“A viral pandemic might feel like a new beat for a lot of us, but then again there isn’t a single person or place that hasn’t been changed by the ongoing crisis,” writes Pulitzer Grantee Jaeah Lee. “I’ve been reminding myself and fellow freelancers that if we look closely enough, the story possibilities are all around us. You don’t have to look far.”
In April 2020, the Pulitzer Center sent a survey to our grantees, and over 500 freelancers responded—detailing the pressures they are facing and their feelings on managing safety in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like grantee Jaeah Lee, hundreds of grantees responded with personal and professional tips that they would give to fellow media professionals dealing with the crisis. As we combed through submissions, themes regarding collaboration, safety, and strategic pitching surfaced.
The conversations that emerged reveal the competing demands on freelancers during this crisis. Grantee Marc Herman writes, “I mostly find when talking to other freelancers that they are worried they won't work again this year if they are not experts in COVID-related topics.” He asks editors to share “how we continue to cover anything not COVID or Trump, or expand how we think about the COVID story as context for other important issues.”
Grantee Beth Gardiner presents one option: “Find the places where your normal beat intersects with the pandemic, and then pitch those stories to editors. For me, that's environment/climate/air pollution.”
In a media environment where The New York Times reports approximately 36,000 U.S. media employees have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus, the Pulitzer Center remains committed to its mission of supporting coverage of underreported global issues and the journalists who cover these stories. On the ground, our grantees are the best sources for the challenges facing independent journalists during the crisis. Please find a selection of their advice including excerpts of longer comments below.
I spent more than two months in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. Look for stories that condense the big confusing picture (almost like creating a stage). Never underestimate the chance to get infected. Constantly re-assess your safety.
Be very cautious with data and graphics—not every number deserves to be visualised or shared, especially when testing, reporting and death numbers vary dramatically based on the jurisdiction. Be sure to treat your data like any source—ask it questions, assess its bias, and be clear what information is missing.
It is a very tough time, probably the worst we have seen in our lifetime, but we also have a duty to document this crisis and to hold governments accountable to make sure that the public is safe. Our jobs are really crucial during this time. Let this sense of purpose drive you. At the same time be patient if the stories [aren't] working out. They will or a version of them will in some time. Also, write down your fears or anxiety. That could help you deal with the crisis.
Can't recommend enough joining associations like AIR [The Association of Independents in Radio] or SPJ [Society of Professional Journalists] because you become part of a community that provides more ideas and support, as well as subscribing to your local paper to be in the know and well informed.
Don't isolate. Keep in close touch with colleagues, build networks. Create Zoom meetings for writing sessions with people. You can get a lot done in 90 minutes, say, and be in contact with others.
Collaboration is key; I hope that due to all the impossibilities of traveling currently, this crisis convinces more publications to encourage rather than discourage collaboration between different journalists and especially between writers and photographers. Since nobody can travel, we need to work together, and develop ideas together from the start. I hope editors take note of how beneficial that can be.
If possible, try to do interviews over the phone and messaging applications.
Have frank conversations with editors and make sure safety parameters are clear before going into any situation. Ask for hazard pay, PPE, and any other necessary support. Consider not only your own risks, but the risks you may pose to others while on assignment.
Follow the lockdown orders, but if you are allowed to be out, practice social distancing and have a protocol for entering your home to maximise safety such as, placing equipment in an area for cleaning later, clean hands upon entering, taking clothes off and place in washing machine, shower and clean, and then clean equipment with detergent/alcohol wipes or whatever you have that works.
Don't feel the need to report if the time isn't right for you. Many of us are not news photographers or writers and the inclination to get out there with everyone else is strong. But hold tight, the long-form, deeper narrative stories are just as important and will reveal themselves when the time is right.
I know this is not an option for many freelance journalists, but my own personal goal is to use this time to do as much research and pre-reporting as possible so that I can hit the ground running once travel is feasible. Also, don't beat yourself up if you have not written King Lear or invented calculus by the time this is over.
I do think media outlets are really hungry for stories right now. I am currently NOT pitching but sending full drafts. This doesn't have a 100% success rate and isn't a comfortable strategy financially, but the wait time between a pitch, a response, a draft, and publication is just too long right now, and good ideas get left on the cutting room floor if I bat around pitches.
There is power in pivoting. Being flexible in the way that you work and where you get work done is helpful.
Doing sports, listening to music and reading at home has helped. Staying active doing photography at home and in direct surroundings. If going out to cover COVID, take all preventive measures possible. Also, being productive now is not a priority. Contact your photography community and talk to them once a week.
—Ana Maria Arevalo Gosen
Reporting from home can be mentally exhausting because you're constantly watching feeds of depressing news across the globe. For me, it's important to set barriers. I've been under a government enforced lockdown for more than two months in Colombia, so I always try and get some exercise in the morning before I begin work. I take breaks periodically throughout the day to cook food and read my fantasy novel to completely pull my mind off of the story I'm currently working on. I've found this to be crucial for my own mental health.
The Pulitzer Center thanks our grantees for their willingness to share their comments during this crisis. Some comments are excerpts from longer passages and edited for clarity.
COVID-19 Update: The connection between local and global issues–the Pulitzer Center's long standing mantra–has, sadly, never been more evident. We are uniquely positioned to serve the journalists, news media organizations, schools and universities we partner with by continuing to advance our core mission: enabling great journalism and education about underreported and systemic issues that resonate now–and continue to have relevance in times ahead. We believe that this is a moment for decisive action. Learn more about the steps we are taking.