June 8, 2020

The Washington Post had been providing reporters, photographers, videographers and others covering COVID-19 hot spots with N95 masks and educating them about best practices.

Now, as the Post sends reporters and other newsroom staff to cover protests around the country, the newspaper is providing them with kits that provide necessary materials to keep them safe from the coronavirus.

The kits include hard press badges that are easily accessible, swim goggles, two N95 masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, managing editor Tracy Grant told Poynter.

“What became very evident … was that we needed to make sure everyone who was out there had something that could readily be produced —  not a business card, not something on their phone but something that could be immediately produced that could identify them as press,” she said of the badges.

N95 masks provide the greatest level of protection, she said, and with little ability to physically distance or contract trace, providing that protection is key to keeping reporters and newsroom staff safe, she said.

So far, about 50 to 60 of the kits have been dispersed, with some being overnighted to cities across the country.

Cailley Chella, a producer at Vice, has covered protests in Phoenix.

“We are definitely being advised to wear masks, the surgical cloth masks,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to maintain six feet, which is not at all possible at these protests most of the time, but sometimes it is.”

She said many colleagues around the country use helmets and Kevlar jackets, though she has not. She does advise wearing pants to protect skin.

MORE ON PROTEST SAFETY: 23 guidelines for journalists to safely cover protests

At NBC News, it is a policy for those in the field who are likely to come within six feet of others to wear a face cover or surgical mask. However, if an anchor or correspondent or crew is outdoors, safely distanced by more than six feet, by themselves, and will not be approached by passersby or conduct in-person interviews, masks are not required.

At the Post, Grant said the newsroom policy since COVID-19 became a story has been that no one is required to go on an assignment they feel uncomfortable doing.

Someone may be young and healthy, she said, but also the primary caregiver for an aging parent or grandparent. Or they might lack a car and are required to take the metro to get to the assignment. Editors, she said, are being intentional about asking staff members what they feel comfortable with when they receive an assignment.

“It is about knowing your staff. It is about having conversations with your staff. It is about proactively saying, ‘You know what, not this time. You’re not going — we’re going to put someone else in the fray,’” she said.  “And that is all nuanced and subjective and do we get it right 100% of the time? I am sure that we don’t, but the message has been people do not have to go out.”

The newsroom held a brown bag lunch session about how to do great reporting from your couch, focusing on developing dialogues, scene details and color from phone conversations.

“We have tried in a whole variety of communications to make clear that this is a really important story, but we understand it is impacting people differently, and so we will try to make sure you are best positioned to do the work that you can do within the confines of your life experience and your current life situation,” Grant said.

Learning from other colleagues may be one practice that newsrooms can follow.

Grant asked a reporter who had previously covered Ebola as well as COVID-19 to write tactical guidelines for colleagues, such as how to take off and dispose of an N95 mask properly.

MORE ON REPORTING ON PROTESTS: Do’s and don’ts of covering protests

NBC News president Noah Oppenheim shared in a note to staff on Sunday, May 31, that crews covering the protests are being accompanied by professional security.

“They also know, and we’d like to reiterate here, that their foremost obligation is to stay safe and to always follow the relevant protocols and training, even if it means not getting the image, the shot, or the sound-bite we might all desperately want,” he said. “If anyone has any questions about this, please reach out to your manager, or to one of us.

“This is an extraordinarily difficult story to cover, even for those of us doing so from positions of relative safety. The historical injustice, the deep frustration, and the simultaneous challenge of navigating this ongoing global pandemic make this moment especially fraught. So, as we have said many times before — please take extra care of yourselves and each other.”

Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist and Tulsa Artist Fellow in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Visit her website at KristiEaton.com. 

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