Editor’s Note: As Cleveland deals with the outbreak of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, everyday life is being disrupted. In our new series “How It Feels,” we’re talking to students, teachers, nurses and those on the frontline of the pandemic to see what it feels like to live life in isolation and transition to new ways of working, thinking and living. Click here to read more Clevelanders' accounts.
Donned essential workers in Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order since March, reporters are working to share vital information about the pandemic. While covering today’s most pressing issues, however, health reporters must also adapt their jobs to work-from-home conditions, find new ways to conduct socially-distant interviews or face the health risks of on-the-ground reporting. Marlene Harris-Taylor, a health reporter at Ideastream, has written about the pandemic in many different ways: from an article highlighting health disparities in African American communities to a light-hearted piece on dating during the pandemic. We talked to Harris-Taylor about what it’s like to cover the story that’s taken over all of our lives.
It was nearly impossible to just stay on top of everything, especially in those first couple of weeks. I was doing two stories a day and two web posts a day because the information was just coming so fast at that point. I mean, it almost felt like somebody just took a firehose and just opened it and information was just flying. It was totally overwhelming. And then on top of all that, like so many organizations, we decided we needed to work at home. So I'm trying to set up this home office, reconfigure my computer and I've got this coronavirus news coming at me like crazy. So I was basically working day and night.
The interesting thing is that now I'm working from home, I'm actually working a lot harder and working a lot more. Yesterday was crazy because people were just calling you back at different times of the day and night. It's a double-edged sword.
I'm working crazy hours and it's hard to know when to stop. I'm also afraid. I'm hearing all this information and I probably know as much about this as some people in public health, right? Because you're just reading about it. You're talking to people about it all day. It's your life. So I'm hearing the scariest stuff as well and I'm getting a little freaked out about, “Oh my God, I don't want to get this.”
And at the same time my reporter instinct is to get out and do stories. We got a message on our social media from a young lady saying that she was going to go over to get testing and she wasn't sure how it was going to work out and she was a little concerned about it. So I called her back immediately. I'm on the phone with her and I'm sitting here at home and she tells me on the phone, “I'm sitting in the line right now.” And so I was just like, ‘I gotta go there even though there's all these people with coronavirus there. She may have coronavirus.’
I go over there and it's the first day they're open. So it was chaos. The line was crazy. It was coming from different directions. So I'm on the phone with her and I ride past cars trying to find her. Finally, we find each other.
I called her on the phone. I said, “Okay, I'm going to sit here right across from you in my car and we're going to talk and I'm going to put my microphone to my phone and I'm just going to interview you like that.” And she said, “Okay.” And it turned into a great story.
One thing that is interesting about being a health reporter is even before COVID-19, you're often in situations where you're interviewing people who are in tough emotional positions. I try to be just really real with people. If something that they said has made me sad, I don't try to hide that. I let them know that I'm sad.
I'm dealing with people going through this COVID-19 situation and when it's just on the phone it's a lot harder. When you're face to face with someone, people can not only pick up on what you're saying, but they can pick up on those nonverbal cues which often signal to people your empathy or your interest in their story. You really want to talk to people and know what they're going through. – as told to Aly Fogel