Guide to Covering the Coronavirus Pandemic

This 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic is dominating the news cycle as infections — and in some instances deaths — increase rapidly all over the world. Across the U.S., student journalists have stepped up to cover how COVID-19 is affecting their schools and communities. They’re informing their communities, seeking to dispel rumors and quell panic.

To help them and you, the Student Press Law Center has compiled Frequently Asked Questions, resources and examples of student coverage. We hope this guide helps you to report on this complex and fast-moving story.

Related: More coronavirus resources from SPLC

 

Your rights and obligations as a student journalist do not change because of the outbreak of disease. If you encounter a challenging scenario or have been denied public information while working on a story about COVID-19, contact SPLC’s legal hotline. We can help.

*Note: “Coronavirus” refers to a family of viruses, some of which cause disease in people. Many lead to common colds. “COVID-19,” which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is a serious, sometimes deadly disease caused by a new coronavirus. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.

Jump to:
SPLC answers your questions about covering the coronavirus
Relevant SPLC tipsheets and resources
Background for your reporting
Resources and advice for reporters covering coronavirus
Coverage by student journalists
How else can SPLC help?

 

SPLC Guide to covering the coronavirus / COVID-19

Q: I am trying to figure out what my school is doing to prepare for COVID-19. How can I access information about their plans?

A: Your school’s budget has been set since the beginning of the year. But by looking at new funding approvals, you can find out what your school or school district’s priorities are during the COVID-19 outbreak. You could potentially figure out how much money is being spent to facilitate remote learning, deep clean the campus, or distribute hand sanitizer. Pay attention to school board and local government meetings where decisions are made to approve additional funds earmarked for combatting COVID-19. Although each state has its own open records law, such funding information is usually open to the public. However, the specific details available can vary district-by-district, or even school-by-school. Note that private schools are likely not required to release the same information as public schools. Making an informal request to the appropriate school official for the relevant new funding changes should be sufficient. If your request is denied, you can invoke your state’s open records law by making a formal request in writing. The SPLC provides a free automated letter generator to help you create a formal public records request tailored to your state’s law.

Q: Can my access to meetings be limited due to COVID-19?

A: If you normally would have access to the meetings (and they continue to occur), you have a right to be present. In other words, COVID-19 cannot be used as an excuse to bar you from attending a meeting otherwise protected by your state’s open meetings law. If in-person meetings are moved to a teleconferencing platform to prevent the spread of COVID-19, you have a right to access the meetings through that platform too. But if meetings are cancelled completely, it might be worthwhile to keep an eye on official decision-making during this time to ensure public business activities that are supposed to take place in open meetings do not occur behind closed doors just because the meetings are not happening.

Q: I am covering my school’s basketball game. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, no spectators have been permitted to attend. Can my access to the game also be limited?

A: If the reason for barring fans from a sporting event is truly public health concerns, then school officials can likely also bar reporters. But you can do your best to persuade them to let you observe the game in person, perhaps from a distant seat. If you are banned from conducting interviews in the locker room, attempt to reach out to players and coaches through other channels (e.g., calling, texting).

Q: What if school officials cite FERPA or HIPAA in their refusal to provide information for my reporting on COVID-19?

A: School officials commonly deny public records requests by citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This federal law restricts the release of a student’s “educational records” by school officials without student (or sometimes parental) consent if those records would identify the student. FERPA’s requirements are often misunderstood or abused. FERPA likely is not applicable in your reporting on COVID-19, so school officials should not be using it as an excuse to refuse your queries about how many students have tested positive for the virus or what steps the school is taking to address the situation.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires health care providers and organizations to protect the confidentiality of patient health information. Generally, HIPAA does not apply to schools, unless the school provides healthcare services to students. If you are not asking to see the medical record of an individual student, school officials should not cite HIPAA as a reason to stop your reporting.

Bottom line: Neither a FERPA nor a HIPAA violation has occurred if there is no information that personally identifies a student. If you are seeking, for example, statistical data that does not identify people, FERPA and HIPAA does not prevent your school from providing it to you.

