March 13, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

We are producing this newsletter of story ideas for journalists to help you responsibly cover the COVID-19 story. We created a little form for you to send me the best work you have done or have seen elsewhere. My priorities are:

  1. Find stories you may not have covered or thought of that the public wants or needs to see.
  2. Share how newsrooms and journalists are staying safe and getting good work done despite the circumstances. I value practicality. I will prioritize ideas that journalists everywhere, regardless of resources, media type or market size, can adapt.

Today I will share a few story ideas, but be sure you read the section below about how newsrooms and the journalists working in them can stay safe. You may want to circulate this to your colleagues, corporate folks and bosses.

As learning goes online, will students still learn?

Universities worldwide are quickly moving classes online, but whether students will learn as much as they would in physical classrooms is a key question.

The U.S. Department of Education collected 99 studies that were done over a decade and found that a mixture of in-class and online teaching works best. When it is just a choice of one or the other, students found online learning can be just as effective, and for some, more effective.

Researchers point to data suggesting more than 85% of educators who teach online courses felt the students learn just as much as they would in classrooms. The biggest mistake, experts say, is to try to make online learning the “same” as classroom learning, when in fact it should be very different.

Online teaching experts say there are three keys to success:

  • interaction with content
  • interaction with instructors
  • interaction among peers

The best online learning allows users to interact with each other and not just sit and listen to an online lecture. It also allows participants to interact with teachers, just as they would in a classroom.

I can tell you, as a personal experience, that I took an advanced math course a few years back as I prepared to enter a master’s degree program. The online learning allowed me to ask a lot of questions that I would not have asked in an in-person classroom filled with bright young math wizards, when I was neither young nor a whiz. I found that experience more personal and less intimidating.

By one estimate there are more than 6.5 million students in the U.S. enrolled in online classes now, almost a third of all college students. So while “going virtual” may sound innovative and new to parents, it is not so intimidating for students.

If you want to learn more about teaching online, Poynter is offering a free one-hour webinar on the topic today at noon.

How will children get meals they will miss with schools closed?

Local school districts are closing from Washington State to New York State because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Department of Agriculture said schools serve 20 million free school lunches every day.

What will happen to the students who need those lunches? Federal rules may kick in that allow government-supplied meals to be distributed away from schools. Arman Azad from CNN reported:

“When schools close unexpectedly — during a pandemic, for example — the USDA allows them to provide food to students using programs designed for summer meals, which are often offered at churches, parks and other community sites.

Schools can then be reimbursed by the federal government for the meals they provide, just as they would be during the summer, according to a USDA memorandum issued last year. The catch, according to the School Nutrition Association, is that the meal distribution sites, including unused schools, must be located in areas where at least half of children come from low-income families.”

The “no-touch” meal delivery services are getting ready

One growth industry during this time when people are staying closer to home is meal delivery services. And one of the hottest movements in that business is what is being called “no touch” delivery, where they leave the food at your door. In China, food delivery sales jumped 20% after the first wave of COVID-19 hit. One Chinese company said 80% of its food orders requested “no-contact” deliveries.

Checking in with seniors

Now would be a good time for us to talk about how we are going to help stay connected with seniors. For good reason, we are advising seniors with underlying health concerns to stay home.

But there is a risk to that advice: Seniors may become out of sight and out of mind. Here in St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, church services and midweek gatherings are a big part of the social lives of seniors. If they do not feel safe attending church, we won’t know if they are having a hard time because we will not see them. So we will have to make it a point to check in.

A few other stray thoughts: Addiction specialists said people who are prone to substance abuse may turn to alcohol or drugs if they are lonely and/or depressed. The longer people feel cooped up because of quarantines, the more likely they are to become angry and blame others who were “careless” and exposed them to the virus.

Experts said loneliness is a big risk factor for depression among seniors. What resources can you point the public to that will help address this problem?

Bad info is spreading among young people like, well, a virus

I mentioned this yesterday, but I am so proud of the work that the MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network has been doing. Consider producing content that will connect with young audiences in a factual way that also teaches critical thinking.

Journalists around the globe are fact-checking COVID-19 claims

One thing we have learned from the news coverage of this virus is that rumors and false information that show up in Asia and Africa keep moving around the globe to Western countries a short time later. So it is useful to see what journalists are reporting around the globe.

Poynter is home to the International Fact-Checking Network and wow have the global members of that organization been busy knocking down fakes and frauds involving COVID-19 (check the bottom of the linked page for a full list of relevant articles).

The IFCN reports, “Between Feb. 27 and March 2, the #CoronaVirusFacts/#DatosCoronaVirus alliance, the group that gathers 107 fact-checkers from 45 countries, found at least 20 cases of ‘false positives’ spreading panic on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.”

So far, the alliance of fact-checkers has investigated more than 830 claims and statements, ranging from ridiculous assertions that a “scientific study” proved East Asians were more susceptible to the virus to, believe it or not, media claims in Nigeria that Sub-Saharan African skin is somehow more resistant to the virus — their explanation for why there has been so little of the virus in Africa so far.

