Sarah Gough had only been in Washington DC for a few months when the coronavirus hit. As an assistant producer for Channel 4’s American Bureau she was set to cover the US elections. Now she’s covering a rather different world story, mainly from the confines of her apartment.
“Obviously it’s a big year,” she explains to Journo Resources from her newly-built home office. Not only was she set to focus on Donald Trump’s potential re-election, but also the now concluded Democrat race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. In short, it wasn’t an election to be missed – if there ever is such a thing.
But, especially when you’re working with film, covering stories remotely can be a challenge. Sarah talks to us about how the job has changed, turning your audience into camera people, and the struggles of keeping your outlet’s unique identity when relying on other agencies.
I can’t believe we went to Vermont actually, this time last month…
Initially we were doing the campaign trails. We were going to primaries, we went to Vermont. I can’t believe we went there this time last month. There was a huge calendar, there was a huge schedule up on the wall about how we do it.
I went to Iowa too – I was actually looking at my Instagram story archive last night for some insight on what life was like before. It was a huge concert venue and loads of people were in there and Vampire Weekend were performing. Life has just changed so completely for both the politicians and the journalists.
I set up a lot of our coverage at the first big primary – the interviews we were doing and the places we were going, helping the reporter fact check her scripts and with her lives. Now, the story is very much coronavirus. We’re operating remotely and who knows what’s going to happen with the election.
“Life has changed so completely for both the politicians and the journalists. Who knows what’s going to happen with the election”
We go on air at 7pm in the UK, but that’s 2pm here, so we have to do everything twice as fast anyway…
So, normally we would go into the office and have a meeting at nine, nine thirty. Or perhaps we’ve set something up from the day before so we’ll go straight to an interview or some filming. We’ll rush back and start the edit by about half ten, eleven if we’re packaging for the news. There’ll be one producer sat outside the edit suite gathering pictures.
Sometimes there’s a press conference happening so it’s grabbing the best clips from that to go in the piece. We coordinate that with London by 1pm – to go on air by 2pm and do a live. That would usually be the day-to-day. Now we’re Zooming each other at nine discussing what will go in the piece.
At first I found structuring my day [at home] really hard. I’m so used to compartmentalising my headspace and I’m sure most people do – having a place to relax and a place to work. This week I’ve got into it a bit more – I’ve got a new desk coming, I’ve got up and showered at the same time and put some clothes on rather than just staying in my pyjamas all the time.
This piece is part of our #MyHomeNewsroom series, which looks at how life has changed for journalists in the wake of the pandemic. You can see our previous interview with podcast producer Gaia Caramazza here.
We’re not shooting anything ourselves, which has been the huge change for us…
Channel 4 news is so renowned for getting a different angle, getting a more personal story, representing BME voices and underrepresented groups and all of that is now happening over Skype and our camera man has to come up with a new and inventive way of shooting the reporters reverses and we look at all the best pictures coming from agencies.My day is [still] finding interviewees, doing interviews for the programme, setting up guests, which I can do remotely.
Yesterday we had a woman who sadly lost her brother to coronavirus and he was the first New York City nurse to die. He was on the frontlines. I set up that interview and listened into the Skype because the cameraman put his phone next to the headphones so I could help cut the piece. I got all the stills and put it on a timeline and sent it to the editor so he could do that quickly. It’s very much like teamwork still, but it has to be prescribed and organised.
Watch: Sarah builds her new desk at home. (Video Credit: Supplied)
It’s definitely challenging as a broadcast story, obviously you can’t see the virus…
You’re relying on powerful interviews to cut through, and it’s very tricky to get those interviews when you’re not face to face with someone. It’s changed hugely as we would always want to go to the person or the place and get beautiful shots and spend a couple of hours there.
Our programme is on for an hour, sometimes those pieces are four to six minutes long. So it’s not like a bulletin piece where you’re just flicking from shot to shot. So, for us, it’s now changed to try and get people to film this stuff for us.
I spent a huge amount of time trying to get a New York City doctor to film their day, or potentially film inside hospitals. It’s proving very tricky, because obviously there are privacy concerns and they’re worried about their jobs being threatened if they do this stuff for the media without permission.
“I say, turn your phone sideways and try to keep on the shot for 10 seconds. Just stop and start and I can edit around it.”
It’s shifted from getting a great location to persuading the normal person who’s never filmed before…
I did a video diary with a couple on a cruise ship off of California that was quarantined and I literally just sent her videos saying this is how you need to film.
Turn your phone sideways and try to keep on the shot for 10 seconds. And then just stop – stop and start and I can edit around it. Turn it onto selfie mode, so it’s walking people through it I suppose.
And obviously we’re relying a huge amount on Skypes and the quality of the connection. On Skype you can also record the call you’re having, so I’ve been doing that as a backup – yeah, technologically it’s sometimes a challenge.
You have to temper your expectations of what you can get…
We’re all perfectionists at Channel 4 News, as I’m sure most journalists are. You want to get the best product, the most beautiful package, the most powerful interview – and you want it to look great. But we’ve had to say to ourselves if it doesn’t look as good but it still tells the story, fine. Everyone sort of had to take a step back from before.
Speaking from a broadcast perspective, everyone will be grateful to go back to the old ways…
You can make things look so much better and tell a story so much more beautifully when you’re able to go and see the person you’re interviewing. I’m interested to see how what this remote working changes for us, but personally I never want to work from home ever again.
This story is part of our #MyHomeNewsroom series, a set of articles which looks at how life has changed for journalists in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. We’re touring newsrooms in people’s homes across the globe and sharing tips on how you can make the best of your working at home environment. Know someone we should feature or what to get involved? Email us.