No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, and Emerson alumni covering this election season from behind the camera had to transition from the campaign trail to their own living rooms.
“The first visible impact of COVID on the campaign trail was the final debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, which was moved from Arizona to D.C., and held without an audience,” said Nathan Hurst ’07, deputy political editor for C-SPAN. “For the next three or so months, most campaigning was done virtually. That was a challenge for both the candidates and the journalists covering them — how do they effectively reach voters virtually? And how do we cover it?”
That’s meant conducting and taping interviews, editing video, and more from their laptops in their living rooms and kitchens. Hurst said that’s been the biggest technological difference in covering elections this year compared to prior years. Hurst added he frequently uses Emerson Polling data in his reporting.
Mike Garrity. ’02, segment producer for Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum, said Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, and Microsoft Teams have made it possible to still meet and engage with people, and gain a sense of what’s being experienced across the country. He also credited new AI technologies like Dataminr to provide the ability to search and sift through big data, public information and social media.
“They give us the ability to hunt down very specific real-time information and see early indicators of breaking news events and pre-viral content as they are unfolding/first posting,” said Garrity. “They also allow us to filter and make sense of millions of incoming tweets, helping us to quickly identify and vet online sources where events are taking place. I now lean much more heavily on AI than I do Twitter’s tweet deck or traditional news service wires.”
Catherine Casey ’16, line producer at CBS Interactive, said it took a while to get used to working from home.
“The beginning of this year was crazy fast-paced. In February we had the Iowa Caucus, New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, and President Trump’s impeachment trial. Just a few weeks later we went into lockdown,” said Casey. “Transitioning to working remotely in early March took a while to get used to — both technically and with a new workflow. I feel pretty good about it now though! I’ll still be working from home on election night — line-producing two hours of live programming from my apartment.”
Adrien Hoar McGibbon ’03, event producer for C-SPAN, said she’ll be working a 2:00 am to 7:00 am shift in the early morning after Election Day.
“In a normal year, we’d be bringing in feeds from local news stations all across the country, but this year we’ll be monitoring candidates’ Facebook pages and Twitter feeds looking for acceptance and concession speeches their campaigns have posted,” said McGibbon.
McGibbon’s work was also interrupted by a joyful occasion after the birth of her first child in January.
“When I started my maternity leave at the beginning of the year there was a huge field of Democratic candidates running for the party’s nod along with President Trump…” said McGibbon. “When I came back from maternity leave in April, C-SPAN was in the midst of covering a world-wide pandemic and the 2020 presidential campaign, and we were all doing it from home! It was quite the change of pace, but it’s been exciting to be in the middle of a striking moment in American history. I’ve been trying to memorialize as much as possible, so I can tell my daughter stories about the remarkable year in which she was born.”
The major party conventions were anything but conventional this year. Debates were held without audiences, but things have become more normal the last several weeks, as there have been multiple campaign events every day, said Hurst.
“But the events themselves are different. Attendees are wearing masks. Some rallies are now socially distant drive-in events, so instead of big cheers while a candidate is speaking, you’re hearing car and air horns,” said Hurst. “There’s also a huge safety element to all of our logistics, which are crazy enough in a normal election year — we have to make sure our teams are safe, so we’re having to account for things like quarantining and COVID testing after returning from an out-of-town assignment.”
But covering the election this year comes down to what it’s always come down to, said Hurst.
“In the end … the core of the campaigns are what they’ve always been — covering the candidates as they campaign for public office. They’re talking about issues as they always have, they’re just very much of the moment in a way we haven’t seen before — COVID; racial justice; economic inequality; health care,” said Hurst.