Covering the story and staying safe

Journalists will be at the very places other people don’t want to go, including airports, convention centers, hospitals and other crowded places. It’s the catch-22 of journalism: You go where the problems are, yet there you are telling people not to go where you go.

Journalists have been covering epidemics and infectious disease outbreaks for centuries. In fact, 300 years ago, journalists covered the 1721 Boston smallpox outbreak. We’ve kept at it, right up to the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic and the horrific Ebola deaths in West Africa from 2014-2016. The truth is, the public needs the work that we do to tell them how big the problem is, whether the government is telling the truth, how to care for themselves and to help calm unreasonable fears caused by rumors.

But we also have to care for ourselves.

My friend Matt Mrozinski, director of photojournalism at KING-TV Seattle, shared his newsroom’s best practices for staying healthy on a Facebook group for TV journalists. Because of its location in the country’s hottest virus zone at the moment, the station is on heightened alert for its staff’s health.

Here are Mrozinski’s best practices:

  • Our meetings take place in small groups in open areas.
  • You simply do NOT come in if you have any symptom of anything. We make everyone comfortable in doing that.
  • We do not shake hands. We try to maintain that 6-foot space as best we can. “Social distancing.”
  • Field crews do not report to the building. It is all take-home cars and remote editing. We hand off TVUs (devices that allow crews to go live from the field without livetrucks) in our back alley. “Drive-thru TVU.”
  • Anyone who can work from home does.
  • Sanitizing gel and wipes have been distributed to crews. (What little are left.)
  • Cleaning services have been increased.
  • We ask photographers to be mindful of sanitizing the lavalier microphones or (cringe) do not use one if you have concerns.
  • Work stations are wiped down before use.
  • Hand washing is a top priority. Use soap and water in-house, and conserve the sanitizing gel for those who do not have access to soap and water.
  • Schools closed today so we will likely have to accommodate shift changes for those families — where we can.
  • Remember that you have at-risk employees or employees with at-risk family members. Honor their requests.
  • Ask for help. Call up corporate. Be ready to backfill.

The Committee to Protect Journalists drafted an advisory for journalists who are going out into their communities and covering COVID-19.

You may be tempted to interview someone who has been infected or who suspects they might be. You may be considering going to the concerts, festivals and events that have not been canceled. Read this first.

This advisory is extensive, and you should look at the entire thing, but I will provide you an edited version here. Again, READ THE WHOLE THING. The advisory is aimed at journalists working across borders, but most of it applies to all journalists everywhere.


  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older people and individuals with chronic health conditions are considered high risk. If you fall into this high-risk category, you should consider not participating in the assignment if the risk of exposure is significant.
  • There have been incidents of racist attacks against certain nationalities, according to BuzzFeed, a factor to consider when selecting staff for any assignment. Increased levels of hostility and prejudice should also be taken into account.
  • Be aware of misinformation, something that the World Health Organization has specifically warned about and that the BBC has highlighted.
  • Pay attention to your digital security, noting that scammers and hackers are reportedly targeting individuals with phishing emails related to COVID-19, according to Norton, a cyber safety company.
  • Discuss what plans your management team has in place to assist and support you should you fall ill while on assignment. (Note from Al: this is an especially important step for freelancers who may not have the support system to back them up if they become ill on assignment.)
  • Consider the potential psychological impact of reporting from an area affected by COVID-19, especially if reporting from a medical or isolation facility, or quarantine zone. A useful resource for media workers covering traumatic situations can be found via the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma.
  • Family members may be concerned and stressed about such assignments. Have a discussion with them about the risks and their concerns. If necessary, set up a conversation between family members and your organization’s medical advisers.

Avoiding Infection

  • Avoid close contact with anybody showing symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing. Always place your hand over your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing.
  • Wash your hands regularly with hot water and soap. Use antibacterial gel or wipes if hot water and soap is not available, but always follow this up with a hot water and soap wash as soon as possible.
  • Use protective gloves if working in or visiting an infected site such as a medical treatment facility. Other medical personal protective equipment such as a bodysuit and full face mask may also be necessary. Without the same gear that healthcare professionals use, do not even consider entering a medical treatment facility that is treated infected patients. You risk your health and you risk infecting others.
  • If working in an affected health facility, use waterproof overshoes which must be wiped/rinsed/sanitized as soon as you exit the location.
  • Always ensure your hands are washed thoroughly with hot water and soap before, during and after leaving an affected area.
  • If you develop symptoms, especially fever or shortness of breath, consider how you will seek medical treatment.


  • Inform your employer and management team as soon as possible if you develop symptoms, and be aware that you may be required to self-isolate. Discuss with your employer the possibility and feasibility of remote working for a period of time on return.
  • If you do need to self-isolate, make a plan regarding shopping for supplies and caring for any dependents. You should not use public transport, Ubers or taxis until at least 14 days after your return from a heavily infected area. Avoid elevators, especially crowded elevators.

Yes, we need to do our work as journalists, but we have a responsibility to not become part of the problem by spreading the virus.

It has been a heck of a week

You need a laugh. These arcade claw machines are loaded with toilet paper rolls and bottles of hand sanitizer. It sure is nice to see all of this tension broken by a topical laugh.

We’ll be back Monday morning with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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