Lessons learned from teaching journalism during the pandemic

During the height of the pandemic, New York University journalism professor Yvonne Latty had to teach some of her students on Zoom and others in the classroom at the same time. Her glasses fogged up while wearing  a mask. So she got contacts. She had to also consider how much she spoke as her mouth became dry from talking with a mask on for three hours.

“It became a piece of their mental health that I showed up in person,” Latty said.

She added that the isolation also was difficult for many of her students living alone in small dorm rooms.

Journalism students are socially distanced during a class at Columbia College Chicago. (Photo by Elio Leturia)

“The isolation was hard for my students. My heart went out to them,” said Latty, who also is director of the graduate concentration, Reporting New York and Reporting the Nation in Multimedia, at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Despite these physical and emotional challenges, Latty’s students published 171 stories from articles to multimedia stories in six weeks on their multimedia news site, pavementpieces.com.

“We turned our whole classroom into a pandemic newsroom,” Latty said. “It was some of the best work I ever saw in the grad program.”

More than a year into the pandemic, journalism professors across the country are still facing challenges as their students reported on the pandemic nationwide. They want to cover the most impacted communities and also keep their students safe, especially as the Delta variant packs hospital ICUs again.

They worked through the initial technology challenges of Zoom interviews and remote video recording and editing as well as the emotional challenges of supporting students’ mental health and students who also were essential workers while going to school.

The pandemic taught the students and their professors the importance of journalism in times of crisis. It is a lesson that continues.

In March 2020, Professor Jesús Ayala Rico of California State University, Fullerton received word that the campus was closing due to the pandemic. He teaches the broadcast journalism course that produces a weekly 30-minute Spanish-language Emmy-winning newscast, Al Día.

His students went back home to locations across California, to San Diego, Sacramento, Half Moon Bay, Riverside and Orange County. He realized that his students could report from their own communities, so they formed a statewide team of correspondents. He assigned each student to do a COVID story.

“They were scattered through the entire state and we did a show on how COVID is affecting everything in the state. They filed from their different locations,” he said.

The professor and the department did not require the students to do in-person reporting but students who wanted to do field reporting were allowed to do as long as they followed safety protocols, such as wearing masks and keeping their distance from others. Students also were allowed to do zoom interviews.

“The (students) wouldn’t let up. They wanted to cover the story,” Ayala said. “The students said, professor, let’s do something.”

Early in the pandemic there was a lack of in-depth coverage by the Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, Ayala said. So they expanded their coverage and produced a 45-minute TV news magazine style show called “Coronavirus Pandemia Mundial.”

It won the CMA best newscast for the year and ACP best COVID-19 coverage for the year.

Ayala realized the pandemic was one of the biggest stories since 9/11, and he spoke to news directors about what they expected of young journalists in this time of crisis.

“We’re going to judge your students on how they covered COVID,” Ayala said they told him. He worked at ABC News for 17 years before he started teaching journalism in 2017.

During the pandemic Vincio Sinta worked as the broadcast practicum coordinator at  Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

He shared that many of his students work and go to school full-time. They worked on their broadcast stories at the same time they worked in grocery stores or hotels.

“It was a big factor there because many of them are paying their way through the program,” explained Sinta. “There was the added risk of many of them being essential workers.”

Many of his students also live with their parents and then faced challenges when one person in the household became sick with COVID-19.

“Many live at home. They had people at home test positive for the virus and they had to skip class. It was intensely stressful,” Sinta said.

He said there are some elements such as zoom interviews that will become a mainstay of broadcast journalism.

“It’s easier for a source to agree to meet online for a few minutes without traveling there and setting up the lights. We can’t lose that if it allows us to get sources and voices,” said Sinta, who will be an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington in fall 2021. 

Journalism professors said the pandemic made students and journalism professors more resourceful. Also many grew closer to their students than before.

“I did get close to students and we did create a bond in the worst teaching situation,” Latty said. “My lesson learned is journalism is an incredibly important tool and you should never stop.”

Teresa Puente is an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Long Beach.

The arrest of CNN journalists is also about race

The arrest of CNN journalist Omar Jimenez on live television isn’t just about the First Amendment.

