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Try these tips for street reporting without the street during COVID-19

Try these tips for street reporting without the street during COVID-19

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
Keep these tips in mind for street reporting without the street during COVID-19
You're not alone feeling this way right now.

In a world where many journalists are stuck reporting from their kitchen tables, it’s even more essential to connect with online communities and social media, reaching out to diverse sources in the digital environments where everyone is increasingly converging.

“Right now, people are feeling isolated and social media usage is surging because people want to feel connected to other people,” said Amara Aguilar, a USC Annenberg Journalism School associate professor and expert on social media and digital storytelling. “That’s one of the reasons it can be one place we’re looking to find people.”

Aguilar offered journalists practical tips for incorporating digital tools into their reporting as well as strategies for reaching diverse online audiences in a special Center for Health Journalism “Covering Coronavirus” webinar this week.

Build those online relationships  

Even in the online world, it’s still important to invest time and effort in building relationships, especially in communities that don’t have as much experience and access to press, Aguilar said. Just like with regular street reporting, avoid parachuting in when news breaks or something bad happens, which can come across as disingenuous and lacking empathy.

“We really want to be developing those relationships beforehand,” she said.

She offered the example of doing callouts, or online information requests, for health care heroes. Later, once those relationships are built and trust is established, you could reconnect with these same sources for more difficult stories.

Consider how you’re reaching out to diverse sources. Along with someone’s racial and ethnic background, also look for source diversity in terms of age, marital status, gender, income and the value and beliefs they have. 

Reaching diverse sources

It’s important to understand people’s usage habits if you want to successfully reach them, said Aguilar, who works with a team of student reporters who cover often-overlooked communities.  

The Pew Research Center offers usage statistics for popular social media platforms by demographic, gender and race. For example, YouTube and WhatsApp has a high usage rate among the Hispanic community.

“Knowing about their usage habits is going to help us reach those audiences,” she said.

Amid your searches, keep asking yourself: “What are the gaps in our coverage and how can we reach those overlooked audiences?”

Expanding your digital toolbox

Google offers an array of resources to help generate story ideas.  

Aguilar reminded reporters of some helpful basic search strategies, such as using modifiers and advanced searches to better narrow your results.  

Google Scholar offers a special section on coronavirus coverage, with links to curated sites and journals to find the latest research. If a full article isn’t available online, try reaching out to the researcher to request more information.

Google Trends provides curated, geographical search statistics around COVID-19, offering important clues to the most questions and concerns in your community. 

“It can give you a really honest pulse into the insights and issues your audience cares about,” Aguilar said.   

Often, Aguilar pulls a topic from Google Trends and plugs that into a Twitter search to find ways to localize a broader trend.

Instagram is an important tool for connecting with younger audiences. Aguilar often searches by geolocation to find community sources. For example, you can search for your local hospital to find posts from health care workers or people heading there for treatment. Other useful potential sources may appear in the comment thread below posts.

TikTok, a mobile video platform also popular among younger social media users, has a special section on COVID-19.

Next Door, which connects neighbors, has posted lots of useful information, such as people providing food for their neighbors, services for children experiencing stress, and testing availability, she said. And, Aguilar has noticed medical professionals using WhatsApp to stay updated and connect.

After you’ve published a piece, check out who is mentioning and posting your article via CrowdTangle’s Chrome extension. The audiences who aren’t sharing your story can give valuable insights on gaps in your coverage.

Other useful digital tools include WeChat, Banjo, Snap Map, Tweetmap and Census Reporter.

Honing digital etiquette

When reporters tap into digital spaces, it’s important to be upfront about your motivations and interest from the onset. Try something simple and honest such as: “We want to tell people’s stories and make sure that their voices are being heard.”

If you’re concerned about respecting an online group’s confidentiality, take on-the-record conversations out of the group.

Make sure to do your due diligence to ensure credible sources, examining profiles and followers and considering why someone is interested in posting certain things. Check authenticity of video images, and interview multiple sources. First Draft is a useful tool for tackling misinformation.

While reporting, be vigilant to not make assumptions about a community.

“People are multilayered and not just one identity,” she said. “Don’t assume people want to tell their story.”

If reaching out to someone about a deceased loved one, consider asking them how they’d want their loved one to be remembered. 

And, when you’re interviewing people, ask them to describe their experiences in visual details to help fill in the gaps. You might try asking them if they can use a video feature on their phone to show their surroundings and help you add more color to the stories.

She reemphasized the importance of monitoring gaps in your coverage, considering how to reach the people who are missing from your stories.  

“The more informed we are about how people are using some of these platforms, the better we are able to reach them.”


Watch the full presentation here:

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In this webinar, we'll look at how journalists can tell urgent stories as states reopen and workers are potentially forced to choose between their health and their economic survival. Sign-up here!

The Center for Health Journalism is dedicated to supporting journalists covering two of the biggest stories of our time — the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism and inequities in America. We provide reporters with intensive training instituteswebinars and tips about craft and content and are providing deep and sustained support for reporters and their newsrooms in this historic and difficult moment. You can donate through the USC web portal at this link. Pressed for time? You can also text to donate! No amount is too small; just send a text to 41-444 and type the message CHJ for further instructions.


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