.
People were honking their car horns in the parking lot and rushing to leave school when Albert overheard students saying someone on campus died from the coronavirus. He was skeptical immediately and jumped to find the truth. The administration and district health officials responded immediately saying no one had died, and that they were just doing a deep cleaning of the campus.
People were pretty panicked
“Because it was just such a short amount of time, people were pretty panicked,” Albert said. “You could hear people saying someone must’ve died from the virus, so we worked to ease those concerns pretty quickly by making sure everyone knew what was going on.”
Over 1,300 cases of COVID-19 have been detected in the U.S. as of March 12, 2020, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Worldwide, more than 300 million students aren’t in class, NPR reported, and schools in the U.S. have shut down in the areas most affected by the virus including parts of New York, Washington, California, Virginia and OhioOther states are quickly following – suit — Ohio’s governor recommended all classes be moved online, according to the Cleveland Scene.
While students probably won’t read their issue focused on International Women’s Day for another couple of weeks, student journalists at The Clipper haven’t stopped reporting. They, and many other student publications at high schools and colleges around the country, are covering the outbreak, even when their schools are shut down.
Jake Goldstein-Street, news editor at The Daily, the student paper at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the staff is working to make sure students get fact-based information since UW moved classes online through March 20.
“The goal is just to inform the community because no one is doing coverage for the UW community, so we’re trying to keep track of basically every rumor that spreads on social media and we do all we can to confirm or dispel them,” Goldstein-Street said. “I think students can kind of rest easily that if there’s a rumor and it hasn’t been backed up by our coverage, it’s probably not true.”
The coronavirus is very serious, but something that’s more dangerous is all the rumors surrounding it
They’ve answered questions like how effective masks are, how easily the virus spreads and more with the help of researchers at the university.
Editors-in-Chief Leah Breakstone and Ariel Weinstaff of Scarsdale High School’s Maroon in Scarsdale, New York, are also focused on answering these questions and preventing panic in their community. Scarsdale, which is immediately north of the cluster of cases in New Rochelle, closed schools from March 9 to (at least) 18 because a middle school teacher contracted the virus.
“The coronavirus is very serious, but something that’s more dangerous is all the rumors surrounding it,” Weinstaff said. “One of the most harmful things is when people get overly concerned, so our goal as a publication is to calm our audience.”
Accurate and full information
Weinstaff – beat both the local news and the New York Times in breaking the story that school was closing, but said it’s been a struggle to report since then due to the lack of information from administration and health officials in the district.
Albert said Everett administration and the district’s health officials have been very responsive to The Clipper’s interview requests, which helps ensure every piece of reporting is accurate for their readership — something he thinks has increased the paper’s credibility and value.
“It’s been an experience to cover real breaking news because students are starting to look towards our publication as a legitimate publication and something they can trust,” Albert said.
If [people are] looking for good, in-depth coverage about these schools, they should be going to the student publications instead of the national ones
Goldstein-Street said that if students want to read quality, informative stories about the new coronavirus, they should be looking to the student publications on the campuses that have closed.
“Student publications have the best sourcing,” Goldstein-Street said. “We’ve been able to get scoops consistently and do the longer pieces so if they’re looking for good, in-depth coverage about these schools, they should be going to the student publications instead of the national ones.”
The student journalists said covering the coronavirus has increased their website traffic, but the college papers are having more trouble getting with everyday coverage than the high school journalists.
Breakstone said, if anything, Maroon is getting more done — staff writers don’t have class to worry about.
“We sent a message to the staff after school shut down essentially saying ‘this shouldn’t affect your coverage, your deadlines are the same, especially since you don’t have school,’” Breakstone said.
If anything, Maroon is getting more done — staff writers don’t have class to worry about
But Goldstein-Street said it was a struggle to finish their print issue — he ended up staying in the newsroom longer because a lot of staffers couldn’t make it in. Albert said that while he’s been getting support from his staff, a lot of the coronavirus coverage has fallen on his shoulders.
Weinstaff said The Maroon staff has been careful not to place blame on the middle school teacher who contracted the coronavirus.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone’s reputation. We try not to make it seem like this is one person’s fault because it’s not,” Breakstone said.
The Daily has been trying to avoid either downplaying the virus or over-selling its danger.
“A big part of our coverage has been making sure we’re asking ourselves, ‘How do we make it clear that people shouldn’t be that anxious or fearful about this while also making sure people stay safe?’” Goldstein-Street said.
He said another big question is calling the coronavirus the right name to make sure they aren’t stereotyping a region. The Daily has been careful not to call it “the Wuhan coronavirus,” after the region it was first found in, as not to blame an entire region of China for a virus. The Associated Press StyleBook does not use the phrase “Wuhan coronavirus.” It mentions that COVID-19 first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China.
The Asian American Journalists has also put out an advisory on descriptions and terms.
Print issue struggles
Goldstein-Street said their most recent issue on March 9 was centered around the coronavirus. The campus closure hasn’t affected the print issue much, other than having a shortage of staff in the newsroom on the Sunday before sending it to print.
He said The Daily has been doing really well with ad revenue this semester, so even if the closure did hurt them in the future, they wouldn’t be “underwater.”
Albert said when Everett closed, he was disappointed the students wouldn’t get to read the print issue.
“We were submitting to our publisher so we have 1,000 copies of our magazine getting delivered that no one will see,” Albert said. “People won’t be getting the timeliness of the articles which kind of stinks.”
Hundreds of Maroon’s magazines are sitting somewhere in Scarsdale High School, waiting to be distributed — but they won’t be touched for at least another week.
While we’re stuck at home, we’ve been thinking ‘we should be distributing [the paper] right now’
Breakstone said Maroon only publishes four times a year, and their spring publication was supposed to hit the stands this week, so they were disappointed when they realized no one would get to see their hard work.
“We’ve been working on that issue for the whole semester, and everyone on the staff was so excited,” Breakstone said. “So in the back of our heads, while we’re stuck at home, we’ve been thinking ‘we should be distributing right now.’”
Although the print copies are sitting unread, all three publications noted increased digital ad revenue because of all the attention on their websites. At The Daily, their coronavirus articles have been read three times the amount of their most popular stories pre-pandemic.
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