November 24, 2020

In 2018 and 2019, Hadley Barndollar covered a Thanksgiving charitable event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She calls it the highlight of her year.

The features/investigative reporter for The Portsmouth Herald and Seacoastonline.com follows a local social service agency and hundreds of volunteers as they prepare Thanksgiving meal baskets for families in public housing and individuals in need in the community. The baskets typically contain turkeys, gravy, casseroles and other food items that are donated or purchased through fundraising efforts. Barndollar then tags along, reporting on the deliveries to recipients.

“We’re literally on the doorsteps with the nonprofit folks and we get to see families and individuals open their front doors. Some of them don’t even know they’re getting a Thanksgiving basket,” Barndollar said. “It’s full of rich human connection, and being there in that moment of joy is something I’m going to miss this year.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing, Barndollar will be unable to cover the event like she normally would. More than 1 million COVID-19 cases were reported in the United States last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And as cases continue to rise again in different parts of the country, the federal agency has discouraged Americans from having gatherings with family and friends who do not live with them. Many local journalists and editors are adjusting their coverage around a drastically different Thanksgiving this year.

Stephanie Ketchum, an account manager at Timberland, volunteers at Operation Blessing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, making Thanksgiving food baskets with other volunteer groups in this file photo.
(Courtesy of Rich Beauchesne/Seacoastonline)

“What’s hard about this is that I truly believe that these stories of human connection are needed more than ever. But at the same time, access to our communities is harder than ever,” Barndollar said. “While this nonprofit is still executing this basket drop on some level, it’s nothing like years past. The public health aspect of us tagging along to dozens and dozens of households is not very smart.”

Sia Nyorkor, a multimedia reporter for Cleveland 19 News, has been busy with COVID-19 coverage. Just last week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statewide curfew which went into effect at 10 p.m. Thursday. According to Nyorkor’s station, the three-week general curfew will be imposed daily from 10 p.m. to 5 p.m.

“Our numbers have been record-breaking for more than a couple weeks now … so when a curfew came, a lot of people were relieved. But with the curfew there was a lot of confusion,” Nyorkor said. “With our viewers, we’ve been breaking what it means down for them because there’s still a lot of misinformation and confusion. And that’s all going into the big holiday.” 

Greg Levinsky, who works for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, Maine, wondered about how Thanksgiving will differ this year. The reporter was curious about the pandemic’s impact on local businesses and figured people would have smaller meals and community dinners would change. 

Because of COVID-19, Levinsky wanted to be extra cautious, so he conducted most of his interviews with local business owners over the phone. He learned that they were doing well in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. The only place he visited in person was a family-owned turkey farm in the tiny town of Mercer, Maine, where the population is less than 1,000.

“It was so interesting, especially for me being in Boston for the past four years in school. I have never really experienced small-town anything,” Levinsky said. “It was really cool to see how much pride this guy and his family take in what they do.”

This Thanksgiving is Levinsky’s first as a full-time reporter. He began working at the Morning Sentinel in August. He said he hopes that, despite the pandemic, people can still enjoy their community during the holiday season.

Miami Herald food editor Carlos Frias said his newspaper runs a section leading up to Thanksgiving every year that is filled with recipes and twists on classic recipes.

“We will do that this year and I think it’s more important than past years because folks are going to be thinking about cooking at home a lot more than they ever have,” Frias said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to think about a lot more in the last seven months during the pandemic, which is: What am I doing myself? And then trying to think about the reader in that way. What are the things that I want out of a newspaper?”

Frias said one of the most popular stories the Herald will have this year is a roundup of restaurants locals can order from for their Thanksgiving meal. 

“I think that it’s all about reader service,” he said, adding that these are suggestions that will help keep the public safe.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey has expressed her support for the business community in the pandemic. She’s repeatedly said “you cannot have a life without a livelihood.” She extended a mask order through Friday, Dec. 11, but made changes to the state’s “Safer at Home” order including the removal of emergency occupancy rates for retailers, gyms, fitness and entertainment venues. Shauna Stuart, a features reporter for AL.com and part of the publication’s Life & Culture team, has been — like many other journalists in Alabama — closely observing the direction from the governor.

“For us, when she says things like that and she does things like that, it’s up to us on the Life & Culture team to challenge and navigate what that means,” Stuart said. “And how, and if, people can still enjoy those luxuries — this livelihood that the governor wants people to have. But how do we, No. 1, report that responsibly? How do we cover that responsibly? How do we cover the challenges with having a livelihood in the pandemic? That’s our job. We add that nuance.”

Stuart said Thanksgiving coverage has been different. She and a few of her colleagues teamed up for a story (spearheaded by entertainment reporter Mary Colurso) titled “Thanksgiving 2020: Where to get takeout for Turkey Day in Alabama.” The roundup covered restaurants in cities like Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, and more.

Stuart said there are still readers decrying the coverage, writing comments like “You can’t tell me what to do in my house!” 

“Just because some people in our audience are done with the pandemic, doesn’t mean the pandemic is over,” she said. “It’s up to the Life & Culture team to navigate that.”

In Massachusetts, Jenn Lord Paluzzi, editor and publisher of GraftonCommon.com, had been looking forward to covering a high school football rivalry game between her town of Grafton and another town called Millbury. 

“High school football on Thanksgiving is a ritual,” Paluzzi said. “We’re not rivaling Texas by any means, but the Thanksgiving name is a fixed rivalry.”

The story is a non-story now because there’s no game due to the pandemic. And earlier this year, the school committee in Grafton voted to eliminate the use of “Grafton Indians” as the Grafton High School mascot. The new mascot is the “Grafton Gator.”

“But of course, we’re in Massachusetts and we do not have alligators, so everyone is up in arms,” Paluzzi said. “I really, really would have loved to have done the Thanksgiving story with the team going out for the first time as Gators, and talking to all the alumni — and all the other fun stuff. That’s just not happening.”

One plus side is that a holiday event Paluzzi was concerned would fall victim to COVID-19 is going to happen both virtually and with social distancing. “Grafton Celebrates the Holidays did find a way to be adorable without crowds,” Paluzzi wrote in Twitter direct message on Mondayl.

Over the past few years, Nyorkor, who lives in Cleveland but whose family is in Indiana, has had friendsgiving gatherings with her colleagues who are also working around Thanksgiving. They’ve visited each other’s houses, bringing with them dishes. 

“None of that is going on this year. Our management has been very firm in letting us know they don’t want us to do that,” Nyorkor said. “Since we’re — in a sense — public figures and have high profiles, it wouldn’t be responsible for us to be reporting to the people and telling them ‘Hey, you guys need to slow down this Thanksgiving. No big gatherings. Social distance. Wear your masks.’ And then we don’t do the same. It’s going to be a little lonely, to be honest with you.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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