March 18, 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.

Supply chain delays in China are leading to shortages of protective gear in the U.S.

“Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York has only a week’s supply of masks on hand, according to a transcript of a staff meeting last Friday afternoon,” Rosalind Adams reported for BuzzFeed. “The shortage, Kreg Koford, senior vice president of supply chain and sustaining care, told employees, is due to production and distribution delays in China, where most personal protective equipment, or PPE, is manufactured.”

This is especially dangerous for cancer patients, who are much more at risk of dying from COVID-19 than the general population. “Preliminary data out of China suggests that cancer patients face a 5.6% fatality rate if infected with the virus, compared to 0.9% in people with no underlying conditions,” Lam Thuy Vo reported for BuzzFeed.

The White House asked the construction industry to donate masks. If and when they do, it will be a good story loaded with visuals. Vice President Mike Pence said:

We would make one specific request and that is we would urge construction companies to donate their inventory of N95 masks to your local hospital and forgo additional order of those industrial masks.

Because of what the president asked to be included in legislation moving through the Congress today, those industrial masks that they use on construction sites are perfectly acceptable for health care workers to be protected from a respiratory disease.

We are asking construction companies that our president knows very well from his background. We are asking them to donate their N95 masks to their local hospitals and also forgo making additional orders.

Contact hospitals to tell them you want to hear about any donations that come in and reach out to bigger construction companies in your area to see if they are complying with the request.

Don’t shame people for wearing masks

How many times have you seen somebody wearing a face mask and wanted to tell them it is not doing them any good? These emotions will only grow with the critical shortage of masks at hospitals. While healthy people should generally not use the limited supply of masks, we can help the public understand that for some people, the mask is important.

Read this heart-wrenching story on Fast Company written by a person who has a compromised immune system, who knows she is among those nameless people who journalists refer to as the most vulnerable to COVID-19. For her, it could be a fatal infection.

Here is a lesson from a friend of mine, and I suspect there is a story in this idea for us all. Writer and journalist Manda Barger wrote on Facebook:

SOAPBOX: This is what invisible, chronic illness looks like. My immune system is messed up, guys. (Inflammatory bowel disease) itself is an immune system disorder. Plus, I take medications that alter and suppress my immune system. So I’m going to take all precautions to be safe: constant hand washing, not touching things (like elevator buttons) with bare hands, distancing myself and wearing my N99 mask that I normally save for airports/planes and hospitals.

I’m not “falling for the hype.” I’ve already been snickered at. Just because I “look healthy” doesn’t mean you know my situation.

As I think about my friend Amanda, it puts a face on our need to do everything we can to keep this virus from spreading. Yes, you might not get sick, but people like her don’t have the immune defenses that you have.

There are three lessons here:

  1. Reserve your judgment about people wearing masks — you don’t know the whole story.
  2. When we are cavalier about not social distancing, we risk spreading the virus and we put others who have decreased immunity at risk.
  3. People who have decreased immunity are already used to social distancing. It is their lifestyle. Be kind and help them get through this challenging time.

Share your work

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Exactly what does it mean to be prepared?

My friend, WFAA Dallas reporter David Schechter, invented a phrase sometime back that he called “reporter assisted journalism.” He has a franchise where he takes viewers with him to report stories with a goal of finding answers to their questions.

This week, he took a woman to meet the local health director to find out just how prepared she should be for the COVID-19 outbreak. His answers are direct and practical. I just don’t think you can do this kind of story enough.

I suspect you are getting tired of repeating the same messages, and it reminds me of the things weathercasters here in Florida do before hurricanes. Maybe the 20th time you tell people to do what they are supposed to do, they actually will follow through.

How to talk to families of COVID-19 victims

I had not given this much thought until I saw advice from The Dart Center to be thinking about whether and how you should talk with the family of a coronavirus fatality.

I encourage you to read the full list of advice on how to handle such a conversation (it is excellent), but what follows is an edited version.

