What 2020 taught me about how we cover the news

Al Jazeera’s manager of online reflects on a year of coverage amid COVID, and how it strengthened our relationship with our readers.

The headquarters of Al Jazeera Media Network, in Doha, Qatar [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

My best friend recently texted me about her husband. I anxiously swiped through to the message  – an obligatory daily update I had requested as soon as I learned he had contracted COVID.

He was self-isolating at home, and his condition was deteriorating. He is in his late thirties and considered low-risk, yet he fell prey to the most intriguing aspect of the virus and its most dangerous: an ability to project weakness and then, when you least expect it, its transformation into a force debilitating your lungs, your muscles, your spirit.

Her message was one 2020 could have uttered, if it could speak: “I go from being extremely positive to completely stressed out.”

Thankfully, after several days, his temperature finally gave in. He survived, after being locked away in his basement for days, confronting the raw loneliness of the illness; without the comfort of his wife’s presence or his daughters’ morning giggles. At his lowest point, he was so weak that he could not even speak to them, let alone eat.

Not everyone has had to endure that level of suffering, and for some, it has been even worse. But if there is one tie that has bound us all, it has been having to confront the reality of isolation. That we experienced being apart – together – is one of 2020’s many paradoxes.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, our teams were working in overdrive to report developments in real-time, while living it ourselves. The week before we sent everyone home to work remotely – indefinitely – was full of ironies. I alternated between setting our news agenda in the morning editorial meeting, exploring new coverage angles around COVID – to being flung into crisis-management mode amid the newsroom’s growing murmurs that the first cases of the virus had arrived in Qatar.

The truth was that we could muster up all the journalistic know-how we wanted to, but it would not change the fact that just like everyone else, we had little idea of what was really going on.

So we reported an elusive story as best we could, with live updates for days on end. We doubled down on our responsibility to arm our audience with reliable information. There was a time early on we made the decision to stop publishing photos of people wearing masks, to not “mislead” the public into thinking they work. We swiftly reversed this, as soon as the WHO and broader scientific community walked back their dismissals of masks.

It reminded me of a powerful scene in the otherwise overrated romantic comedy, The Big Sick, in which the protagonist turns to his comatose girlfriend’s mother and says with boyish hope, “I think these doctors know what they’re doing!”

To which she replies, “No, they don’t. They’re just winging it, like everybody else.”

We were winging it too, to an extent. And our audience was with us every step of the way. Our comprehensive coverage of the pandemic in March saw our most trafficked day in history, beating previous records in 2011 around Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab Spring. Our US election coverage last month came a close second. That we achieved this while splintered across the world in a fully remote newsroom is a testament to the tenacity and dedication of our journalists and of that, I am proud.

I am also a believer in the power of shared struggle, albeit disparate. We were right there with our readers in a way we have never been before – awkwardly navigating through the loss of freedom in exchange for intangible prevention, dealing with the unnatural nature of restricting social interaction among highly social beings, the privileged among us confronting unprecedented restrictions. The penny dropped for me when one day while driving, I rolled down my car window and my four-year-old son admonished me with, “Mom, don’t let the coronavirus come in!”

We lost loved ones, too, and were acutely aware that our historic highs and record-breaking coverage were built around tragic events impacting millions around the world. It was a reminder of the sadistic thread us journalists pass through our needle as we stitch together events of the day: a zeal for breaking bad news and breaking it right. Indeed, this aspect of our jobs is often the terrible butt of jokes among colleagues, as is the adage: “What happens in the newsroom, stays in the newsroom.” We have to laugh so that we don’t cry.

But something we take pride in at Al Jazeera is cutting through the clutter of reports, government euphemisms, death tolls recited and revised effortlessly, like a tally on a chalkboard erased and replaced easily come morning. On the best of days, we try to put the human story at the forefront of our reporting.

We uplift the voices of the forgotten, like the world’s sanitary workers risking their lives amid COVID-19, or the Cameroonian girls who dread their 10th birthdays because that is when their mothers will iron their breasts in a torturous cultural custom, or showing you the names and faces of Black people killed by the police in the US, not just the statistics, or chronicling the desperate final days of a Ghanaian domestic worker in Lebanon. Her name was Faustina Tay. She was 23 years old.

On the worst of days, we try to offer a different perspective and, if we are lucky and depending on who you are, we may even complicate your world view a bit.

But if I am to be honest, 2020 tested our mission to its limits. The lines between being a fair source of news, removed from the subject of our stories, and the lived experiences of the voices we uplift through our reporting were blurred.

We, too, were scared of a force unseen by the naked eye, wielding power over the world, infecting governments and impacting our way of life. We were also mothers and fathers coping with homeschooling our children for the first time, rushing between Zoom meetings and assignment checks and comforting restless curiosity confounded to the other side of the window.

All year long, we were right there with you, wary of the pandemic’s unintended consequences on the global economy, facing budget cuts that affected our resources and staffing. Many of us were separated from sick family members, unable to board planes to get to them when they needed us most.

I have also been on the receiving end of distraught phone calls from staff members who have sunk into depression and just need to know everything will be OK. Turns out, sometimes we do have to cry. And sometimes that piece about mental health comes from a truly genuine source.

Some may exhale on January 1, 2021; not due to delusions of its ability to wipe away the impact of 2020, nor the inevitability of unknown tragedy that awaits the world, but perhaps because of the wisdom we have gained – begrudgingly – from its challenges.

To those who turned to us to make sense of the ups and downs of 2020, even when we were not quite sure ourselves: Thank you. You stuck with us and inhaled our content like never before, and we will continue to strive at balancing the demands of the global news agenda with the needs of our readers.

What we have learned is that sometimes, our job is simple: inform our audience on what they want to be informed about, and do it well.

But more importantly, we have learned that we shouldn’t always pat ourselves on the back for emphasising the human story as a detached arbiter of news. More often than not, the better approach is to frame our journalism from a position of our shared humanity.