Non-Traditional Journalism Course Examines How to Cover Stories During a Pandemic

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COVID-19 has touched every aspect of the news, whether it be politics, sports or even food. Britt Peterson, adjunct professor in the Journalism Program and contributing editor at Washingtonian, is teaching a new course called “Covering a Pandemic” in the hopes of educating students on the best practices of journalism and understanding news in the midst of the extraordinary circumstances that the coronavirus has presented.  

Peterson created the course as part of the new initiative Georgetown University Global Campus (GUGC) that provides academic continuity for displaced study-abroad students. She said that while she has never taught a class like this before, it is important to adapt instruction and education to the situation.

“This is certainly a different type of course than the others that I have taught at Georgetown, but that is only appropriate because this is an entirely different type of moment,” says Peterson. “We now have to think about journalism differently because it is a novel time in our history.”

Universal Topic for Singular Subjects

Journalism, like any other discipline, has many more specified areas of focus, each of which follows its own rules. Sports newscasters have different obligations than food bloggers, political reporters speak a different language than science writers. But this is a rare time when the often siloed subjects of journalism are all covering the same story: the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In order to teach this subject through the lens of such an all-encompassing event, Peterson has adapted her class so that the syllabus is a living document that changes as new events arise. The articles students read are assigned on a rolling basis and their virtual discussions center around things they read in the news that day as opposed to over the past week. 

Erika Gebhardt (C’21), a student in Peterson’s class, says that Covering a Pandemic provides a great lens with which to analyze news coverage. 

“More so than ever, we are bombarded by live updates and alerts, so the class gives us the opportunity to talk through everything we’re seeing in a way I wouldn’t have done otherwise,” she says. “It’s nice to be in tune with how different communities are responding to the pandemic because each student brings their own local stories to the class.” 

Covering COVID-19 from Every Angle

The class is divided into three modules. The first looks into the business model of journalism and how it has been disrupted by the pandemic, as well as the importance of combating misinformation and what the daily life of a reporter covering COVID-19 is like. Peterson has also discussed mental health among journalists during this moment.

“I think that an often overlooked aspect of journalism that is especially critical right now is the mental health of journalists and how they cope with trauma,” says Peterson. “Many of my colleagues are struggling in this moment particularly, and it is important to think about how to protect yourself as a journalist, but also to be cognizant of this as a reader.” 

As a way to compile what they learned in this module, the class created a guide for student journalists covering COVID-19 to help young writers navigate reporting during the pandemic. Gebhardt, who is also a student journalist writing for her local paper, says that the guide has been especially helpful for her and she hopes that it will be a valuable resource to others like her. 

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about struggles that I’ve experienced personally, from mental health to internet connectivity, and I hope our work can serve as a resource for students experiencing similar problems.” 

The second module looks into the history of pandemics such as AIDS, ebola and the Spanish flu, as well as the Bubonic plague outbreaks in 1905 that resulted in increased discriminiation against Asian Americans. Though these instances of racism have sadly returned in wake of COVID-19, Peterson hopes that studying the ways that the media have incorrectly perpetuated stereotypes in the past can help prevent current and future journalists from making the same mistakes. 

For the final module, the students were tasked to write a story that touches on COVID-19 in some aspect. Peterson says that she hopes that this exercise will emphasize the importance of journalism as being both a relayer of facts and a connection to shared humanity.

“The public health impact that journalists can have is huge, whether that be debunking myths about drinking bleach, highlighting racism or giving information about vaccines,” Peterson says. “But beyond that, journalism helps connect people and can serve as a necessary distraction. Reading about other people’s experiences can be nearly as helpful to our mental health as knowing the latest CDC guidelines is for our physical health.”

Back by Popular Demand

Covering a Pandemic was initially created just for students who had to return abruptly from their study abroad programs mid-semester. However, so many students were interested in taking it that Peterson will be teaching it again during the summer semester. The deadline to apply to the summer session of Covering a Pandemic is June 28, 2020.

by Shelby Roller

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