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Local reporters navigate coronavirus pandemic

Most, if not all reporters, will tell people that an important component of any story is meeting with people in person.

“I like to meet people and do stuff in person because I can get a lot more out of an interview when you’re actually talking to someone face to face than you would with a phone call,” Matthew Wilson, a local newspaper reporter explained. “Now the hard part is when people want you to come over for an interview so we’ve been having to tell them we’re not going to do that because we don’t think it justifies the risk of going out.”

Matthew Wilson, Antonio Rodriguez and Davis Rankin. Courtesy images.

Wilson, like other reporters across the country, has been practicing social distancing for weeks. Social distancing is an effect of the Rio Grande Valley confirming cases of coronavirus in the area-the contagious disease which has infected more than 630 people across the counties of Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy, causing counties to issue shelter at home orders last month to try to prevent exposure to the virus.

Hidalgo County has 281 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 190 active cases as of press time, the county announced.

As part of social distancing, Wilson has been working from home for weeks, often relying on interviews over the phone to get assignments completed. Wilson, an education reporter, has written mainly feature stories about how people and local businesses have been affected and have been responding to the pandemic.

“Right now we’re basically covering the pandemic, that’s all the news there is,” Wilson said. “For us, it’s tough. We have to go places and get pictures because there are things you can’t do over the phone. Clearly we don’t want people to go out a lot so we’re having to shoot photos across the street from people, doing phone interviews and watching meetings that are posted online. It’s really different.”

Wilson isn’t the only reporter adjusting to working from home. Antonio Rodriguez, a multimedia journalist and the weekend anchor for the Telemundo 40 TV station, has been delivering on air segments from his patio in his apartment, giving viewers a personal look into his life.

Rodriguez only goes to the studio on the weekends when he anchors.

“Usually we have one other anchor at the studio and a producer and news editor in the studio and no one else, everyone else is reporting from home,” Rodriguez said. “Before this whole thing happened, we led a normal life with morning editorial meetings where we had stories assigned and headed out to record visuals, our own interviews and whatever live shots we need. The pandemic hasn’t just changed our lives, but our work environment.”

Because of the pandemic, editorial meetings are now done via Zoom, Facetime or over the phone.

“We’re used to gathering as a group and having that kind of contact with everyone else, now we’re limited on what we can do,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone is home, businesses and offices are closed so it’s hard to get a hold of a source or person we need to interview and conduct them via facetime or whatever service is available. Sometimes they’re familiar with the technology, other times we have to coach them on it. It’s a bit of a struggle but so far everyone has been very cooperative with us as we adjust.”

Working from home is an experience that Rodriguez described as “weird” as reporters now can’t go out into the field.

“I do miss going out for stories, it’s our calling, within our instinct. When we hear breaking news we want to be at the scene,” Rodriguez said.

For 710 AM KURV talk show Host Davis Rankin, working from home hasn’t been much of an adjustment for the broadcaster.

“I’ve been working from home for three weeks but it’s not been much different now than it has been for us,” Rankin said. “We usually do interviews and talk to people over the phone anyway. Now we are not broadcasting at the studio but at home. I still get dressed and groomed for work as if I’m not working from home though.”

All three reporters agreed that with the pandemic, there has not been a shortage of stories to cover.

“Everyone’s been severely affected by it; you can go up to anyone, ask them how the pandemic has affected them and they have a good story to tell,” Wilson said. “It’s weird, when this first started every story we did for the first two weeks was groundbreaking and the biggest news we’ve ever covered so we recognized we were writing something historic every day for two weeks. They’re of a bigger magnitude than stories I’ve usually been covering. It’s unprecedented.”

Prior to any COVID-19 cases being reported in the county, Wilson was already writing about the virus’ effects in the county. Among the stories he wrote included local school districts closing their campuses and the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show being ordered to cancel.

“It was a surreal moment where I couldn’t tell how serious it was going to be at first, but the kind of news that shocked me a month ago-like when they decided to suspend schools-would not shock me now. I’ve gotten used to how weird it is,” Wilson said. “If you ask people about this pandemic, they’ll say the last thing they remember being like this was 9/11 but they say this is so much bigger than it, it had so much of a greater impact on them.”

Though he sometimes struggles to contact people while he’s at home, Rodriguez feels like his work has been rewarding during this pandemic.

“It’s our responsibility to keep our viewers and community informed all the time, “Rodriguez said. “We are having to deal with this pandemic that is changing us as a community, as journalists and as human beings in our daily lives. It’s our sworn duty to keep the community updated, especially when there’s a health pandemic that puts everyone at risk. People need to stay safe and abide by the rules and to do that, they need to hear from us.”

Though he wishes he could talk about other subjects on his talk show, Rankin said his talk show has mostly been talking about the coronavirus pandemic.

