Turn on any news channel these days, and you'll see the many faces of journalists who are working tirelessly to bring the public up to the minute news about the pandemic. For many, their faces and voices have become a sense of comfort. People all around the country have come to rely on newscasters to provide them with the crucial information they need to know to get through these unprecedented times. But when the cameras are off, what goes on behind the scenes? And while many of us can turn off the news, a lot of these reporters can't. So what's it like to be a news reporter during COVID-19? We spoke with CityNews Calgary's Jackie Perez about her role as a video journalist and TV host during the pandemic, how delivering the news has changed and some of the biggest challenges she has faced.
First of all, thank you for taking the time out of your surely busy schedule to speak with us. To start, can you tell us about yourself, what you do and what your duties are at CityNews Calgary?
I'm Jackie Perez and I currently work as a video journalist and TV host at CityNews Calgary. I’m originally from Toronto, and raised in Mississauga, Ontario. Three years ago, I moved to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to become a video journalist and at the end of 2019, I got the offer to work for CityNews here in Calgary.
As for my duties, I am a general news reporter from Monday to Wednesday. During those days, I perform my responsibilities as a video journalist which means I am filming, editing, shooting and writing stories. On the weekends, I am the CityNews host where I deliver the top stories for the 6:00 PM and 11:00 PM hour.
Since COVID-19 happened, how much reporting would you say you and your team focus specifically on the pandemic?
I would actually say 100% of our stories are now COVID-19 related. I remember it was around the first week of March, the city had called a press conference at 8:00 PM on a Sunday and they officially declared a state of emergency. That evening, our 11:00 PM news hour started off with breaking news letting the public know that Calgary was now in a state of emergency because of COVID-19. I just remember chills going through my body because then it felt real at that moment. That day was basically the start of us reporting on the pandemic and focusing on giving the public updates on what was closed, what was allowed to stay open, and anything related to the virus.
And at that point, you don’t really know what to do. You simply just go on autopilot and react to what’s happening as they take place. For example, at that point, you didn’t know when the premiere was going to speak, when the mayor was delivering new information or when the Prime Minister was going to address the country.
That first Monday back, typically what we do is report on things we missed on the weekend and give the public updates on that. However, at this point, we didn’t have any updates. I was on standby that whole day at City Hall and I didn’t have a story assigned to me. I simply had to wait around for the latest information and if anything breaks, the plan was to have the studio broadcast to me. By 6:00 PM, I was supposed to go LIVE on air but we had no new updates. So at that point, that was the news – the fact that there were no new updates.
we are going to sound repetitive but this is the time that people need information regardless of how many times we tell them.
My boss said it the best - we are going to sound repetitive but this is the time that people need information regardless of how many times we tell them. Whether it’s constantly reminding people what to do like washing your hands or staying at home, we have to persistently get that message out there so we get the point across.
How much has the newsroom and the way you deliver news changed since COVID-19?
That Sunday at City Hall I remember was the last time so many journalists, and people in general, were all in the same room together. Now you’re at the point where you're using hockey sticks and mic stands to interview people. You make sure that even when you’re filming you are far away.
Has it changed how we report? Yes and no. We do rely more on video conference calls and how we edit and film those interviews, but as a VJ, this is what the intent was - to be able to do things on your own and be on location on your own.
I recently had to do a story on social interaction and connection, so I asked my co-workers if they could jump on Zoom so I could film the story showcasing how fun virtual chats can be. It’s really pushed how we tell the story creatively.
As for the newsroom. Well, for one, you’re used to being side by side, but now, at least on the TV side, no one is in the office except for our technical director who has to be in the control room and maybe a couple of producers. All our reporters are currently working from home.
It definitely has been a change but we’ve since found our groove and have a good schedule. Our pitch meetings typically start at 10:00 AM where we all jump on a Skype call and talk about the stories we are delivering for the day. We even have a water cooler chat at 12:00 PM to keep that office morale going. We’ve also started to use tools that help us connect easily like Slack. That was an app I’ve never had to use before but now it's really helped all of us stay connected.
I remember my boss sent us an e-mail when it all went down and she said “This is it guys, this is what we got into journalism for!”
The first two weeks was definitely very stressful. It wasn’t just about finding stories, and how to interview people, but also trying to get information that you didn’t even know you were going to get because everything was so up in the air. No one really knew anything, and changes happened by the minute. That creates a sort of domino-effect, where if a press conference all of sudden was called at 3:00 PM and I had to file the story by 5:00 PM, you have to shift a lot of things on your end and work under that pressure. It’s truly been an adjustment and it’s a learning curve but I am so proud to be a part of my team. We all really stepped up. I remember my boss sent us an e-mail when it all went down and she said “This is it guys, this is what we got into journalism for!” That and she reminded us that since we were in this for the long-haul, we just need to remember to take a breather and try not to burn out.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had as a reporter?
Turning it off (the news) is possibly the biggest challenge. I think it was around week three, and I just couldn’t turn off my brain. I was lying in bed and my mind was just racing with thoughts. I didn’t end up falling asleep till 5:00 AM. Luckily, I was off that day, but it took me three days to come down from that adrenaline. So as much as I can, I do try to shut things off when I’m not working and I try to go outside for walks to clear my mind.
Other challenges I’ve faced is worrying about delivering the stories correctly to the public and having the accurate information to back it up. You’re also working against the clock since things can change very last minute so you just hope and pray that everything works in your favour like technology.
How fast do things change when it comes to reporting about the virus? Obviously there’s been some sort of schedule with the news conferences from the Prime Minister, the premieres and the health officials, but I’m sure you get tips every minute!
I think that’s just news period but with the virus, things can be a bit unpredictable. You get assigned a story in the morning, then you have to go find who to interview, then there’s press conferences every hour, so you have to film that and write the story around the new information that has been delivered. Things are constantly changing.
My co-workers and I have basically learned to just have a skeletal outline, but we know in the back of our minds that it is going to change. One thing that’s been great since the start of the pandemic is now the press conferences are scheduled so we have a bit of a routine – compared to that first week when it was very chaotic. At least now we know when the premiere will speak, when the mayor will be on and when the Prime Minister is set to address the country. It’s human nature to still need a routine in a non-normal world.
With so much information going around, how do you fact check the news you get in?
I’m personally terrified of delivering the wrong news to people, so when I do hear others saying that the media is spreading wrong information, I always ask if they’re paying attention to things they see on social media vs the news. It’s two different things.
Making sure you’re getting it from the right sources. You’re not just picking it up from random people. You make sure it’s sources that you trust and as journalists, it’s our job and our responsibility to deliver accurate news to the public. I’m personally terrified of delivering the wrong news to people, so when I do hear others saying that the media is spreading wrong information, I always ask if they’re paying attention to things they see on social media vs the news. It’s two different things. We are working around the clock to ensure that we have the most accurate information before we deliver it as news.
What is a news story that you’ve reported on recently that brought a smile to your face?
I recently did this story on small business owners on how they were stressed out about making rent. We only got one business to agree to speak to us. No one else wanted to do it. After we ran that story however, other business owners reached out and said it inspired them join together as businesses during these tough times. Another small business said after we ran the story, people have been reaching out to them asking how they can help. It's telling stories like these and seeing the impact we can make that has really brought a smile to my face.
What are some of the things you have been during quarantine to give yourself a normalcy or some sort of routine?
In normal circumstances, I absolutely loved dining out. Now that the restaurants are closed, I have been spending more time in the kitchen and cooking! I am also on Zoom and FaceTime more often chatting and catching up with friends and family.
Other than that, I just moved into my apartment three months ago, so I have finally gotten around to decorating my space.