Reporting Safely on Covid During a Pandemic: Guidelines for CJS Students | Columbia Journalism School

Reporting Safely on Covid During a Pandemic: Guidelines for CJS Students

Adapted from the Poynter Institute’s template for reporting safely


Today more than ever, journalism students need to consider their safety and the safety of others while reporting. The following guidelines were compiled after reviewing the practices of other universities and news organizations around the country. These guidelines are relevant whether you’re taking remote classes on campus or from home. They are designed to allow students to get their reporting done while also remaining safe.

Please keep these three points in mind while Reporting During a Pandemic:

  • No story assignment is worth sacrificing your health.
  • You have options beyond face-to-face interviews.
  • Be smart.

As always, we encourage students to pursue their reporting with dedication and determination. We also expect our students to use best practices and do all they can to remain safe while reporting.

While these guidelines are not exhaustive, they represent common-sense practices for asserting your rights as a journalist and staying safe while reporting.

Reporting During a Pandemic:

  • A good part of a reporter’s job is being out on the street and in other public spaces, taking note, observing, talking to people. Current New York State guidelines allow such activities. Students are allowed to do limited “person on the street” interviews outdoors as long as they comply with public safety guidelines from the CDC and New York State. These include wearing a mask at all times and keeping a distance of at least six feet.
  • For the most part, however, interviews should be conducted via phone, Skype, Zoom, FaceTime -- pick your platform. Most journalists agree that email interviews are not a good idea, especially when dealing with public officials. Refer to this Remote Reporting Tipsheet for guidance. 
  • If a situation arises where you need to conduct face-to-face interviews, please consult with your instructor about how to proceed. Students in broadcast, photojournalism, multimedia and sports journalism classes may feel the need to conduct face-to-face interviews. So would students who want to interview sources where they live or work in order to get local color. Another reason for in-person interviewing might be to elicit information from sources who are not comfortable in a remote interview setting.

Here are some general guidelines to follow:

  • All interviews MUST be conducted outdoors, unless you have permission from your instructor to do one indoors.
 Make sure to keep an eye on the weather and if needed, reschedule your interviews in the event of bad weather.
  • All face-to-face interviews must be conducted AT LEAST six feet away from the interview subject (10 feet is better.) When possible keep face-to-face interviews short. Think in terms of getting your key questions answered. You can always follow up by phone. Make these guidelines clear to your interview subjects during the pre-interview so they understand that you’re not being rude. 
  • Stay away from crowded locations when conducting interviews (this will involve some planning).


  • For video and broadcast: Use a shotgun mic mounted on camera or a boompole with mic to record audio. Wear a face covering at all times. Do not share objects with others (don't let others touch any of your video equipment). Wash hands thoroughly after shooting video and gently clean equipment with sanitizing wipes (avoid touching/wiping lenses, SDHC cards and other sensitive electronic components).
  • Those doing photography should follow the same basic rules - work outdoors as much as possible, maintain at least six feet of distance and use telephoto lenses whenever possible. 
  • Masks. Wear masks to interviews and during interviews.  Practice speaking loudly and clearly when asking questions, so the interview subject can hear you.
  • Transport. Avoid riding crowded buses or subway trains. Keep as far away from other passengers as possible. Always wear a mask and disinfect your hands when you disembark.


Protest Coverage. Please read the following section on protest coverage but if you want to cover protests this fall, you MUST coordinate with your instructor beforehand. Many of us have covered protests and can provide guidance.


Crowds offer their own unique reporting conditions. Mark Johnson at the University of Georgia has provided some strong tips here. Here are some general guidelines.