Q: I noticed one of my classmates coughing. Later, I saw the same person visiting the nurse’s office. How do I go about reporting on the first case of COVID-19 on my school’s campus?

A: You should first remember not to jump to conclusions. Your observation, without more, isn’t enough to definitively report that this classmate has tested positive for COVID-19. If you are able to confirm that your classmate has tested positively for the virus, you will need to keep in mind privacy concerns. 

The right to privacy is an individual’s right to be left alone. Your classmate, who is not a public official or figure, may sue for the publication of intimate details if the information is sufficiently private or not already in the public domain, sufficiently intimate, and highly offensive to a reasonable person. Medical conditions like COVID-19 may fall under this category. 

Even if you do not publish the information, your classmate can still possibly sue for intrusion, which is a claim based on the act of newsgathering. This occurs when a reporter gathers information about an individual in a place where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as in a nurse’s office.

All of that said, the primary defense to an invasion of privacy claim is “newsworthiness” and the fact that a student is infected at your school would likely fall into that category, which may protect you from a successful lawsuit. Still, it would be best to avoid the risk of a lawsuit if you can.

Ideally, instead of prying into your classmate’s medical business, you would wait for school officials to quickly confirm an existing case of COVID-19 on campus before running such a story. And even then, think twice about naming your classmate (see more below).

Q: A source who has been infected with COVID-19 has consented to be interviewed. Can I identify this person by name?

A: Legally, journalists have the right to use the name of minors in newsworthy stories as long as the information is lawfully obtained and truthfully reported. In invasion of privacy and defamation cases where information to be published is private or damaging to the person in question, courts have ruled that a minor can provide valid consent if the minor is sufficiently mature and capable of realizing the possible repercussions of the consent.

But there might be ethical reasons for not publishing names. Journalists also have an obligation to minimize harm. One concern with this type of story is a lifetime of stigmatization. Even if your source unambiguously consents to be interviewed, make sure that they truly understand the future implications of having their name connected with COVID-19. The SPLC encourages you to obtain the minor’s consent in writing, and it would be even better if you can obtain the consent of a parent or guardian too. You may find our sample consent form helpful.

If your newspaper staff decides to promise a source anonymity, make sure that you and the source are on the same page about what exactly going off the record means. Remember that even without dropping a name, certain descriptors of a person can still make them identifiable.

Q: How else can I be mindful while reporting on COVID-19? 

Minimizing harm also includes reducing sensationalization, avoiding “othering” those who are at risk, and providing context. COVID-19 seems to have more serious consequences for the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, but not everyone who falls into those demographics will be infected with the virus. It is important to share information about who is at risk, but do not imply that they are to blame. And although the early cases of COVID-19 were first detected in Wuhan, China, it does not mean that those of Chinese ancestry are more susceptible to the virus. Unlike racists, this virus does not discriminate. Adding context to your story, such as how the COVID-19 mortality rate fares compared to that of the flu or other diseases, can also help readers understand the situation.

 

Relevant SPLC tipsheets and resources

 

Background for your reporting

 

Resources and advice for reporters covering the virus

 

Coverage by student journalists

SPLC is showcasing student coverage of the coronavirus to highlight the important journalism being done by high school and college journalists. You can find student newspaper and broadcast coverage here:

You can find yearbook spreads here:

Has your student publication been covering the coronavirus pandemic? We want to add it to the list!

  • Newspapers / Broadcast: Email Alexis Mason at amason@splc.org with the subject line “My coronavirus coverage” and a link to your story or stories.
  • Yearbooks: Email Danielle Dieterich at ddieterich@splc.org with the subject line “Yearbook” and a PDF of your spread, along with the name of your publication, school, city and state.

How else can SPLC help? 

In this time of fear and disruption, student press rights violations should be the last of your worries. If there are guides you would find helpful, resources you’d like to see from SPLC or questions we can answer for you (related to the outbreak or not) please let us know. Email SPLC Digital Strategist Danielle Dieterich at ddieterich@splc.org with the subject line “How SPLC can help me.”