(CBS4) – Wipe down camera? Check.
Wipe off lens and all camera parts? Check.
Wipe off boom extension? Check.
Wipe down microphones? Check.
All batteries cleaned and charged? Check.
Wipe down entire inside of news car? Check.
Masks cleaned overnight and loaded into news car? Check.
Hand sanitizer for pocket and in vehicle? Check.
This is how every day begins for CBS4 photojournalists Kevin Hartfield and Jeremiah Bellile and multi-media journalist Makenzie O’Keefe. Their work allows us to see how this pandemic is impacting our communities, their interviews answer our critical questions, and their video takes us inside hospitals or out to events that help people who are struggling. While you’ve no doubt seen our anchors and reporters broadcasting from home, you may not see our journalists whose work takes them out into the community every day. The spotlight during this pandemic has rightfully been on medical and emergency response staff, but I want to tell you about a different kind of front-line worker – our photojournalists.
“We always say we’re like the last cowboy. Out there when everyone else has gone. Blizzard, wildfire, pandemic. We’re out there.” Kevin Hartfield is the Chief Photographer at CBS4. He’s been a photojournalist for nearly 40 years, but he’s never covered a story like this one. “There’s always been a risk involved, but this is different. We have to think about everything, like how to put a microphone on a person, how to get audio, how to navigate the whole area — are there a lot of people, are we safe there?” Kevin considers all of this on the stories he covers daily, but also stays in close touch with the rest of the team. “I tell them, safety is your priority. If you’re not feeling safe, speak up, or leave, or call me for advice. Safety is number one.”
Jeremiah Bellile considers that advice at the start of every day. He sanitizes all equipment and makes sure he’s stocked up on masks, “Lots of masks. I’ve been washing a lot of masks. I’ve got masks from the station, masks from our union. My mom made me a mask. I have plenty of masks.”
Preparation also involves extensive story planning – from both a content and safety perspective. He works with the same reporter every day, Jamie Leary, and they start the conversation early. “We game plan. Jamie and I have been inside at least five hospital emergency rooms at this point. It can be nerve-wracking. I’m thinking about what gear do I need to bring inside, how do I stay away from people, how do we shoot interviews. It changes how we approach stories.”
Jeremiah says he thinks not only about their own safety, but also the safety of others. “I’m worried about getting sick, but I’m also worried about getting someone else sick. We often go places where there might be vulnerable people. So I’m thinking of ways we can avoid getting them sick. I think of as many ways as I can to avoid contact or closeness.”
Makenzie O’Keefe tells me that she also game plans before every story, but it’s a little different for her. She’s an MMJ, which means she is both the reporter and photographer. That’s required her to get creative, “I have a boom pole but it’s tough to use as an MMJ. I’ve been using a light stand and hooking my wireless microphone to the top of it. Then the person I’m interviewing can walk up to it, while I get behind the camera.” Makenzie says she tries to be outside when shooting her stories, and her story shoots are more focused. “It’s a whole different process. It’s very condensed. Quick interview, quick video and get out. It’s hard for me because I really like to chat with people I interview.” When she does work inside, she says the safety protocols are even more intense. “Today I shot a story inside a soda plant. I had to step on a rug, clean off my shoes, they checked my temperature, gave me gloves, glasses and of course I had to be wearing a mask.” She expects this will be the norm, as more businesses reopen, “I think everyone is really thinking about safety. It’s good to see.”
Just like those other businesses, journalists are also learning while on the job. Each day, our photojournalists develop new workflows, take new precautions and learn new technologies — all designed to allow them to do their jobs safely. Kevin spends much of his day learning and coaching, “I’m working on my story, troubleshooting, communicating with engineering, helping the team with issues that come up. It’s a lot. But they’re learning what they need to learn, quickly, and they’re getting the job done.” Makenzie appreciates that support while working from home, “I’m notorious for having tech issues, so I’ve had a lot of long phone calls with Kevin.”
In addition to support from Kevin, she’s on a group message with our other MMJs. “We share ideas, issues, give feedback; or maybe one of us finds a hack that makes our work safer or more efficient,” she says. “We’re away from each other, but still connecting and trying to help each other overcome some of these issues.” For Jeremiah, working from home has also required him to learn new technologies and new workflows. And, he’s had to learn new safety procedures for returning home in order to protect his family, “If I leave the house, I’m going to be more exposed than anybody else. I make sure the camera and my gear isn’t near my family. I take extra steps to make sure they’re not exposed.” On the positive side, Jeremiah has enjoyed spending more time at home with his wife Heather and their 9-month-old daughter Lucy. He got to see her first crawl, but admits “it can get a little challenging when I’m editing and she’s hungry for a bottle or needs a diaper change.”
One thing all of our photojournalists told me is that they understand these risks come with the job, and the reward is doing work that provides a tremendous service to the community. “Any time you go out there’s a risk. But the payoff is bringing the viewer accurate information and powerful stories,” Kevin told me. “So if we can keep our team safe and report good stories, that’s a win-win.” Makenzie agrees, “Right now, local journalism is more important than ever. There’s a lot of uncertainty. A lot of questions, about everything,” she says. “It’s more important than ever to be able to go talk to people, see what they’re experiencing, and show what’s going on in our community.” Jeremiah points out that they also play an important role in correcting misinformation, “We have a responsibility to inform right now.” He recalls a recent story about how people were avoiding hospitals for critical care because they were worried about infection. “We went inside to show people what’s being done to make sure patients are safe,” he says. “A story like that could save somebody’s life.”
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I concluded our interviews by asking each of them, “What are you most proud of during these last couple months?” I expected they might discuss some of their many accomplishments, obstacles they’ve overcome personally or how they’ve persevered in the most challenging environment of their careers. Instead, each deflected to other members of the team and their great work. Kevin told me, “I’m just really proud of how everybody has stepped up.” He finds time each day to check-in on different members of the team and says, “There hasn’t been a lot of complaining. Whatever they need to do, it’s all about — let’s get the job done.” Jeremiah praises his daily teammate, Jamie, as well as all those who have shared their stories with them. “I’m just so proud of Jamie. She’s fearless,” he says. “And I’m proud of the stories we’ve shared. Each one has such impact. Like the 99-year-old World War II veteran who talked with us about his effort to raise money for coronavirus relief. I think he inspires so many other people to do what they can to help out right now.” And from Makenzie, an expression of pride in the whole newsroom, “I’ve been proud of how well we’re working as a team, even though we haven’t seen each other in months. How we’ve been able to connect and help each other through these times while still providing really important stories to the public, even in sometimes scary situations.”
I’m proud of the entire team as well. And I have special respect for our team of photojournalists and MMJs, who face very real risks in their daily work. Kevin, Jeremiah and Makenzie reflect the work ethic, attention to safety, and talent of this team. I believe we’ll come out of this crisis with a deeper appreciation for our doctors and nurses on the front lines, delivery drivers providing essential items, and grocery and restaurant workers feeding us. I hope we also come out of this crisis with an appreciation for the photojournalists and reporters taking their own risks to provide vital information.