  • People who have experienced deep trauma or who have lost someone close to them in sudden, violent circumstances have a right to decline being interviewed or photographed and news media need to respect that right. Exercise the principle of doing no further harm.
  • Above all, be accurate and do not feign compassion. It can’t be faked. Offer sincere condolences early and in considerate, supportive terms. Use supportive phrases like “I’m sorry this happened to you” rather than the more abrupt “How do you feel?” or the discordant “I know how you feel,” which will immediately result in a loss of credibility.
  • Avoid “devil’s advocate” questions or questions that might imply blame or that they could have done more.
  • Even though a large number of news media will be chasing stories and fresh news angles at this time, resist the “pack” mentality. Pool resources where possible to limit demand on individuals and communities.
  • Invite these people to be interviewed or photographed and provide a supportive atmosphere for that interchange, rather than coerce, cajole, trick or offer remuneration to them to get cooperation. Especially don’t thrust the additional burden of negotiating an “exclusive” onto grieving families.
  • Respect their choice to have someone with them or to appoint a family or external spokesperson or even a media advisor and don’t pay out on them for making such choices. Most likely they’re being bombarded with requests from media and have little choice but to seek help to deal with, or limit, those demands.
  • Try to make your approach as respectful and gentle as possible, despite your pressing deadline or a newsroom impatient for your copy or images. Treat these people as you would like to be treated if the situation was reversed. This is particularly critical if you are an “out-of-towner,” as your radar may not be as attuned to local sensitivities as it could be.
  • If someone breaks down, give them time to compose themselves before asking: “Are you ready to go on?” Resist recording or photographing individuals in a distressed or emotional state (even readers/viewers with no connection to tragedies are critical of this clichéd technique). Choose powerful, reinforcing images to illustrate the story and the victim’s worth to their family and/or community.
  • Remember people you speak to in these circumstances are rarely media-savvy. Try to explain the media process and how your story/picture/footage is likely to be used. Also explain that it may be reshaped prior to publication, or afterward, or not used at all. Be honest if you know something is likely to run more than once. (Many will take steps to ensure vulnerable family members such as children or the elderly are informed of, or shielded from, such reports.) Encourage them to ask questions while you’re there to answer them and to call you if they have a question at a later stage.

The COVID-19 outbreak will complicate the Census

This weekend, my Census form landed in my mailbox. If you want to fill it out online, you can. You will need the number on the form they sent you. You can also respond by phone.

Then, starting March 30, the U.S. Census is supposed to be sending workers out into cities and counties around the country to count noses and gather essential information. The first round of human-to-human Census contacts will attempt to count homeless people. In May, Census workers begin going house-to-house to encourage people who didn’t respond to the mailed Census and phone calls.

In 2010, about two-thirds of American households responded to the mailed letters and postcards. And the Census Bureau says it specifically built in contingencies to keep collecting information even in the event of a pandemic.

Starting March 20, you will be able to watch a constantly updated map to see how any community, county or state in the country is responding to the Census. You can, until then, see what the response rate was in any community from 2010.

Here is the timeline of what to expect.

  • March 12-20: Households began receiving official Census Bureau mail with detailed information on how to respond to the 2020 Census online, by phone or by mail.
  • March 30 – April 1: The Census Bureau will count people who are experiencing homelessness over these three days. As part of this process, the Census Bureau counts people in shelters, at soup kitchens and mobile food vans, on the streets, and at non-sheltered, outdoor locations such as tent encampments.
  • April 1: Census Day is observed nationwide. When you respond to the census, you’ll tell the Census Bureau where you live as of this day.
  • April: Census takers will begin visiting college students who live on campus, people living in senior centers and others who live among large groups of people. Census takers will also begin following up with households that have not yet responded in areas that include off-campus housing, where residents are not counted in groups.
  • May – July: Census takers will begin visiting homes that haven’t responded to the 2020 Census to make sure everyone is counted.
  • December: The Census Bureau will deliver apportionment counts to the president and Congress as required by law.

We’ll be back tomorrow 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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