Editor's Blog·Editor's Note

Managing risk to get closer to the COVID-19 story

At CBC News, we are doing things differently — much differently — as we work to bring you the latest information about the coronavirus pandemic, investigate the important questions that need answering, and take you to the story we are all trying to properly comprehend.

Many of our journalists are working from home, but some are still reporting from the front lines. Here's how.

The National host Adrienne Arsenault conducts an interview at Toronto's Humber River Hospital, using some of the safety techniques CBC News has implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

At CBC News, we are doing things differently — much differently — as we work to bring you the latest information about the coronavirus pandemic, investigate the important questions that need answering, and take you to the story we are all trying to properly comprehend.

Most of our staff at CBC News are now working remotely; most of our interviews now are conducted through video conference, and we have put in place strict protocols for any journalist who needs to go out in public — both for their safety and for the safety of the people to whom we talk.

At the core of the COVID-19 story, though, are the profound disruptions to society, and the drastic actions taken by governments and officials trying to flatten the curve. The beating heart of this strange new normal is found at the front lines, where those workers who confront this virus daily must go to help keep us safe: the doctors and nurses, the emergency room, first responders, nursing home employees and the staff of other facilities that cater to vulnerable populations.

In these situations, our job as journalists is to get to those front lines, to bear witness so you can see and hear what is really going on. We do this carefully, tasking some of our most experienced reporters to reveal the challenging reality on the ground.

Correspondent Susan Ormiston gets ready for a shoot in New York City, setting up an extended microphone. (Paul-André St-Onge Fleurent/CBC)

For instance, Washington correspondent Susan Ormiston and videographer Paul-André St-Onge Fleurent (with offsite producer support from Sylvia Thomson) took us to New York City to investigate how one of the world's most dynamic and iconic cities has become a "ground zero" in the United States yet again, coping with daily death counts in the hundreds, surpassing the overall number of those killed in the 9/11 attacks.

Watch Susan's story below and read her piece today on CBCNews.ca.

CBC's Adrienne Arsenault goes inside a Toronto hospital to see the fight against COVID-19 2:01

And The National host Adrienne Arsenault and video producer Jared Thomas (with offsite producer support from Jennifer Barr) embedded this week with a team of doctors and nurses at Humber River Hospital in Toronto for a rare opportunity to see firsthand what's happening inside. The hospital was designed just after the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 and built around best practices for managing pandemic and hazmat situations.

How do the front-line staff do it? What precautions do they take? What personal risks are they taking? What can you expect if you have to be admitted? You can watch Adrienne's stories tonight and tomorrow on The National. Read more here.

There is always some risk in pursuing these types of stories, but we have plenty of experience deploying journalists to more dangerous locales. For COVID-19 assignments, like the two mentioned above, we deploy with the same care and preparation we take on high-risk assignments. This includes:

  • Limiting the size of the crew to two people.
  • Taking only as long as we need in the field.
  • Reducing gear and eliminating elaborate interview setups.
  • Carrying what we need in backpacks so nothing is put down.
  • Travelling in one vehicle — one person up front, the other in the back — and the vehicle is cleaned meticulously each day.
  • Shooting subjects outdoors from a safe distance with extended microphones.
  • Using sanitizer after any possible exposure, such as filling up our vehicles with gas.
  • Using masks in all situations where distance cannot be strictly controlled. For Adrienne's story, we did not take any PPE from hospital staff.
  • Thoroughly wiping down regularly the hard surfaces we use.
  • Cleaning and sanitizing our equipment at the end of the shoot.
Adrienne Arsenault conducts an interview with a patient at Toronto's Humber River Hospital, maintaining a safe distance for both parties. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Guiding these types of deployments is the principle of public interest. We will always act as your eyes and ears on the ground when it matters most.

P.S.: Please join us this Wednesday, April 15, at 7 p.m. ET on all CBC platforms for a virtual town hall to mark a month since COVID-19 changed life for Canadians with distancing and travel restrictions. The CBC News special will be hosted by Heather Hiscox and Ian Hanomansing, with additional hosting on CBC Radio One by Piya Chattopadhyay.

New York City’s streets are largely empty as it continues to grapple with record death tolls from COVID-19. CBC’s Susan Ormiston looks at how the pandemic is testing the strength of the city and its residents. 2:54

About the Author

Brodie Fenlon

Editor in chief

Brodie Fenlon is editor in chief and executive director of daily news for CBC News.

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