Balancing duty of care to the story and our staff during Covid-19
By Rachel Corp, Acting Editor, ITV News
For an Editor running the news at a public service broadcaster like ITV, the coronavirus has been a challenge unlike any other; not just in getting the story right but also in leading teams into new and uncharted territory, keeping staff safe whilst also staying on air and maintaining a news service at a time when it is needed most by the nation.
It has been what sounds like a contradiction – a huge breaking story in slow-motion. You could see it coming towards us for weeks, yet no one could predict or prepare for the impact and shock when it finally, properly hit.
For much of January to early March it was a foreign story. We actively sent teams to China, Hong Kong, Japan, Italy, Spain, Seattle. This was something we needed to witness first hand, to try to understand what was coming our way. Like sending to other high-risk foreign stories, it involved risk assessments, seeking the latest government advice, finding ways for our teams to work as safely as possible, quarantining them when they came home.
As the UK began to get its own cases, we started to approach our newsgathering in the same way – not going into the homes of people with symptoms or self-isolating, avoiding all physical contact with interviewees, working outside at a distance wherever possible. We needed to protect staff and the public, whilst still being able to talk to people at the heart of the story.
But as the UK’s numbers went up, and public fears were rising, so too, legitimately were the concerns of ITV News staff. This stopped being a foreign story you could choose to go to or not, using your years of experience of high-risk assignments; one you could also leave and come back to the safety of home. This was all around us. All of us. And we had to rapidly and fundamentally change the way we worked in every aspect of making and transmitting news.
As the UK entered lockdown and the country was told to stay at home, the imperative was suddenly on how to balance our role as a public service broadcaster with protecting staff and the people whose stories we needed to tell, whilst also playing our own parts as UK citizens to protect the NHS and save lives.
For me, without question, we needed to stay on air as normal, putting out clear, reliable, trusted news adhering to the same journalistic standards as always: going to the heart of the story, interviewing the key politicians and decision makers as well as people up and down the country whose lives had been turned upside down overnight.
We argued successfully, with others, to be key workers, granting us exemptions from the lockdown. We were able to work, keep the office open, travel, access schools if necessary. But with that also came responsibility, the need to balance telling the story with the risks that came with doing the opposite of the vast majority of the country. We had to focus on keeping staff physically and emotionally well, acutely aware that as well as the stress of working, were the new pressures at home everyone was facing.
We rapidly moved anyone who didn’t need to be in the office to working from home; for the production teams critical for transmission and needing to be near our studios, we scaled back the numbers on shift, allowing social distancing in the office and work areas. In many areas shifts are now longer, but people are doing fewer days per week, allowing downtime and a space for family and home commitments. Many of our on-screen staff work or start from home, they broadcast live from their sitting rooms or create pieces in London, edited by colleagues working elsewhere. Fortunately, so far, we have not had high levels of sickness and we have continued to transmit high quality programmes and digital content with minimal compromise in terms of production.
But we are also still extensively sending teams out and about across the UK and where possible, abroad; filming whilst adhering to the government’s social distancing guidelines, staying two metres away, using microphones with long booms. Our camera operators are employing ever more creative ways to film, such as through windows, asking people to video from their phones for us inside their homes or workplaces and mostly conducting interviews outside. We have also, invited by the NHS, gone into intensive care units and hospitals and seen the battle from the frontline in person.
Although we are ensuring staff are working as safely as possible, we have faced questions externally asking if we should be out and about when others aren’t. Why are we going into ICUs full of vulnerable people? Why are we travelling outside our homes? Why not just use Skype? Isn’t this a danger to everyone?
I understand the questions. But we also have a duty to bring these stories to light, to explain exactly what is going on by witnessing it ourselves, seeing the reality of life for different groups of people and reporting back, the way we always have, with their first-hand accounts. Our record viewing figures during this period, I believe, show the public are wanting this too.
We have also had a duty from day one, as public service broadcasters, to produce programmes for the benefit of the public and as news providers to deliver the government’s key messages. The trade-off for being key workers effectively means we should transmit its announcements and decisions to the public, quickly and accurately.
For me, never has this remit felt so acute, so important, but also under the spotlight. The public urgently needed a wealth of information and we had the responsibility of getting it to them. This meant changing the style of programmes and content. It meant repeating those government messages over and over again in a way we would never normally do; reinforcing them through pieces purely about the advice; producing ‘how to’ guides. It wasn’t our job to make viewers do these things, but we had to make sure they had all the information, so they knew what they were being asked.
