By Zachary Powell
Sports Capital Journalism Program, IUPUI

With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting so much of our everyday lives, many — if not all – reporters had to adjust to virtual reporting. Whether a Zoom call was scheduled or a phone call was made to gather quotes, reporters had to find different ways to get information from reputable sources.

At the APSE summer conference in Indianapolis, the general session “Virtual Reporting” will address techniques to overcome pandemic-related limitations while emphasizing the need to advocate for in-person access when conditions improve. The session will take place on Friday, June 17 at 10:30 a.m. in the Hine Hall Auditorium on the IUPUI campus. Panelists from The Athletic, News & Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Indiana Pacers will join moderator Malcolm Moran, Director of the Sports Capital Journalism Program.

The journalists will describe techniques they used, or still use, in the virtual space, comparing access to athletes with conditions four or five years ago. Reporters have had to learn new techniques or find different ways to gather quotes and sources to write their stories. Some of those techniques turned out to be basic communication based upon journalistic integrity, lessons learned early on.

“I had to really work on my listening skills because there was so much less made available to us,” said Alex Coffey, who covers the Philadelphia Phillies for the Inquirer.

Being a great listener is a quality that can separate one reporter’s work from the next. But sometimes being a solid reporter is more than being a good listener, it’s also about knowing who to talk to and how to gain the most relevant information.

“The lack of access forced me to have to go back to that and I think it was actually beneficial because you get a lot of rich information from talking outside of the standard people you usually talk to,” said Stephen Holder, Senior Writer at The Athletic who covers the Indianapolis Colts. “The other thing is really looking for trends and looking at a piece of the larger story. Sometimes there are unique stories that are right under your nose.”

Just a few years ago, from open dressing rooms to speaking with players and coaches at podiums, reporters knew what to expect with an in-person format of reporting. Now, with the fluctuation in the rise of COVID-19 cases due to the evolving variants, reporters must be ready for change at any moment.

“For someone in my job, where the best columns often come from the back corners of the locker room or chance conversations in the hallway, it’s been an uncomfortable few years,” said Luke DeCock, a sports columnist for the News & Observer. “Covering games virtually off the TV feed was a nightmare — the 2020 NHL playoff bubble and 2020 college football season in particular — with every writer drinking from the same faucet.”

David Benner, former beat reporter for the Indiana Pacers and current Director of Media Relations for the team, added: “It was hard for reporters because we didn’t have that locker room access. In a normal setting you would have time to ask certain questions, but reporting virtually players would only have a certain amount of time.”

There were many disadvantages for reporters having to use a virtual reporting style, such as being limited to Zoom for an interview where there was less of a physical connection. Reporters felt they could not grasp a sense of having a conversation that felt real.

“It becomes too easy for an interviewee to give rote and thoughtless answers because it’s so impersonal,” DeCock said. “Only speaking with a few individuals in a press-conference settings, whether virtual or in-person, deprives all of us of the ability to build the kind of relationships that can only happen in a locker room and that can lead to the best stories of all.”

Although reporters have had a hard time gaining a locker room type connection while using Zoom, there was at least one upside being forced to use the video application. One being that anyone could join the call.

“A lot of times there are people that can’t make it when you have an open setting,” Benner said. “Going with the Zoom calls for interviews opened things up for international media to get their questions in. Under normal circumstances that wouldn’t happen.”

As part of the virtual world of reporting, many journalists have finally come to understand that the meaning of their job cannot be taken for granted. Whether it is access to a clubhouse in Major League Baseball, access to National Football League players, or speaking with a National Basketball Association player after a shootaround practice, having physical access to players is important.

It is also important for reporters to recognize that physical access can either be limited or taken away at any time. Therefore, editors and reporters should know how to best utilize virtual reporting when unpredictability comes into play.

“There are going to be multiple variants for the foreseeable future and leagues are going to have to take appropriate action,” Moran said.