Americans want to see what’s happening in hospitals now, but it’s hard for journalists to get inside

The coronavirus pandemic has been likened to a war. But journalists are largely absent from the harrowing, heartbreaking front line of this crisis: hospitals.

In a disaster with an invisible enemy – no burning buildings or swamped towns to photograph – it is emergency rooms and intensive-care units where the day-to-day human toll of the deadly illness is most plainly visible. But a combination of health worries and privacy concerns has made it extremely difficult for the members of the media to go into these places and capture a vivid, firsthand portrait of this facet of the crisis.

When the New York Times produced a short web documentary on one beleaguered hospital, it was with video clandestinely shot by a physician who worked there. Other journalists have been putting out the call to ask health-care workers to aid their reporting. But for the most part, the medical system’s struggle with coronavirus is a story told with secondhand observations and amateur cellphone footage.

The lack of richly visual depictions of the disease’s impact may be a key reason some members of the public doubt its seriousness – and others have been inspired to push conspiracy theories denying the existence of a crisis altogether.

“There is unequivocal news value in bringing people imagery from inside hospitals, from the front lines of this virus,” said Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News. “It’s critical that we get as many of those pictures out in the world as possible.”

Getting those pictures out in front of one particular person certainly had an impact.

When President Donald Trump suddenly dropped his goal of a rapid return to normal and extended social-distancing guidelines through April, he made reference to images from Elmhurst Hospital in his native Queens, the same one featured by the Times – a hospital he said he knows so well he can picture the color of the building.

“I’ve been watching that for the last week on television, body bags all over in hallways,” the president said on Tuesday. “Trucks that are as long as the Rose Garden, and they are pulling up to take out bodies.”

Capturing those kinds of images is fraught.

Many media bosses have been reluctant to allow their journalists to venture into hospitals. They don’t want to get in the way of overworked hospital staff or use up scarce protective garb – and they don’t want their own employees to get sick. Both CBS News and NBC News have lost employees to covid-19, and all of the networks have had staff members infected.

Network news executives say that they don’t rule out sending their journalists into hospitals in the future, “but the bar is extraordinarily high,” said Oppenheim.

There are barriers set up by the hospitals as well, citing their legal obligation to protect the privacy of patients under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA.

In NBC’s prime-time news special on the virus Tuesday, producers relied on video diaries and footage compiled by health-care workers. “I just want to tell people in other parts of the country, take this seriously, because you don’t want to end up like us,” said one.

CBS’ “60 Minutes” aired an in-depth report Sunday with dramatic interviews from doctors and nurses from New York’s hospitals. But for scenes from inside the hospitals, they relied on videos and images produced by hospital workers, according to executive producer Bill Owens.

Some hospitals say they’ve been willing to accommodate journalists – CNN was able to get a reporter and videographer into a Brooklyn hospital this week – but it doesn’t always come together.

“We’ve offered people to come in, and they’ve refused,” said Michael Dowling, the president and CEO of Northwell Health, a large New York state network of hospitals, some of which were featured in the “60 Minutes” segment. He declined to address the “60 Minutes” report but noted that his hospitals have provided their own photos and videos to news outlets.

Many health-care workers have also been speaking to reporters without institutional permission – and their candor has informed stories such as The Washington Post’s look at doctors and nurses who fear that they will infect their families and the Wall Street Journal’s report on a lack of supplies in a Bronx hospital where some staffers claimed they were required to work despite showing covid-19 symptoms. (A hospital spokesman denied the claims.)

“Oftentimes, that’s the only way they have to voice their concerns,” said Sally Watkins, executive director of the Washington State Nurses Association. She added that some are risking their jobs by doing this in defiance of hospital managers. The American Medical Association said in a statement that “no employer should restrict physicians’ freedom to advocate for the best interest of their patients.”

Stefan Jeremiah, a freelance photographer in New York, said he’s been yelled at and shooed away by security guards even when he’s attempted to photograph the exterior of hospitals in Queens and Brooklyn on assignment for Reuters.

“Meanwhile there are members of the public waving camera phones back and forth, taking selfies, but dare a member of the press to do the same thing, it’s ‘you’ve got to go, you’ve got to move,’ ” he said.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to journalists trying to convey the devastation of coronavirus is the very containment strategy required to combat the disease: As soon as a person tests positive, they are sequestered – and not able to give an intimate interview nor perhaps even consent to a photo session.

“Literally we are hiding the disease,” said Esther Choo, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University. “Which is appropriate. But it makes it like a CIA operation: ‘We can’t show you, but trust me, it’s bad.’ ”

The scarcity of images has led to some journalistic sloppiness, at least in one case: “CBS This Morning” accidentally showed an image of an Italian hospital while trying to illustrate a story about the crisis in New York. The network quickly corrected and apologized for the mistake.

But it was a damaging error at a time when the vacuum of information is being filled by doubters and conspiracy theorists.

Last weekend, a video of a quiet parking lot outside a Brooklyn hospital launched the hashtag #filmyourhospital, an apparent effort to discredit media warnings about the seriousness of the pandemic. “Just went to 2 hospitals in LA to check out these ‘War Zones’ the MSM keeps telling us about,” DeAnna Lorraine, a right-wing activist and failed California congressional candidate, wrote on Twitter a couple days later, with a minute-long video of the placid exterior of one building. “They are very quiet & EMPTY. We are not being told the truth. Why??”

Bleak images said to represent the crisis have also gone viral on social media. A hashtag #GetMePPE alongside photos from within hospitals was generated by people who said they were health-care workers in dire need of masks and other protective garb. A video showed bodies being loaded onto an 18-wheeler parked outside a hospital as a makeshift morgue. A Facebook photo of three nurses wearing trash bags at a Manhattan hospital eventually made it to the cover of the New York Post.

The images are powerful – but journalists face a challenge in verifying whether they capture the scope of what is happening inside of hospitals.

Reporters should be able to help settle debate about how serious the crisis in hospitals is by verifying the authenticity and sources of these accounts and placing them within a larger context, said Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Journalism Ethics at the Poynter Institute.

“Professional journalism has a role to play,” she said, “because citizens are demanding an answer and unable to provide it on their own.”

Rosem Morton, a nurse and photojournalist in Maryland who has been documenting her experience on the front lines of the pandemic, said journalists can convey stories in a way that doctors and nurses can’t always manage. “As a journalist, your mind also can spot stories that a person who usually sees it on a day-to-day basis may not recognize as important for other people to see.”

Jeremiah doesn’t want to go into hospitals for fear of contracting the virus, and he felt conflicted when his assignment outside a hospital put him in position to snap photos of dead bodies being loaded into a refrigerated truck.

“But at this point, some people are still not taking this (disease) seriously, and if it’s going to take pictures of people wrapped in sheets being loaded by forklifts onto trucks – I’m sorry about that.”

As in a war, “journalists find ways to tell the story,” McBride said, whether it’s using handout materials from the military or information gathered by civilians or soldiers. “And sometimes we go there ourselves.”

And yet war correspondents are only risking their own lives when they venture to the front lines.

“Now it’s an infectious disease,” said Morton. And the danger can follow you home.

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