Utah newsrooms protect freedom of the press during pandemic

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Utah news organizations are fighting to maintain the freedom of the press during COVID-19, and they’re doing it from remote newsrooms.

The Salt Lake Tribune began working remotely on March 13. Other newsrooms, including the Deseret News, KUER and the Daily Universe followed. Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce said her reporters are learning that they can successfully work remotely. “I suspect more of the team will (work remotely in the future),” Napier-Pearce said. “I don’t think the all-remote newsroom will be the new normal.”

Savannah Hopkinson is an opinion editor for the Deseret News. Her team now meets with sources and each other via virtual meetings. “It’s a different dynamic,” Hopkinson said.

The staff of the Salt Lake Tribune meet over Zoom. Many news staffs have transitioned to remote meetings in order to continue working while following social distancing guidelines. (Jennifer Napier-Pearce).

In trying to keep social distancing mandates, reporters are also changing how they speak with their sources. Chuck Wing, director of photography for KSL-TV and the Deseret News, said speaking to people virtually could take a toll on reporters’ storytelling ability. “The interpersonal connection is just not the same.”

The sentiment is the same within the Salt Lake Tribune. “My reporters and photographers say they miss in-person interaction,” Napier-Pearce said.

A far more pressing issue, according to Napier-Pearce and Wing, has been a decrease in transparency from sources. “We’ve had to call out officials,” Napier-Pearce said.

The Deseret News recently had to deal with a lack of transparency from the University of Utah when drive-up COVID-19 testing became available. The university tried to stop the publication of a photo of a patient being tested from their car. Instead, the university offered a staged photo for publication.

In the end, the Deseret News chose to publish photos of real patients. “We’re not going to publish fake photos,” Wing said.

The Daily Universe newsroom has been empty for weeks with its entire staff working remotely because of the pandemic shutdown. (Hannah Miner)

In April, HB 3009 was presented to the Utah House of Representatives. It outlined a situation dealing with “additional extraordinary circumstances that allow a local governmental entity to delay responding to a records requests.” This would mean that governments could delay reporters’ access to public information.

Jeffery Hunt is a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment media law. He represented the Utah Media Coalition to object to the provision. According to Hunt, government employees should find a way to provide this service remotely. “Just because there is a public health emergency doesn’t mean that transparency goes out the window,” Hunt said. “I would argue that just the opposite should be occurring.”

The bill ultimately did not pass. “It’s absolutely critical that we have advocates for the press,” he said.

When it comes to attacks on the press, Wing said he’s grateful there are coalitions of news organizations that have banded together. “There’s strength in numbers,” he said. “There are an awful lot of people out there who crave the information.”

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