The journalists at El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, have seen it all. In a span of less than three years, they have covered a deadly category four hurricane, a governor’s unprecedented resignation and a magnitude 6.4 earthquake. But nothing could have prepared them for the story of a lifetime: the coronavirus pandemic.
For reporter Gerardo E. Alvarado León, the biggest challenge of covering the coronavirus is working from home, away from the newsroom and without face to face interactions with interviewees.
“As journalists, we always want to be out on the street,” said Alvarado León, who has been a journalist at El Nuevo Día for 14 years. “The precautions one takes aren’t the same as a hurricane or an earthquake. The last thing one thinks about when reporting is that one might catch something.”
As Puerto Rico tightens containment efforts, local journalists work from home, planning coverage and reporting through Slack, Whatsapp, phone calls, emails and videoconferences. El Nuevo Día emptied its newsroom last week, shortly after Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced placed the island under lockdown until March 30. But journalists are exempt from the mandatory overnight curfew.
Puerto Rico has confirmed 39 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and two deaths, according to the island’s Department of Health. As of Tuesday night, cases of Covid-19 around the world top 417,000, with more than 18,600 deaths, according to John Hopkinks University.
Alvarado León covers science and environmental news, but he is working as a content producer for the paper’s site to keep the page as up-to-date as possible. He’s also writing profiles on Puerto Ricans who are quarantined in different parts of the world like Italy and Spain.
“I work earlier now, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” said Alvarado León, who used to go in to work at 11 a.m. “But I almost never finish working at 5 p.m.”
Reporter Keila López Alicea begins her day 8 a.m. by consuming news online, on television and on radio, but she doesn’t start working until 11 a.m. She switched beats from education to handling official government data on the coronavirus, from number of cases to measures taken to contain the outbreak.
“I rely exclusively on official sources,” said López Alicea, who has been a reporter at El Nuevo Día for 13 years. “Access to information has been a challenge.”
As cases of the coronavirus surge in Puerto Rico, the government has taken steps to curb the spread of the coronavirus like suspending in-person news conferences. To compensate, the government held last week two virtual press conferences with several officials through Microsoft Teams.
“Not everyone has the same reception quality,” said López Alicea. “There are problems listening to each other. The signal freezes.”
The virtual press conferences, she said, lasted two hours, and the officials were unable to answer several questions and repeated the same information over and over. “It was a test of tolerance,” she said.
For López Alicea, covering the pandemic implies the challenge of acquiring certain scientific and medical knowledge in order to inform readers on a novel coronavirus that scientists are still trying to understand.
“We can’t write in a vacuum,” she said. “It’s important to give context.”
With information changing almost by the hour, the coronavirus newscycle seems endless. And readers are hungry for news. The coronavirus pandemic has caused a spike in traffic in new sites across the United States. El Nuevo Día’s site registered 50 to 60 percent more page views yesterday compared to a normal Monday.
“We can’t see each other, we can’t touch each other,” said digital sub-editor Janelyn Vega Medina. “The internet turns into something even more important because everyone is looking to create a connection with the world.”
Vega Medina said El Nuevo Día’s web team constantly communicates through different mediums, such as WhatsApp and emails, to stay connected as content producers and editors work remotely.
“Effective communication is important to keep the webpage operating and not compromise the work,” said Vega Medina, who has been an editor at the news site since November 2016. “Not just the technical work, but the job of informing in such a vital moment.”
But as the coronavirus spreads, so does disinformation. Last weekend, an audio shared through Whatsapp falsely said supermarkets and pharmacies in Puerto Rico would close, causing hundreds of panicked citizens to go out to get supplies.
For editor Israel Rodríguez Sánchez, journalism plays a crucial role in stopping the circulation of false information and clarifying myths on the coronavirus.
“It becomes more important than ever to provide people with correct, verified information that can be useful to people,” said Rodríguez Sánchez, who has edited the paper’s breaking news section, Puerto Rico Hoy, since April 2017.
Rodríguez Sánchez said the coronavirus pandemic shares one particularity with Hurricane María in 2017 and the earthquakes that rocked the island earlier this year: it affects journalists’ lives. The hurricane, he recalled, ravaged reporters’ homes, and the earthquakes affected reporters’ families living in the southern region of the island.
“These three situations we have experienced back to back have that complexity: the journalist is affected by what he or she is covering,” said Rodríguez Sánchez. “We have to take that into consideration and give another kind of support so the coverage comes out as it should.”