It’s also about race.

Journalists of color with The National Association of Black Journalists and The National Association of Hispanic Journalists clearly saw it that way with swift condemnations on social media.

#NABJ condemns the arrest of Black reporter @OmarJimenez  live, on air. It is unfathomable and upsetting to witness this structural racism in real time. We are closely monitoring this situation,” tweeted NABJ President Dorothy Tucker, who is a reporter with CBS 2 Chicago.

The governor of Minnesota apologized for the arrest of Jimenez and two colleagues, Leonel Mendez and Bill Kirkos. The state police issued a misleading statement saying they were released “once they were confirmed to be members of the media.”

The CNN journalists were wearing their badges and also carrying camera equipment. On live television, they told state police they were with CNN.

Why were they arrested when they were doing their job in a professional manner, identified themselves as journalists, and also offered to move out of the police’s way?

It’s hard not to see race when a white CNN reporter, Josh Campbell, also reporting nearby, said he was approached by police. But he was allowed to continue to do his job.

CNN anchor John Berman pointed out that Jimenez is black and Latino, and Campbell is white. But he said he did not know whether race played a factor in Jimenez’s arrest. 

Campbell told the CNN anchors he was “treated much differently.”

“I was treated much differently than [CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez] was. I’m sitting here talking to the National Guard, talking to the police. They’re asking politely to move here and there. A couple times I’ve moved closer than they would like. They asked politely to move back. They didn’t pull out the handcuffs. Lot different here than what Omar experienced,” Campbell said.

NAHJ tweeted Friday morning: “This apology is not enough & does not take into account the difference of treatment between a white male correspondent & a black male correspondent — one permitted to remain in the area & the other arrested.”  

Jimenez, who is a graduate of Northwestern University, did not address the race question when he was interviewed by his CNN colleagues Friday morning. Jimenez told CNN viewers that the police were cordial and he and two other crew members arrested were not harmed in the arrest.

“I showed them my badge. They knew we were reporters,” Jimenez told CNN anchors. “We didn’t get a clear reason for why we were arrested.”

But many journalists of color talked about race.

“I could not help but wonder whether his brown skin marked him for this indignity, and I thought of my own adult sons and the threat they face in a society that still too often demonizes African-American men,” said Charles Whitaker, the Dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, in a statement.

Miguel Marquez, CNN correspondent, said on live television Friday community members were frustrated to see video of the journalist being arrested and not of the police officer Derek Chauvin being taken into custody.

“They were frustrated to see an African-American arrested on live television,” Marquez said reporting from Minnesota for CNN.

We can’t keep ignoring the racism that impacts journalists, including Asian American journalists who have been harassed while covering the COVID-19 crisis. We can’t ignore that Spanish-language journalists don’t have the same amount of access to the White House as other journalists.

We can’t ignore the racism that infects police departments, government and all institutions, including the media. 

That is why George Floyd is dead. That is why blacks and Latinos are dying at disproportionate rates from COVID-19. The virus also is racism.

“Recent events – not the least of which are the disproportionately devastating effects of COVID-19 on communities of color – have once again placed our nation’s racial divide in stark relief. I am grateful for the work of intrepid reporters like Omar Jimenez who are on our streets giving face and voice to struggles and wrongdoings. And I fiercely decry any efforts to hinder these brave journalists – regardless of their race or ethnicity – from telling these vital stories,” Whitaker said.

Teresa Puente teaches journalism at California State University, Long Beach, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project.

Latino and Spanish-language media fill information gap during the Covid-19 crisis

Former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello once said, “Viruses and bacteria don’t ask for a green card.”

In 1990, she became the first woman and the first Hispanic to be named Surgeon General of the United States. George H. Bush was then president.

Now 30 years later, with the Covid-19 worldwide health pandemic, we are seeing this truth.

It’s important that all people in the U.S., including the 37 million people who speak Spanish at home, have complete and accurate information about the coronavirus.

Latino journalists and activists have criticized the Trump Administration for failing to act quickly enough to share information in Spanish about Covid-19.