  • Agreements. Never agree to support a cause as a condition of your reporting. You attend protests to observe, NOT to participate. You need to reconcile beforehand that you are there to observe and report, not participate. 
  • Background. Conducting background research beforehand will inform your reporting and improve your story. There is an historical background to the protests occurring in this country. Yes, you will inform yourself of this background through interviews, but you should also research and attempt to understand the background before you go into any interview/situation.
  • Organizers. If there are leaders/organizers of the protests or the groups putting it together, try to talk with them beforehand. If there is a problem later, it will be a fact that shows you’re there professionally. Also this may help you gauge the likelihood of trouble.
  • Police Spokesperson: They may have one there if it’s a large protest, and again a good contact to see what the police are expecting.


  • The role of journalists. Journalists have been detained, arrested and assaulted at protests in the United States over the past several months. For your own protection, ALWAYS report in pairs. Don’t expect people to understand or care about the work of journalists. You have the right to access public spaces, but in many cases, negotiation will be required. In some cases, it’s ok to walk away, observe and return later. When in doubt, call your professor.
  • Hostile crowds. Crowds can be hostile to anyone who doesn’t belong. Make sure you can get out. Make sure your car/truck is parked in a spot where you can jump in and get out quickly.

Exit Plan. If you don’t know the neighborhood, download a map before you go and study it. Look for subway stations, hotels (cabs may be there and Uber will know the location) so you know where to go at various points if things get difficult. If there is a planned route, get there early and walk it - you’ll be able to see difficult spots and exit points for you. You’ll also understand if there is a detour or some other change in plans.

Watch the crowd.  If they’re ignoring you, great! If they’re helping you, even better. But, if the crowd thinks you’re the enemy, consider leaving.

Police. Obey police commands. If you are arrested during a sweep of a crowd, call your professor. If you are interrogated at the jail, ask for legal representation and don’t answer questions or talk further. Let the police know who you are and what you’re doing

  • Watch the police.  If possible, find a vantage point where you can see and report and keep a clear avenue of escape.Equipment/What’s In Your Backpack. Extra water, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes for cameras (not to be used on lens surfaces). Extra scarves, masks, googles. Eye wash.  Press credentials should be visible to police and protesters (some reporters have taken to pasting “press” on helmets during coverage; can also use duct tape on the back of a jacket to spell it out.
  • Dress. Dress appropriately: no flip-flops or open-toed shoes. Recommended: Long-sleeves when possible, Jeans, shoes for walking. 
  • Technology.  Turn your phone’s location sharing on for your editors or colleagues. Turn biometrics off (face or fingerprint recognition). Make sure your device is fully charged, bring an external battery and at least two charging cables. Stay in touch with your professor.
  • Positioning. Inside the crowd is great to get atmosphere, but not where you want to be if things get ugly or the police. If there is a confrontation between the police and protestors or counterprotesters, you absolutely don’t want to be between the two groups. The best place generally to cover that confrontation is either off to the side or behind the police (assuming protesters aren’t throwing things, or can’t throw whatever it is that far).
  • Key Telephone Numbers. Write key telephone numbers on your arm in permanent marker in case you lose your phone or it’s taken from you. Your professor, your reporting buddy, anyone else you’re relying on.
  • Public versus Private Property. Generally, the public as well as the press, have a right to observe, photograph, video, report what happens in a public place, and this would include a demonstration. This includes the actions of officers in response to protesters, and vice versa. But being a journalist doesn’t give you a right to trespass. For example, if you see a group of protesters enter a space through a broken window - even if they are trying to clear out whoever broke it - they do not have the authority to invite you into that space. If a protest leader invites you to the rooftop of a building – need to understand why she has access. If the Police have commandeered a building to set up headquarters, you have reason to believe they have lawful control.
  • Confidentiality. It is hard to promise someone confidentiality for conduct they engage in in public, so don’t. These are public events, and in the most densely populated areas of a large city, for example Manhattan below 96th street, there are cameras on most street lights, building entrances, storefronts. Assume you’re on camera and the people you’re observing are as well. 


For more guidance, read carefully this advisory from the Committee to Protect Journalists on Covering U.S. Protests over Police Violence and the Poynter Institute’s 23 Guidelines for  Journalists to Cover Protests Safely.