How the pandemic changed our experience working in D.C.

Two Cronkite News reporters share their experience reporting and living in the nation’s capital

Immediately into freshman year, Cronkite students are told about the fabled, yet mandatory, professional programs where students spend a semester working in a newsroom or office-based environment. We learn about the various opportunities and the amazing experiences we will get through field reporting and a real-world work atmosphere.

Casual discussions while sitting in our Intermediate Reporting and Writing class, or JMC 301, brought up the prospect of reporting for Cronkite News D.C. Bureau together. We knew it was something we wanted as journalists in order to grow and rise to the occasion of reporting during national elections.

But there were reasons why we wanted to go individually. And once the pandemic hit, plans may have changed, but our minds didn’t. While it was not what either of us expected, the experience has been different for the both of us.

Olivia:

The last time I was in Washington, D.C. was for a journalism camp. I told myself I would be back soon, thinking I would attend college in the nation’s capital. But I ended up nearly 3,000 miles away from my home on the East Coast. So when given the chance, I wanted to come back to D.C. This meant I would be closer to my family, who now would be able to visit, and I could see my friends who attended school there.

When I got into the bureau, my plans were set in stone, and even when things seemed uncertain during summer, I knew where I wanted to be for the fall semester. So, I packed my bags and got in the car with my parents and drove down from New Jersey to Capitol Hill. It was just like last time but this time the city was silent.

The mall was vacant. The museums were closed. The monuments were dormant with barely a tourist in sight.

It felt like something out of a dystopian novel or film. This D.C. felt so different from the one I had grown to love. It used to have a bustle that was unlike Phoenix, but a sense of calm that contrasted New York City. The once perfect visage I knew was now distorted.

Joycelyn: 

Growing up in Arizona, I had never gone beyond the bounds of the Southwest. I had never even flown on a plane before. But living in D.C. and reporting on the 2020 election was something I wanted to do ever since I enrolled at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I wanted to report on one of the biggest elections of my generation and come back to Arizona fully ready to take on the real-world.

When COVID-19 hit, I was scared of losing the chance of the thing I set the entirety of my college career on. As the pandemic continued into the summer months, I made up my mind that I would go to D.C. no matter what, even if I had to quarantine while I was there. Going to the East Coast had always been a dream of mine, and to go, regardless of the circumstances, was going to be the highlight of my college career.

So I did.

I got on a plane for the first time. I flew to D.C. and saw something other than a desert. I saw historical statues. I saw perfect places for families and friends to enjoy the outdoors all day long — but it was empty.

Everything was empty.

Olivia and Joycelyn:

Reporting has not been what it was before, or so we learned the hard way.

While other reporters learned the landscape of Capitol Hill and ran around the House and Senate chambers, we sent emails from our desks separated by plastic dividers. Sometimes we make phone calls from the living rooms of our apartments.

Most of the time we wait for responses that never come back because offices are closed from the pandemic.

If we’re lucky, there’s a protest or a big event to cover, but first, we fill out our field reporting form and get approval. And when we’re there, we may finally be able to put a face to the names we’ve learned through our computer screens.

Olivia:

I can’t complain. I’m still having the time of my life. I’ve made friends who I may have never met before had I not come.

Although there are restrictions in place, we still are doing the best we can. I’m trying to look at the glass half-full because I know it could have been much worse.

My friends and I are still having fun, but doing so cautiously. Every weekend is something new, and I am exploring nooks and crannies I only dreamed of going to.

I still am getting invaluable insight about the inner-workings of politics that I never had before. I never knew I would actually enjoy writing about this topic, opening up a whole new world of possibilities post-graduation. I’ve been here for major events and rallies.

And just like last time, I want to come back. D.C. will always hold a special place in my heart, and now that this city and I have history, this time won’t be the one where I have to say goodbye.

Joycelyn: 

Even with all the restrictions and limitations, this is still the best decision I’ve ever made. I’m glad I chose to come here, I’m glad I quarantined for two weeks upon arrival, and I’m glad I have been able to experience something life-changing.

Seeing the monuments and parks empty, seeing people on the street wearing masks and keeping to themselves and seeing my coworkers make call after call has definitely been hard.

There is nothing easy about this semester in D.C.

Even so, I’ve made life-long friends here, I’ve experienced actual weather for the first time, and I have memories here that I could have never replicated anywhere else. I know I’m going to come out of this experience as a stronger reporter, a stronger writer and a stronger communicator.

When is a better time to be a health reporter? When is a better time to be in D.C.? How about when a pandemic overlaps a national election?

This trip isn’t at all what I expected it to be, but I would argue it was even better than the expectations.

Olivia and Joycelyn:

Although things were not what we thought they would be, they turned out to be better in some ways.

While it’s not the same experience that our peers have gushed about, we were able to run out to the Supreme Court to cover the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and were miles away from the White House when President Donald Trump was airlifted to Walter Reed Medical Center.

The pandemic may keep us from reporting in person, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still make do as journalists.

The D.C. newsroom is a tight-knit, always busy professional program. It’s safe to say we wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.


Reach the reporters at omunson@asu.edu and jjcabre1@asu.edu. Follow @munson_olivia and @Joyce_CabreraAZ on Twitter. 

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