The Catalyze podcast: When the coronavirus takes over your beat: Laurel Wamsley ’06, reporter for NPR, on covering the pandemic

Spotlights | May 12, 2020
Head shot of Laurel Wamsley ’06
Laurel Wamsley ’06 at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., November 7, 2018. (Photo by Allison Shelley)

Before March of this year, Laurel Wamsley ’06 covered stories for NPR focusing on cities, technology, policy, and criminal justice. Now, the Washington, D.C.-based alumna covers the coronavirus which, of course, has impacted all aspects of society.

In between filing stories, Laurel spoke with Morehead-Cain from her home in the Columbia Heights neighborhood to share what the past two months have been like, how NPR has changed its approach to reaching Americans, and her thoughts on the impact the pandemic will have on public trust in local media and national news organizations.

Morehead-Cain has also been gathering stories from alumni on their efforts to help those most affected by COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the world, support health care workers, increase access to research, and so much more.

Here are just a few of them:

You can access the full list on the “COVID-19 Response” page on the Morehead-Cain Network.

The intro music for this episode is by scholar Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul. The ending song, entitled “Morning Light,” is by Jakob Hamilton ’19, a keyboardist and composer. You can find more of his recordings on his YouTube channel.

Listen to the episode.

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Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org.

Episode Transcription

(Sarah)

Welcome to Catalyze. I’m your host, Sarah O’Carroll. I have with me Laurel Wamsley, Class of 2006 and a reporter for NPR. I spoke with Laurel to hear about what it’s been like to cover the coronavirus pandemic.

(Sarah)

Laurel, thanks for making some time to speak with me.

(Laurel)

Of course, I’m glad to do it.

(Sarah)

Are you still in the D.C. area or where are you reporting from?

(Laurel)

Yes, I’m talking to you from my home office here in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where I live.

(Sarah)

Well, I’m sure that the transition to remote work has been a lot to get used to — but then again, maybe not, because I know that as a journalist, you’ve likely reported from many nontraditional work environments. So, I first wanted to ask: how has the coronavirus changed your interview process?

(Laurel)

Yeah, it definitely has changed things. I’m mostly a digital reporter. I do radio stories, but the bulk of what I do are written stories, so I’ve always been doing a lot of phone interviews. So, in some ways, that hasn’t totally changed. What has changed is how I do them and the sort of tools I use. Normally, if I was working on a story and I was working from NPR headquarters, I would set up time to use one of our recording booths, and I’d go in there and record.

Since this started, obviously, I’ve been working from home. I haven’t been at the office since like March 11th or 12th. NPR has done a really good job of rolling out a lot of work from home tools. While some people, at other businesses, I’m sure have worked from home a lot before this, most of us at NPR never did. I literally never worked from home before this.

They rolled out a lot of tools to us, including the ability to use Conference Bridge phone line and record with that. That has turned out to be super convenient for me. It’s something. But it took this crisis to have the ability to use that. Now that I do, I’m not sure I’ll go back after this. I mean, I’ll go back to the office, but I will continue to use that tool. In some ways, like the reporting itself, for me, as someone who does a lot of reporting over the phone, that’s not totally different.

But I think what is hard is not being around my colleagues. I used to, for a few years, I was a freelance writer. It feels more like that because here I am, just plugging away for eight or nine hours a day. I really do miss my colleagues. NPR is a pretty close-knit work environment where your colleagues are also your friends, and in a lot of cases, that just helps break up the workday.

Also, for me, I’m basically a general assignment reporter, so I write and report on all different kinds of things from, national news to international news, to sports to what have you. For now, I have essentially become basically a coronavirus science reporter since this started. It’s been a little bit crazy to, in some ways, have almost an entirely new job, like a whole new beat, but to be doing that away from everyone else.

If this was happening but we were all still at the office, I could go and sit at a desk by other science desk reporters and ask them questions of how they handle certain situations. But now all of that is happening over Slack and email and morning conference calls with the other reporters on the science desk. It’s been a lot of learning as we go.

(Sarah)

I’m sure having a whole new beat would be a dramatic change, especially as you said, you can’t just chat by a veteran science reporter’s desk in the newsroom. But have you found ways of getting around that obstacle? I’ve also been struck by just how quickly the angle on this outbreak changes from week to week, even day to day, from just how many aspects of society that this crisis affects.

(Laurel)

Absolutely. It changes every few days. You become an expert on one thing and then the story moves along. At the beginning, there was just such an emphasis on testing. Obviously, there still is because there’s still a shortage. But we were looking at which companies are coming out with tests, and what’s the difference between the United States’ tests and German tests, and why didn’t we get those?

