A Peek Behind the Curtain of Local Media

September 25, 2020

Better understand the storytellers and learn what it’s been like to cover 2020’s bombshell news topics.

From the pandemic to racial justice protests to the November elections, 2020 has generated some of the biggest news stories in recent history. For many, it’s been difficult watching these stories unfold — but what has it been like to cover them?

Candor chatted with three members of the local Oklahoma City media to learn about their experiences and help audiences better understand the storytellers. Below, hear from Carmen Forman, a capitol reporter for The Oklahoman; Tres Savage, editor-in-chief of NonDoc; and Wendy Suares, evening anchor for KOKH FOX 25.

Years from now, someone asks you what it was like to be a reporter in 2020. What do you say?

Carmen Forman: Being a reporter in 2020 is wild. It feels like there’s a fire hose of stories coming at me and the sprayer never turns off — if anything, the sprayer gets more and more intense. From the weird politics of COVID-19 and unemployment to racial justice protests and the call for police reform…all of these things have taken precedence over covering the governor’s office and the legislature and what they’re doing with taxpayer money.

Has there been any particularly surreal moment for you as you’ve been reporting this year?

Tres Savage: I think the pandemic has given everybody time to focus on social justice issues — there were no summer camps, no NBA finals, etc. At the same time, it has allowed things to really get out of hand.

On May 30 I covered the first night of racial justice protests in Oklahoma City. I videoed an incredibly tense situation between protestors and the police. I was caught in the middle and held my press badge up in the air. I told people, “I’m media. I have this on video. Don’t let this get worse.” You’re not supposed to inject yourself into stories, but journalists have been shot during protests and I could feel the situation escalating.

As the night went on, people were getting mad and spinning their tires at protestors in the intersection. At multiple moments, I looked over and there were children in the middle of the street. I was just terrified somebody was going to run over a bunch of kids. To me, that was the most out of hand moment of 2020 — how did we get to a situation where adults are putting small children in harm’s way? That was a low moment for organized society in my opinion.

We’ve seen an increase in hate and violence toward members of the media. Have you experienced this?

Wendy Suares: I feel it online especially, because everything is so politicized. It’s not really fun to be the messenger right now. People hear political pundits call individuals with journalism degrees “enemies of mankind,” and that gives them permission to be hostile to journalists. It’s heartbreaking, because I feel like we’ve lost our way in making people understand our role and our value to them. We are all in it with you. We’re just trying to get the information out and get it right. There’s no agenda, especially on a local level. It’s hard when people don’t get it. I don’t know how to change that except just keep grinding away and doing the best we can.

Has the chance of contracting COVID prevented you from being out in the field?

Tres Savage: I don’t know what we’re doing as reporters if we stop paying attention to what the government’s doing, even in the midst of a pandemic. I think back to March when the legislature was back in session and they banned everyone but media from being at the capital. It was only me and two other journalists who even went. I made an intentional decision to continue doing my job, and if I end up getting COVID as a result then so be it.

Do you think the changes we’re seeing in the industry, like broadcast interviews done via Zoom and more people working from home, are here to stay?

Wendy Suares: Yes. We’ve experienced a pivotal shift in how we do our jobs. We’ve seen what we can do with less, and we’ve also had so many technological advances and innovations that we had to come up with. We’ve crossed over into new territory and we’re going to stay here.

How has the demand for pandemic coverage taken focus away from the upcoming elections?

Carmen Forman: The pandemic has overtaken our lives and everything we talk about and think about. It’s like the election has gotten lost. Traditionally, newspapers save a lot of their election coverage for the week or two before election day. Now, people are voting a month beforehand or even earlier, so when do you run your election coverage to ensure it has the most impact? If you save it for a week beforehand, hundreds of thousands of people may have already voted.

How do you keep coverage fair and balanced?

Wendy Suares: Rely on a diverse newsroom that’s coming from a lot of different viewpoints, because people need perspective right now, not just emotionless information. We’ve had to determine our priorities and decide what the people at home need to know. The focus of the day might change five times as new stories pop up. You’ve got to have a strong newsroom, because it’s a team of people juggling all those balls at once.

How do you continue telling meaningful stories in a news cycle dominated by the pandemic and politics?

Tres Savage: That’s the struggle — do you follow what the hot issue of the day is, or do you try to really dig down into the details of yesterday’s hot issue because it takes time? The public has limited bandwidth, and you have to fight for that. Sometimes you feel like you have a really good story and it just gets lost in the shuffle that day for reasons you couldn’t have predicted or don’t understand. We are still pursuing stories with long-term implications, and that will never change.

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