Last Monday, the CDC released new coronavirus guidelines, “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” including asking people to avoid social gatherings of 10 more than people and for the elderly to stay at home. But it was only published in English. Under pressure from Latino journalists and activists, the administration translated and posted the guidelines in Spanish on the CDC website late Thursday of last week.

Journalist Julio Ricardo Varela, Latino Rebels founder/publisher and co-host of the “In The Thick” podcast, both part of Futuro Media, first reported that the new guidelines were not immediately released in Spanish.

“It didn’t exist. If it existed when I asked for it, I would’ve gotten it,” Varela said.

After he first reported on it, Latino leaders and activists increased pressure on the White House because the health of the Spanish-speaking community in the U.S. is at stake.

“Language access is directly linked to public health,” Varela said, explaining why he wrote the story. “It’s a public health service.”

Still most of the information coming out of the White House in English is not being translated into Spanish in real time. In fact, the WhiteHouse.gov website that is releasing daily news about the coronavirus is only available in English.

President Barack Obama had a Spanish-language WhiteHouse.gov page, but it disappeared after Trump took office. The Trump administration promised in early 2017 there would be a live page in Spanish, but it still hasn’t materialized.

The CDC and the White House do have Twitter feeds in Spanish, @CDCespanol and @LaCasaBlanca and they do post information in Spanish. But they sometimes retweet English content on them. The CDC also has a website in Spanish, but the updates are sometimes slower than the English-language page.

This information vacuum is more glaring in the face of a global health crisis, and it is up to Latino journalists and Spanish-language media to keep Spanish-speakers in the U.S. informed.

“It’s falling on Hispanic media to do a lot of the public service to educate the public about the risk, how to take care, how to access medical care if you fall ill,” said María Peña, a digital journalist with Telemundo News, who covers the nation’s capital and has covered the last four presidents.

But the issue is more than just a lack of timely information from the Trump Administration about Covid-19 in Spanish.

Peña said that there is currently only one Spanish-language journalist from Univision who has an assigned seat in the White House press room. And that journalist has to share the seat with another journalist so it amounts to half a seat for Spanish-language journalists.

These seats are assigned by White House Correspondents’ Association, Peña said.

“That is a huge setback for our community because a lot of the questions that we’re interested in for our community are not being asked,” Peña said.

Also, fewer journalists are being allowed into the press room as the White House is asking journalists to practice social distancing, which allows for about a third of the journalists to attend, Peña said.

Peña also said that she did have access to the White House and could attend briefings but not in an assigned seat. But due to the new social distancing policies she no longer has access to the White House grounds and has to watch the briefings on the television and do follow up interviews on the phone.

Having diversity in the press corp matters, because Latino and Spanish-language journalists may ask different questions, Peña said.

They might ask: 

Will migrants be turned back at the border?

What aid is available to local medical officials with immigrant populations?

How can you assist people with language barriers?

How do you help people who are undocumented and don’t have medical insurance?

“There are specific needs to the Latino community that I don’t feel are being addressed in those briefings,” Peña said.

Past administrations under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush worked more closely with Spanish-language media and also provided more information in Spanish, Peña said.

Jessica Retis, associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona, said some mainstream media outlets are publishing content in Spanish, including the Washington Post and USA Today. Other mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times and Hoy, Tribune Publishing  have shut down their Spanish-language news sites citing profitability issues.

“There is a need for Spanish speakers to have this important health information,” said Retis, who recently published a report for the Democracy Fund called, “Hispanic Media Today.” 

The reach of this information in Spanish goes beyond the U.S., she explained.

“Spanish-language U.S. media is being consumed not only by Latinos in the U.S. but also by Latinos in Latin America due to the transnational configuration of families. Someone in El Salvador who wants to know what is happening to their family in Washington is going to look for Univision,” Retis said.

There also is a group of volunteers, called COVID-19 [en español]  translating articles into Spanish from credible sources to help bridge the information gap.

Some critics might tell Spanish-speakers to learn English. But it’s important to note that the U.S. doesn’t have an official language.

It’s time for the Trump Administration to step up as the health of the nation is at stake, no matter which language you speak.

Teresa Puente teaches bilingual journalism at California State University, Long Beach and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project.