The last week or two, there’s been so much talk about the World Health Organization and how that is funded. All of a sudden, I’m becoming an expert on the funding of the World Health Organization. Now, serological testing — testing for antibodies — and trying to get a handle on if antibodies aren’t seen in the blood, what does that actually mean? And when will we know what it means? And trying to get a handle on not only how the United States is handling it, and with every state doing its own thing, but also what are other countries doing? And is it working in those places? And how do you know whether temperature and things like that, or cultural factors, come into play?

And as a news organization, it’s been really interesting because, distinct from anything I can remember, this is the first time where everyone is now a coronavirus reporter. Every beat, almost every story touches on the coronavirus in some way, and so it does require just a whole lot more coordination throughout the organization. Just lots of, “Here’s what we’re working on. What are you working on? Is anyone trying to do this?”

And of course, at NPR, we have all these member stations across the country, which is great because we really can’t leave home. A lot of our reporters, while they might be based in Washington, D.C., or somewhere generally out on the road looking for people to interview but now they’re doing phone interviews, too. I think more than ever, we’re really grateful to have all those NPR affiliates in all these different places around the country because it has just set us up really well to cover the local at a time when movement is really limited.

(Sarah)

Well, that’s certainly good to hear that NPR was well positioned to cover the pandemic at both local and national levels, particularly at a time when we’re seeing just an exponential expansion of news deserts in the U.S., starting with rural towns, it looks like. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about what the long-term effects of this will be in terms of public support and trust for local media and whether this might bolster people’s trust in their hometown newspaper or television and radio stations and otherwise.

(Laurel)

It’s a time that I think does show some of the strength of the public radio model. I think we’ve seen that play out for the last five or 10 years, actually, where there’s been such a contraction of the newspaper industry. Those newspapers are so important, and they’re important all of the time, not just during this crisis, yet the money just isn’t working, and people aren’t subscribing. People are used to getting all their news on the Internet for free, and then these big either like newspaper conglomerates or hedge funds, buy up the newspapers and then shut them down or lay off all but a skeleton crew of reporters. There’s real consequences for that, obviously. A lot of national reporters read those local newspapers on the Internet. That’s how the national reporters find out about what’s going on and how stories become national news. Without those local reporters there to cover stuff and notice it, who knows what stories just won’t be seen.

I think that public radio has been, who knows what the next few months or years will bring, but it has been a bright spot in the media landscape. I think we’ve seen other news startups and other news organizations copying, frankly, the public radio model where we, get sponsorship and support maybe from a local institution like a university, and then also ask the community for their support to put a price on the value that they get out of our coverage and to support it.

That has worked out really well and has sustained public radio stations around the country, which in turn sustains NPR. We are absolutely touched by all the economic fallout of the coronavirus, and it’s hurting NPR’s finances just as it’s hurting so many news organizations’ finances. But I do think that at times like this, certainly people may not be able to give if they’ve lost their jobs — this is probably not the year they’re going to donate to their public radio station, necessarily. But I think people really are seeing the value in local news and national news that brings them what’s happening out in the world, especially when so many people are stuck at home.

(Sarah)

It’s been so disheartening to see many news companies, from small outlets to large networks, mandate furloughs and turn to salary cuts from this economic fallout we’re experiencing. How have you seen NPR negotiate these financial challenges, and how has the organization changed its approach amidst a media landscape that is increasingly volatile?

(Laurel)

This is a time that really values flexibility, and I’ve been impressed to see how NPR, my news organization, has been able to change itself to this moment and to meet people when and where they are listening and consuming news. For NPR, we started, like within the span of a week, a new evening radio show. It’s basically an extra hour of All Things Considered called the National Conversation, which is oriented around answering the public’s questions about the coronavirus: How does it spread and how do I keep my family safe, too? How do I get a haircut right now

It’s live every evening, every weeknight, with a panel of experts, including NPR reporters, but also including doctors or public health officials. It’s been really cool to see NPR do that. At the same time, I’ve seen how people who, because of certain things, maybe what they typically do isn’t as needed or as possible right now. They’ve shifted into working a different job right now and doing that from home. It’s been really good to see how a place, that I think really believes in and recognizes its need for its staff, can move things around and reinvent certain things at a time like this rather than laying off people.  It’s going to allow us to be able to put out the strong reporting that people need right now rather than contract and do less than we were before, and at a time when people need so much information.

(Sarah)

We’ll be right back.

(Sarah)

Many members of the Morehead-Cain community are serving on the frontlines of the pandemic. We have alumni working to combat food insecurity through meal deliveries, house health care professionals closer to their hospitals, support restaurant workers who have lost their jobs, increase access to research, and so much more. To learn how you can get involved, head to the “COVID-19 Response” page on the Morehead-Cain Network.

We also have a special message from Executive Director Chuck Lovelace. Here’s Chuck.

(Chuck)

The spring semester is over here in Chapel Hill and many scholars’ plans for the summer are still uncertain. If you are an alum or a friend and know someone who’s having a hard time amidst this pandemic, please let us know so that we can reach out. Hope to see you again soon, and until then, be safe. Thank you.

