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  • Writer's pictureEmily Driehaus

Covering COVID: How Coronavirus is Impacting Journalists

During a global pandemic, accurate and timely information is more important than ever. Most of that information comes from journalists who work around the clock to inform the public of the latest developments. However, these individuals have been affected by furloughs, stay at home orders and working from home just as much as their audiences.

Jessica Rodriguez and Alex Driehaus are journalists at Naples Daily News in Florida. Their paper is owned by Gannett, which announced on March 30 that employees with annual salaries greater than $38,000 would each be taking three weeks of unpaid leave over the next three months. Both Rodriguez, a breaking news reporter, and Driehaus, a staff photographer, are affected by this decision. Disclaimer: Driehaus is my older cousin.

"We're getting all this praise about how we're doing such amazing work," Rodriguez said. "And instead of being rewarded for this, unfortunately, we're being furloughed." Gannett is not the only news organization furloughing employees because of coronavirus. Over 60 newspapers have either furloughed or laid off employees according to the Poynter Institute. Rodriguez and other employees of Naples Daily News are working from home until it is their scheduled week to take unpaid leave.

A sign encourages motorists to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many employees, including journalists, have been forced to work from home. (John Raoux/AP)

As a visual journalist, Driehaus often has to get up close and personal with the subjects she is capturing. However, in this age of social distancing, she has had to come up with ways to tell stories through her photos without getting too close. "We've been doing a lot of portraits through the window or doing pictures outside," she said. "And when I have to go to events I try to stay farther away from people, no handshakes, lots of hand sanitizer, and wiping down gear afterward."

The efforts both journalists are making to bring important stories to their audiences feel overlooked with the furloughs looming. "It's just hard to hear when you're working very hard, being praised for working very hard, and the reward is something negative," Rodriguez said.

The timing of the virus hit particularly hard for Driehaus and Rodriguez. They were in the midst of unionizing with employees of other newspapers in southwest Florida to create the Southwest Florida News Guild. Their union vote was supposed to be on March 25, but it was canceled.

"We were asking Gannett to let us do mail-in ballots instead of voting in person," Driehaus said. "But they dragged their feet on it and eventually filed a motion against it." If a mail-in election had been held, the Southwest Florida News Guild would have been recognized and Gannett would have had to bargain with the union over the furloughs.

The members of the News Guild have taken to Twitter to start a social media campaign to build support and awareness about their situation. They have collaborated with other unionizing newspapers owned by Gannett to send letters encouraging a mail-in election. If the furloughs eventually become layoffs, these newspaper employees will not be able to bargain with Gannett if elections are not held and Gannett does not voluntarily recognize them.

With everything going on, Driehaus and Rodriguez have found it difficult to take breaks and separate themselves from work. "When we're on our phones off the clock, we're reading other articles from other publications, we're seeing people post," Rodriguez said. "Like if you go on Facebook it's coronavirus, if you go on Instagram it's memes about coronavirus, so there's like no escaping it, so it really feels like there's no escaping work."

Because they are not supposed to be working during their unpaid weeks, Gannett sent out guidelines for employees for their furloughs. "We're not allowed to be doing anything work-related at all," Driehaus said. "They sent us this whole list of things, like delete all these apps off of your phone, all this stuff you're not supposed to be doing."

Despite the challenges of reporting in the coronavirus era, both journalists have been able to find some positivity. Driehaus said they have received comments from readers appreciating their work and have gained new subscribers. "There's a balance," Driehaus said.

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