Cambre Associates took the #BrusselsCalling media series online on 3 April, focusing on the challenges of covering the news in confinement. CEO Victoria Main asked four leading EU correspondents – Jennifer Rankin (The Guardian), Jack Parrock (Euronews), Sam Fleming (Financial Times), and Alex Pigman (AFP) – how the coronavirus outbreak impacts their daily work.
We’re all grappling with new ways of living, working and living while working. Journalists are no exception. (Yes, journalists are people, too.) Like the rest of us, once they identify the best spot at home for wifi, find an activity that distracts the children and relegate the spouse off-camera or out of earshot, it’s finally time to get to work and join all those video calls.
It’s getting harder to gather news. As Jennifer Rankin explained, “the information is not flowing to journalists as much as it used to. Sources are less available, or they are not as close to the news as before. It changes the kind of reporting you can do.” For Jack Parrock, “the best source at the moment would be a hacker who could access the conference calls journalists can’t”.
The pandemic has changed the way journalists work. For example, Sam Fleming misses “the serendipity of wandering around the institutions” bumping into people who can provide inspiration for a future story or even the next breaking news. “Reporters are fundamentally social creatures; we spend at least 80% of our time nattering. We miss that.”
How to get the news, then?
The news–gathering process has adapted swiftly, with the EU institutions organising virtual press conferences and setting up various WhatsApp groups for media. However, this has its shortcomings, even if journalists can log questions in advance. As Sam Fleming put it, “sometimes the spokespeople skip the question as they run out of time, although it was a great question, or they mesh it together with other questions when it was a different angle. Interactions are a bit more stilted.”
Does this mean the institutions can duck for cover more easily? For Jennifer Rankin, “it’s too soon to tell whether this will have an impact on making institutions less transparent”. In Alex Pigman’s view, even before COVID-19, the information flow from the institutions had become much more controlled, and lockdown has by definition increased that.
Work–arounds for TV journalists
TV media are having to find more creative ways of reporting, as they no longer have easy access to visuals. “The main thing is that it takes a lot more time than usual,” Jack Parrock explained. Broadcast journalists now need to record calls or use their graphic departments to make reports fit for TV. They’re also encouraging sources to send video clips to illustrate their stories.
For him, the positive side of the confinement is that he now has more access to some people who would usually run away from the TV journalists: “People are at home, so they are more available.”
Advice for PR people: stay realistic
It’s all about coronavirus right now. As Jack Parrock said, “There is no story in the world at the moment which is not related to corona.” In Sam Fleming’s words: “People need to be patient. It is a matter of time. This story is just enormous, so moving away from it will be very hard.”
So, how can PR people adapt? “Have a break, wait, reassure your clients that the [Brussels] Bubble will be back, and it’ll be huge,” advised Alex Pigman. “EU stories will just not get a lot of space at the moment.”
Jennifer Rankin was more nuanced: “There is an appetite for non-corona news but it’s difficult to find at the moment. We’re trying to do non–coronavirus stories, but we always end up with a coronavirus link.”