(Sarah)

And now back to the show.

(Sarah)

I was just listening to Chapel Hill’s NPR member station, WUNC, on how they released their Testing podcast, which looks at how North Carolina is dealing with COVID-19, and it’s been cool to see the creative ways that news organizations are sharing information that will help people go about their daily lives. Now, we still know so little about this novel coronavirus that I have occasionally had to distance myself from all news for a couple hours just for my own sanity. What’s the conversation at NPR of how to get this important information out to the public without freaking people out with constant death tolls and rising transmission rates and other stories related to morbidity?

(Laurel)

I don’t work on a show. I don’t work on Morning Edition or All Things Considered, but I do have a sense of how they work, and I’ve worked on them in the past. I think at NPR, as with most serious news organizations, you can’t change the fact that there’s bad news. Obviously, we can’t. We have a responsibility to report it, even or especially if it’s terrible. This is one of those times. At least in my mind, I haven’t heard any discussion. You can’t downplay it. This is very serious. You have to share that with people so that people do take it seriously and understand just what a situation that we’re in right now. At the same time, there’s always steps taken to balance the dark and worrying news with moments of joy. That’s been true well before the coronavirus. Before this, there’s been years of political turmoil in this country. It’s just been one thing to the next. That’s a balance that we work on striking every day. If you are listening, I think you might notice that usually at the top of the hour the first news stories, starting at eight, six a.m., tend to be the heaviest. That’s like the day’s big political news. Right now, the biggest coronavirus news and what the states are doing.

As it gets to the end of the hour, for the last few minutes, that’s often, either whether it’s the last five minutes or the last 20 minutes, depending on how much really serious stuff there is, that’s when there can be moments of levity. So maybe it’s an interview with a musician or an author who has a book coming out or a story on the way a local community is coming together. Those parts are in there not to distract from the seriousness of what’s going on, but to recognize that we all need something to keep us going. Something to keep us from getting into despair about all of this. I think that’s more the discussion. It’s not necessarily that we can do anything to keep people from being freaked out. All we can do is try to give them correct information as clearly communicated as clearly as possible so that people are aware of the risks and the situation, but also give them things to keep hope alive and to feel connected to others in this time when so many people are isolated.

(Sarah)

Laurel, thank you so much. I appreciate your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add or share with scholars who are interested in going into journalism or related fields?

(Laurel)

Sure. One thing I forgot to mention, you mentioned that WUNC has a new podcast about the coronavirus, and I just wanted to let folks know that NPR does as well. It’s called the Coronavirus Daily, and it’s basically the day’s top stories about the coronavirus all together in one space. I think if you are maybe especially out of your typical new schedule but want to make sure you’re keeping up on everything, that can be a great way to do it.

In terms of advice for scholars, I really feel terrible for them that the Summer Enrichment Program is largely on hold this year. That really hit home for me to see that news because I just know how big a part of the experience that is. I know that NPR had to cancel its internship program for this summer and that’s really tough on students who are trying to figure out where they want to go in life.

But I just would say that there are such interesting opportunities that are arising right now, and so this is a good time to look for stories in your own community if you’re at home and interesting things are happening in your town. This is a great chance to document that in some way. You can always reach out to your local news organization while you’re at home or a bigger one that you admire and say, “Hey, this is going on here,” and offer up a perspective. Write an op-ed. I think people are just really curious about other people’s experiences right now, knowing that there’s so much variation. This is a good time to tap into the unique experiences that folks might be having or what they’re sad to be missing out on or what their worries or fears or hopes are. Share that in some way and just see where that goes. And yeah, thanks for talking with me.

(Sarah)

Thank you for listening to Catalyze. I’m your host, Sarah O’Carroll, and that was Laurel Wamsley, a reporter for NPR.

Lastly, over the weekend, Carolina virtually celebrated the class of 2020, so I’m going to end today’s episode with a message for our graduating seniors from Robbie Bach, Class of 1984.

(Robbie)

Cheers to the Class of 2020.

Even though you are graduating from Carolina under difficult circumstances, there are several things I hope you will remember.

You have changed the UNC community and made it greater and better than when you discovered it.

You have touched the lives of family, friends, faculty, Morehead-Cain team members, and so many others in a positive way.

You have studied and grown and probably a great deal more than you ever thought possible.

You have created friendships and bonds that will endure, and in fact, last a lifetime.

And you will join the Tar Heel family forever.

Congratulations on a great four years.

And yes, I’m gone to Carolina in my mind.

(Sarah)

That was from Robbie Bach in honor of our graduating seniors and in memory of Wynn Burrus. That concludes today’s show. Thank you to Jakob Hamilton, Class of 2019, for recording this song for us. Until next time, Morehead-Cains, stay safe and stay well.

*This episode has been edited slightly for clarity.