Tips for covering the coronavirus from a veteran Wall Street Journal disaster reporter

Unlike other catastrophes Erin Ailworth has covered, the coronavirus pandemic isn’t ending.

Ailworth writes about the Midwest out of the Chicago bureau of The Wall Street Journal, but her specialty is disasters.

She has covered hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, mudslides, earthquakes and mass shootings, but the COVID-19 pandemic is a different kind of disaster. Ailworth has worked five weeks straight, including weekends, and more people are dying, not less. Unlike her coverage of the Camp Fire or Hurricane Dorian, the pandemic isn’t a disaster you can see out in the field. It’s not cordoned off with yellow tape or circled on a meteorologist’s map. The risk of exposure follows you home.

But many of the techniques and tactics Ailworth has honed over her career covering disasters still apply. I checked in with Ailworth via email to see what tips she could share for other journalists tackling this kind of story for the first time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mel Grau: You’re still going out into the field to report. What are the essential tools you take with you when covering a disaster?

Erin Ailworth: The essential tools change some depending on the type of disaster, and aside from basic reporting gear often requires some sort of personal protective equipment (aka PPE). In fires, that’s a set of Nomex, the fire pants and jacket firefighters wear. In floods and hurricanes, it’s a good pair of waterproof pants and raincoat.

Because I hadn’t covered a pandemic before, I sought advice from a medical and industrial supply rep who was kind enough to help me put together a gear list. Here’s what it included:

A spray bottle to dilute the bleach and use for sanitizing after equipment exposure
Masking tape to help seal gaps at your wrists and ankles in high-risk situations
I’ve supplemented this list with a few other things, including a pair of reusable nitrile gloves for layering over my disposables, and a plastic paint tarp for setting up a clean space to don the high-risk equipment before entering a risky space, as well as a clean space to sanitize and doff the equipment went done.

There’s a good PDF from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on donning and doffing here.

Ailworth documents the Cave Fire near Santa Barbara, California in 2019. (Stuart Palley)

Grau: What kind of preparations do you take before you leave the house?

Ailworth: Before attempting any risky assignment, I always try to chat with both my editor and one of our global security specialists to talk through the potential dangers, what gear I’ll take and what protective measures I’ll follow.

If you don’t have a global security expert, find someone with disaster experience and ask to pick their brain or reach out to someone like that medical supply rep I found.

Mentally, covering this pandemic from the field has been tough. You can’t see the virus and people who carry it can be asymptomatic, so you have to treat the field as a place of constant exposure risk and protect yourself accordingly. Being on high alert nonstop is exhausting, so I try to remind myself to get as much rest as possible, drink water, and check in with my support network, which includes editors, fellow reporters, friends and family.

I also remind myself that something will probably go wrong. I always have contingency plans for equipment failures and reporting hiccups. Every disaster is a learning experience, even for the veterans.

Grau: What are your tips for interviewing people who are experiencing a disaster?

Ailworth: I always try to approach everyone with empathy first. They’ve just been through something horrible, and my goal is to tell their story honestly without adding to their trauma.

Because first contact with this assignment is by phone, email or instant message, I usually take a few minutes to plan out what I want to say and how I’d like the conversation to go.

If I have the opportunity, I also like to give the people I’m talking with some control. I do that by offering them the chance to talk with me informally first, in case they want to discuss what a story would entail or just vet whether they jive with me. Sometimes even the offer is enough for people. I also remind them that they have as much control over the conversation as I do and that they don’t have to answer every question I ask and that they can also guide the conversation in a different direction if they think we’re off track.

I also remind myself to be patient — these interviews don’t occur at the same pace as other conversations. Sometimes it takes two or three or 10 conversations to work up to the key details, especially if the person is still processing or is having trouble remembering things through the fog of all that has happened.

I also try to share bits of myself with people. They’re opening up to me, so I can open up to them at least a little in return. Often, it helps build connections.

Finally, a tip from another reporter, Selene San Felice, that’s really stuck with me: Before you wrap up your interview, remember that you may have just taken someone to a dark place. Try to help them climb out of it by ending the conversation on a happy note, in whatever way you think that’s best achieved.

Related: I survived a mass shooting. Here’s my advice to other journalists.

Grau: How do you take care of your mental health?

Ailworth: Running is my big de-stresser. I haven’t been doing that outside much these days, but I have a mini elliptical that’s been helping me get through.

I also have a lovely group of friends who let me vent, cry, complain, rejoice — whatever I need to do in the moment.

Also, the Hallmark Channel. Say what you will but bad things rarely happen on the Hallmark Channel and it’s a good escape when I finally turn off my computer and put my phone down for the day.

Grau: How do you stay safe?

Ailworth: Preparation is key. I started preparing for this pandemic several weeks ago, even when those around me thought I was a little nuts. I also keep a box of basic disaster supplies around at all times. It’s my way of having a little control in times of chaos.

I keep in mind something that Tammy Audi, a Wall Street Journal editor, told me once when I was on my third disaster assignment in as many months back in 2017: You’ve been on high alert for months, she said, and your threshold for risk may be out of whack, so whatever you’re thinking of doing, take 10 steps back and do that instead.

Being cautious has saved my butt more times than not.

Ailworth, right, travels with others by helicopter during Hurricane Dorian. (Christopher Lee/Wall Street Journal)

Grau: How is your reporting process different when you’re working with a team on these kinds of stories?

Ailworth: I don’t know that the reporting process itself is different. My approach is usually the same.

I will say that I prefer working in a team on a disaster because it means you have a built-in support network and someone to share the load of reporting from the field versus working the phones or researching statistics and other background information.

It’s easy to get exhausted on a disaster assignment. Having a partner means that’s less likely to happen, or that you’ll have someone to relieve you if you need a break.

Grau: How do you interact with/listen to your audience during a disaster?

Ailworth: You have to think outside the box, especially with this pandemic, where we’re being asked to employ social distance, self-isolate and quarantine.

Be more present on social media, and use those platforms to help make connections. Because I haven’t been able to interview a lot of people face-to-face, I’ve been asking them to send me photos and videos to help me see their surroundings. I’ve asked some to record voice notes or journal entries to help chronicle their everyday experiences. And I’ve put more emphasis on asking for sensory details during every discussion.

I’ve also tried to be more visually-minded while reporting, collecting videos, photos, and voice notes about my observations in the field so that I can share them later via social media.

Opening a window into the reporting process, I think, is more important now when we’re all so physically disconnected.

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