“Listeners will want other stories at another time, but now they have a much more pressing concern,” Rankin said. “I miss not talking about other things but we believe the coronavirus pandemic is front and center on people’s minds because everyone has questions about how it will affect them. We have a few interviews about other news to remark on things going on in Texas, but we’re mostly staying away from non-coronavirus related news.”

SAFETY

Wilson’s place of work, Telemundo 40 and KURV has provided all their employees with protective gear and tips on staying safe while they work during the pandemic.

KURV provided gloves and hand sanitizers to Rankin and other employees before making them start working from home, Rankin said. At Telemundo 40 employees received gloves, software to work from home and disinfecting wipes to clean their equipment and news vehicle should they go out on assignments, Rodriguez said. 

“Our instructions if we need to step out for an assignment have been to go, shoot and come back to not be exposed,” Rodriguez said. “If we need to shoot a quick video or B-roll, we use our protective equipment and maintain social distance and come back home to do our piece. And every time I come back home I shower and change my clothes in case I was exposed.” 

Though he tries to avoid going out in public when he can, Wilson wears a face mask if he finds himself going out on an assignment, he said. He also interviews people outside and at a distance.

“I’ve made more phone calls than I’ve ever had in my life and have washed my hands more than I’ve ever done,” Wilson said. “Everyone is going through this and struggling with this and my family worries because I go out occasionally but I am not in the frontlines. I just try to keep it light for them.”

The reporters are also taking safety precautions among their family members with Wilson and Rodriguez saying they haven’t visited their relatives.

“No one in my family has been exposed, so that’s why I decided to stay away from them, so they could continue not being exposed,” Rodriguez said. “I call and Facetime them as much as I can just to check in on them since I can’t see them in person. I’m not scared, but I am worried because I still see people breaking curfews and not using gloves and masks. Thank God we haven’t had as many cases as the rest of the state, but we could be exposing ourselves and will continue to see those numbers rise.”

Wilson says he regularly talks to his sister over the phone and doesn’t visit his parents and grandparents at their house.

“If I do I wave at them from the window and chat with them from there,” Wilson said. “I saw my grandma last week to drop off some groceries and talk to her in her backyard 15 feet away from her, that was kind of nice.”

RECOVERY

Rankin questioned how the pandemic will change society, and his work as a whole.

With so many people working remotely, Rankin says that this will cause a bigger push to digital.

“With stuff like Zoom for example being so widely used, now we’re going to ask why we need to do things in person when so many companies have adjusted to doing things digitally,” Rankin said. “Now there won’t be a point in attending a large conference or event that we have to pay for when we know it can be done on Zoom. It’ll change things but I don’t know in what ways. If I was a boss, would I be comfortable with people working from home all the time after this? How will I know they’re actually working?”

With the world constantly changing because of the pandemic, Rankin said the media’s role in the world is more crucial than ever.

“It brings normality and predictability to my life and the people we serve and broadcast to,” Rankin said. “That’s a sense of normality that people are craving in these times that aren’t normal. You read the same reporters every day, you watch the same anchors and read the news. No matter how uncertain life is seeing those people bring the news to you deliver a sense of constancy and calm and normalcy.”

To help bring some light news to the public, Wilson and other reporters at his office began documenting their experiences living through the pandemic with a series called “COVID Confessions.” Wilson and other reporters have written personal stories dealing with relatable problems such as working from home, celebrating birthdays while social distancing and not being able to greet people with a handshake.

“We’re hitting people on the head with grim facts every day, new cases confirmed and new fatalities, so it’s good to have something lighter in context that talks about the struggle over the little things everyone is dealing with,” Wilson said. “It’s important to continue reporting. This news is revolutionary so it’s important to document it and keep people appraised to the news because it’s affecting them and it changes every day.”

Wilson added reporters like him will still continue to report on the pandemic for years to come, even after public mass gatherings are allowed.

“Journalists will be reporting on the coronavirus pandemic and its effects for the next decade probably, but it will be a gradual shift to normal,” Wilson said. “I like writing it all and would clearly not be writing about a pandemic. I do not enjoy people struggling financially, being afraid and having a difficult time with it so I would much rather go back to the way things were before. But that’s what everyone is struggling with, no one knows where it’s going to go or if it’s going to get back like the way it was before.”

Rodriguez said more than likely, people will continue to adjust to the changes the pandemic is creating, bringing new experiences for reporters such as him.

“There will be some sense of normalcy at some point, but the impact that this pandemic will leave behind is huge,” Rodriguez said. “I’m sure we will keep hearing about this for a while just because of the large number of people this pandemic has affected. What we’re going through now, as reporters, we are learning and exploring new areas in journalism that perhaps we didn’t consider before. That’s only going to make us better.”

 

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