We sat down (virtually) with Fox Business anchor Susan Li to discuss her experience covering COVID-19.
Question: Let’s start from the beginning – when did you start covering COVID, and at what point did you realize that this was going to be THE story for the foreseeable future?
Answer: We started looking at Hong Kong in December when we noticed a lot of manufacturing taking place. We had started to cover that aspect pretty early on in China, and then we started talking about the closures and hints of trouble happening at the end of December.
It all just happened so quickly. What really stuck out to me is when they locked down Wuhan- It’s 11 million people and they’re locking down this city, I thought. Oh my goodness, this is really real and we need to take a closer look.
And then all of a sudden we had 50 million people affected as it spread to the surrounding areas. I thought that if we had that in the US it would be armageddon.
QUESTION: How has the virus impacted the way you do your job? How do you continue to build sources or get the man-on-the-street quotes you may need for a story about local businesses? Or maybe you’re still doing that?
ANSWER: I’d say in 2020 a lot of our reporting is done remotely through email and calls anyway. You don’t need to be face to face (and obviously now there is no face-to-face). A lot of people have a lot to say about it, and people have been reaching out to me, but ultimately lives go on. I still have connections and day-to-day conversations.
I interviewed Tim Cook recently since I cover Apple pretty extensively, and they’ve been launching a lot of devices in these times. They just launched Quibbi, and I think it makes sense given that there’s really nothing else to do right now. It’s interesting that they had this difficult time launching it, but it may be a good thing for them. They still have news to make and they may have different strategies.
I don’t think things have died down and there are obviously difficulties in that regard. Normally we’d be in Barcelona, or Facebook would have their event and Google would have their developer conference. There are a lot of events that have been taken off the calendar where otherwise the face-to-face would’ve been happening. But there’s still a lot of news to come out of the current situation that makes up for that; this morning we were talking about Netflix and Amazon from their fulfillment centers. It’s been a mix of topics.
Last week we sent a reporter to Michigan to cover the anti-lockdown protest, and that’s a whole different spectrum. The PPP (Payment Protection Program) loans have actually made up a lot of the news since these are difficult times and we now have over 22 million unemployed Americans.
I’ve also been doing a lot of personal finance pieces. People are asking, “How do I make the best or make the most of my resources? How do I maximize that money? What do I pay down first? What about my credit card payment or my mortgage loans?”
Those pieces fill up the vacuum- just the average folks who are in dire need of help. In some ways it’s a good rotation.
QUESTION: How has this changed the way you tell stories, if at all? Has it forced you to think about other ways to present a narrative? Or has it reinforced your fundamentals of journalism?
ANSWER: I’m so over Skype calls and miss the lovely studio shots and soft lighting. In some ways it’s been very grassroots with Skype and Zoom on air, but I hope it doesn’t dominate in the future the same way it does right now because I like the glossy veneer of the studio. But you have had to change the way you cover stories.
On Saturday I was covering small business closures in the city and we could only do a few reports because it was raining and you don’t want to be out there for too long. We also don’t want to send too many people out. It’s a little bit more difficult, but probably for the best and you still have plenty of stories to cover.
QUESTION: Have you pitched anything outside of COVID, and if so, what was it? At what point do you think it’s appropriate to cover things outside of the virus or is business and COVID so intertwined that it’s impossible to do so?
ANSWER: I think working in business news gives us more of an alleyway to focus on something else- streaming, consumer trends, etc. Apple is still releasing many of its devices and we have to test them out and try them. Lucky for me, given my tech beat, I have a segue to continue to learn and report on things outside of COVID, but we’ll always return to it.
QUESTION: How does this compare to other dangerous events that you’ve covered? I know you covered the protests in Hong Kong last year – in terms of an imminent threat or just general saturation of the media landscape?
ANSWER: These are totally unprecedented times. It’s a crazy story since there’s news every day, and the numbers are constantly changing. I remember when the models said 100-200K deaths. That was pretty stark, but then it decreased. The infection went from China to Spain, and now it’s in the U.S. We’re dealing with new numbers each and every day while companies just want to be nimble through this.
The SARS outbreak in 2003 was a crazy story and a crazy time, but the infection rate wasn’t like what it was today. This is probably something I haven’t seen. I’m hoping we don’t have to report on anything else like this again.
QUESTION: At TBN we’ve covered a lot of sad news around newspapers and news outlets having to lay off staff given the virus – what do you think the role of journalism is in this crisis and can you speak to the need for it now moreso than ever?
ANSWER: I saw a New York Times story saying that there will be 20,000 journalism jobs lost. I think it’s tough for everybody, and there are concerns for job cuts everywhere. It’s why we have these personal segments where we talk about it on air among ourselves. You know the check will bounce when you work for an organization like this, but then you hear about Facebook giving grants to local papers. People understand that local media is tough right now, especially when you’re already restricted with tight budgets. We’re really hoping for a recovery.
I really like the fact that at Fox Business we’re taking the personal stories on board. Meaning yes, big corporations are suffering, but we also care about the little people. We have restaurateurs who have had to lay off their workers and they’re really struggling. I really like talking about the impact of the pandemic on small business and grass roots organizations since at the end of the day it’s small business that drives this economy.