At the same time, we couldn’t simply become a mouthpiece for government. We continued to analyse and interrogate the official stance and strategy. We continued to ask sometimes difficult questions and push for the answers. We didn’t spin for them and we did reflect genuine criticism of their handling of the crisis from legitimate and informed sources.
This for me was the editorial fine line to tread – making sure there was a balance in our reporting as always, but not over-emphasising the criticism to the extent that the messages were drowned out or viewers wouldn’t take them seriously. And we had to get the tone right too – reflecting the drama, emotion and seriousness of the rapidly unfolding story, but maintaining a calm and measured voice, in something together none of us had witnessed before.
Now, several weeks into the crisis, this may all sound straightforward. But set all this against a backdrop of a country facing very real fears, watching our neighbours in Europe suffering unimaginable death rates, every member of the team having to think for the first time about how a story could affect their own families, not knowing what the government would do and when; continuing to broadcast clear and impactful bulletins that got that balance was tough to say the least. What we have achieved is a testament to the entire team..
In ensuring the government was heard loud and clear, it hasn’t meant we’ve pulled our punches where they have been needed. From the start we set out to identify the sectors or communities falling through the gaps. The businesses or workers who the billions of bailouts wouldn’t reach; the charities and hospices so many rely on which lost funding overnight; the parents of special needs children left without critical support; the care homes seemingly overlooked despite sheltering some of the most vulnerable in society – stories we have lead on night after night. We have championed all those people and made sure their voices are heard.
And we have challenged policy, as we always do. Not least as the government’s lockdown message has settled more recently. Questions have needed to be asked repeatedly about PPE and testing. Our specialist editors and correspondents have pushed those in authority for explanations and answers on how to better protect front line workers and the wider public.
With our weekly Coronavirus:Q&A programme, (Mondays, 8pm ITV) we gain an incredibly useful and immediate insight into what our viewers want to know but also how they are thinking. For the last few weeks, much talk and focus in some sections of the media has been about easing lockdown. With the visible increase in people leaving their homes it would be easy to jump on the story and portray a clamour for change. We know from our viewers, however, that the vast majority still buy into the guidelines and lockdown. They want to keep their families safe and if that means staying at home for longer, so be it. Remembering that quiet majority, as opposed to the vocal minority, may not be as good a story, but it’s important and accurate. It doesn’t mean we are giving authority an easy ride; it’s about reflecting the mood of the country as it really is.
As and when lockdown is eased to whatever degree, I can’t see much changing in the short or even medium term. As journalists we are used to covering every kind of story – wars, famines, floods, earthquakes, terror attacks and many other natural and man-made disasters. We are familiar with adapting how we work to keep everyone involved safe whilst not compromising our journalism. Coronavirus is totally different – this is not something we report for a while then leave. The story will develop, and it will throw up new challenges, but we will all be living this story, together, for the foreseeable.
Until there is a breakthrough in vaccines or antibody testing, we are likely to have to keep up the social distancing, in the office and on the road. As a public service broadcaster we will still have to ensure government messaging is properly heard at every stage of the virus response. But we will also continue to hold the government to account and highlight the issues of those hit hardest.
Rachel Corp is the Acting Editor of ITV News, in charge of all editorial output of ITV national news, TV and digital as well as oversight on ITV News-produced programmes. Previously she was Editor of 5 News and ITV London. She leads a large team in the UK and abroad, as well as playing a senior role more widely in ITN’s management. ITV News’ daily bulletins Lunchtime News, Evening News and News at Ten are all currently enjoying increased ratings at an incredibly busy and important time for news. Rachel has a reputation for being a passionate, committed leader who delivers high quality, bold and distinctive content and also believes in driving change, not least in the areas of diversity and inclusion.
About ITV News
ITV News has three daily national news programmes aired throughout the day, Lunchtime News at 1.30pm, Evening News at 6.30pm and the ITV News at Ten, as well as Weekend Bulletins, generating debate through news exclusives, investigative journalism and accessible reporting on the latest news agenda. In addition to this, ITV News also creates long-form current affairs output including all ITN-produced episodes of ITV’s documentary series Tonight and the global current strand On Assignment.
Most recently ITV News launched Coronavirus Q&A, a weekly programme airing Mondays at 8pm, where Nina Hossain puts viewers’ Coronavirus questions on a range of subjects to expert guests.
ITV News is multiplatform with a 24hour website (itv.com/news), regular podcasts and a strong presence on social media including, Facebook, YouTube, the youth oriented ‘Rundown’ Instagram news bulletins, and was recently announced as a Snapchat Discover partner.