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Sun reporter: How we’re covering the coronavirus in Maryland | COMMENTARY

Journalist Colin Campbell handed out business cards to passengers departing the Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas in the hopes of scoring an interview.
Journalist Colin Campbell handed out business cards to passengers departing the Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas in the hopes of scoring an interview.(Colin Campbell/Baltimore Sun)

Coronavirus coverage has dominated The Baltimore Sun online and in print the past few weeks, like many media outlets throughout the country: Eerie images of empty streets and public spaces, daily reports on the rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and scores of stories about how Marylanders have been affected by the novel virus, along with the measures officials are taking — or failing to take — to contain it.

Most newsroom employees of The Sun, like many workers in Maryland, have been working remotely for weeks to limit the spread of the disease. Conference and video calls, emails, texts and Slack messages have replaced our usual daily and weekly meetings. But gathering stories, photos and videos of state residents and officials navigating the pandemic requires going outside, seeing it for ourselves and asking questions. Our photographers, in particular, can’t work from home.

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We’re allowed to leave our homes to show the public what’s happening, despite the health risk and the stay-at-home order from Gov. Larry Hogan, because news reporting is deemed essential work. We’ve been given a letter to carry with us, signed by The Sun’s publisher and editor in chief, outlining that privilege. As media members, we tell people how to stay safe, get to necessary supplies and services, and seek treatment, along with offering entertainment ideas in this unprecedented time and simply chronicling life amid a pandemic. We also play a critical role in holding officials accountable to the public for their actions in addressing the outbreak. An early shortage of COVID-19 tests already has exacerbated the crisis across the U.S. by limiting our knowledge of who has the disease and who doesn’t. Prohibiting the media from doing our jobs would leave the public even more in the dark.

On assignment, we’ve worn latex gloves, skipped the usual handshakes and given people the recommended 6 feet of space whenever possible. We’re conducting more interviews by phone. The Sun has provided some reporters and photographers with N95 respirator masks for stories that might put us in contact with those who are infected or the health care workers treating them.

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Among other assignments as a breaking news reporter, it’s been my job to interview grocery store employees and other essential workers who can’t take off or work from home; bus riders who don’t have another way to get to work or pick up groceries; and elderly Marylanders, who are most at-risk for the disease but for whom social isolation can be particularly difficult.

Sun reporter Colin Campbell and photographer Amy Davis, shown here, left, stayed outdoors and more than 6 feet away when interviewing Bernadette Croaker, right, a 76-year-old woman at a senior apartment building in Owings Mills.
Sun reporter Colin Campbell and photographer Amy Davis, shown here, left, stayed outdoors and more than 6 feet away when interviewing Bernadette Croaker, right, a 76-year-old woman at a senior apartment building in Owings Mills.(Colin Campbell/Baltimore Sun)

One of my first coronavirus assignments was to interview returning cruise ship passengers. The Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas had left the state-owned Cruise Maryland port terminal in Baltimore in early March, and its 2,000 passengers were returning 12 days later to a dramatically different landscape — including a port terminal, which Gov. Larry Hogan had ordered closed while they were at sea.

We wanted to tell that story. But the port administration, part of the state Department of Transportation, declined our request for access to the terminal for the ship’s return.

For me, that meant pulling on a pair of gloves, asking Sun photographer Jerry Jackson to drop me off on the public sidewalk just outside the terminal before 7 a.m., and giving out business cards to any departing passenger who would roll down their car window when I approached. About a dozen did. A few of those were gracious enough to call me and share their experience for the story.

Local small business owners mostly have been happy to allow us to talk to their workers and discuss their efforts to adjust their daily operations. Workers for larger companies have been more hesitant to speak publicly, I found, although a union official passed along the phone number of a Giant Foods employee who was willing to be quoted by name about his concerns for a story about front-line workers.

Sun reporter Colin Campbell, not shown, and photographer Kenneth K. Lam, left, interviewed bus riders -- from a safe distance -- about how they were managing coronavirus-related service disruptions.
Sun reporter Colin Campbell, not shown, and photographer Kenneth K. Lam, left, interviewed bus riders -- from a safe distance -- about how they were managing coronavirus-related service disruptions.(Colin Campbell/Baltimore Sun)

When a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver tested positive for the coronavirus and the agency closed its Eastern bus division for cleaning, Sun photographer Kenneth K. Lam and I went to some nearby bus stops to talk to riders about how they were navigating the resulting service disruptions.

Despite a more than 50% drop in transit ridership and a drizzling rain, we found a few who had noticed longer wait times and wanted to share their concerns (or lack thereof) about the coronavirus.

Sun photographer Amy Davis and I stayed outdoors and more than 6 feet away while interviewing a 76-year-old woman at a senior apartment building in Owings Mills for a story about how the elderly, who are most at-risk for the coronavirus, are coping with the loneliness that often comes with isolation from their family, friends and neighbors.

The rest of interviews for that story occurred over the phone — including a delightful conversation with a woman in Baltimore that lasted nearly an hour.

The bottom line: As journalists, our job is to provide the public with information accurately and quickly, no matter the situation.

While we don’t have the medical training to treat patients or the same responsibilities as first responders, we’re out working, too, despite the health risks, to provide Marylanders with as much information as possible about what’s happening while they’re stuck at home.

Colin Campbell is a breaking news reporter for The Sun, where he has worked since 2013. Follow him on Twitter (@cmcampbell6) or contact him via email: cmcampbell@baltsun.com.

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