“I really believe this is unprecedented,” said George Bodarky, news and public affairs director at WFUV, Fordham’s public media station. “[On] 9/11, people were still able to come in. There wasn’t this sort of spread of disease, and our location in the Bronx was obviously even more advantageous at that point because we were so far away from Ground Zero, but now everywhere is ground zero with this virus.”
Bodarky, who graduated from Fordham College Rose Hill in 1993, is one of many Fordham alumni in the media adapting to this new world, which includes staff working remotely, information and misinformation coming in fast and furious, and an uncertain public looking for answers.
For Alice Gainer, a local news anchor and reporter for WCBS, the pandemic has not only affected what she’s covering each day but also where she’s working from and how she’s doing her job.
The CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan, where Gainer, a 2004 Fordham College Rose Hill graduate, usually works, has been closed multiple times due to employees there testing positive for the novel coronavirus. CBS has been working with its Los Angeles affiliate to help get some of the newscasts on the air, she said, including on Wednesday, March 18.
“They [anchored]our 5 p.m. newscast for us [that night]out of their station in LA, still using our reporters out in the field here,” she said.
Many of the events Gainer would usually attend in person have also been moved online.
“I’ve just been making calls at home,” she said. “Rather than showing up at the station for a meeting, we’re doing the Zoom meetings. Now we’re not going into press conferences; we’re just watching the feeds that the mayor puts out.”
Many interviews have also been moved to web platforms, such as Zoom or Skype, but for those that still take place in person, Gainer said she and her colleagues are taking extra precautions.
“We are keeping our distance—the six feet—so that is challenging in terms of audio when we’re interviewing people. We’re keeping the microphones either very far away or we’re just keeping it on the camera itself. We’re not putting that handheld stick mic in people’s faces anymore, and we’re also disinfecting the equipment a lot,” she said.
A Time of Uncertainty
For Connell McShane, co-anchor of Fox Business Network’s After the Bell, two main overarching stories have taken over the show—how the hospital system is handling the pandemic and what the effects might be on businesses, particularly local ones.
“This story, because of how quickly it hit, and how surprising it was to so many people who run businesses, has had [a large]impact on small and medium-sized businesses,” said McShane, a 1999 Fordham College at Rose Hill graduate.
While larger corporations will also feel the effects of an economic downturn, they’re better prepared to handle it, McShane said.
“There are others who are going to get hit and are getting hit hard by this, but are normally able to at least buy themselves some time to weather the storm and get through it, whereas the small to medium-sized businesses have literally had to make decisions in the minute to unfortunately lay off workers and sometimes close down completely, at least short term,” he said.
That’s something Gainer said she’s seen up close on the streets of New York City.
“A lot of the bars and restaurants have shut down in Hell’s Kitchen,” she said. “I was talking to a couple places—‘are you going to do takeout?’ and they said it’s not even worth it. ‘We rely heavily on our in-dining,’ so they’re shutting down and they don’t know if they’ll be able to reopen which is really hard and sad to see. Walking on Ninth [Avenue in Manhattan], just seeing a lot of these places shuttered, it’s weird.”
‘News You Can Use’
One of the strategies McShane said he and his team have tried to employ for their audience, which he said consists of many small-business owners, is to explain the details of what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and state capitals across the country, so viewers can get information they can use.
“We try to dig into the details as opposed to saying, ‘Oh, you have … however many trillion dollars in stimulus … being added to the economy.’ That doesn’t tell someone as much as saying, ‘You’re a small or medium-sized business. You’re going to be able to take out a loan, and you’re going to be able to get that loan immediately, or you’re going to have to wait this amount of days for that loan,’” he said. “That’s a more specific and actionable story where someone can do something with that information, [rather]than just generic, $2 trillion stimulus bill type stories.”
Bodarky said that his team, made up almost entirely of students working remotely, started a live blog on the coronavirus for similar reasons.
“We felt the best way to inform our audience of that rapidly changing news cycle was we’d create a live blog so we can consistently [provide]new information as it comes—whether that’s President Trump declaring a national emergency or all of New York City public libraries closing, or New York state opening its drive-thru COVID-19 mobile testing centers,” he said.
It’s also opened up opportunities for reporters not focused on the live blog to take deeper dives into more in-depth stories related to the pandemic.
“We have our journalists, who are now working remotely, working on some more enterprise ideas—how this is impacting businesses, how this is impacting the economy, how it’s impacting nursing facilities,” Bodarky said.
Providing the Correct Information
Both Gainer and Bodarky said that when the coronavirus first broke out, they were constantly hearing misinformation spreading.
“There’s a lot of misinformation being spread on social media, so it’s very important to make sure that those rumors are put to rest and put to rest quickly,” Bodarky said. [Last week,] I heard that New York City subways were going to close, and the Metro-North was going to stop. A friend texted me, ‘They’re closing the bridges and the tunnels so you can’t go in or out of New York City unless you have emergency reasons,’ and that’s not true either.”
Gainer said over the last few days, she’s seen some of that die down, but she emphasized that it’s critical to provide information from reliable sources.
“Really what we’re doing is just providing people with the information, and they can make the decisions themselves,” she said. “We’re not obviously telling people what to do, it’s just presenting: here’s what the mayor’s saying, here’s what the state’s saying, here’s what the CDC’s saying.”
Bodarky said that his advice to his journalists and others is to make sure they’re providing information the public needs, not just playing into the hype.
“It’s very easy to fall into the hype, but just really ask yourself, ‘What’s the most important thing right now, what do people need to know, what’s impacting their lives, what’s critical?’ and not buy into the hype that we’ll see revolving around us on social media,” he said.