Yelena Dzhanova is a journalist based in New York. She works as a news associate covering breaking news and breaking news at CNBC. CFWIJ spoke with Yelena to understand how she has been covering the Covid-19 as a journalist in the US, the impact of stories she has come across while doing so, her observation about the changes in the country’s political dynamics amid the pandemic and Trump administration’s reluctance to sharing information as part of the response to the coronavirus, as well as his regular tiffs with women journalists. Scroll through to read her interview.
CFWIJ: Around 160k confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been recorded in New York with over 12,000 deaths. While the US, on the whole, has reported at least confirmed 972,900 cases and 55,118 deaths. New York, where you reside has been hit hard as well. You’re reporting from the city. What have you witnessed in your reportage?
Yelena: CNBC, as a whole, began focusing on the coronavirus sometime in early January. This was the time when people were focusing on China, Italy and France and the effects that coronavirus had on them, but not so much on the United States. In New York, particularly, it’s hitting people in a lot of different ways. There are people who have a chance to stay at home, but there are also people who don’t have the chance to stay at home. They are still forced to take the subway, public transportation and head to these locations where the coronavirus is spreadable — it’s kind of dangerous for them.
There are a lot of people I know who work in hospitals, there are people who are fearful and don’t want coronavirus to hit their families, older relatives, parents, younger children and younger siblings. It’s tough to witness all of that. When you’re a reporter you hear all these kinds of stories from people that you talk to who are sources or people who you’re trying to get permission from and people who paint a picture of what’s going on around the world and it’s just heartbreaking to hear that a lot of times.
How has Covid-19 affected your life and work and how have you been dealing with it so far?
Most of CNBC is able to work from home. But it’s really tough to work from home. Even though I say it’s luxurious, it’s weird, because I have to rewire my focus more often these days. Instead of being in an office setting that encourages productivity, I’m in my living room. When I wake up, I see my cat staring at me and waiting for me to play with him or I see dirty plates on the table that I haven’t cleared yet. It’s a distracting environment for me personally.
On a more professional note, it’s really hard to hear all these stories from individuals who have been deeply affected by the coronavirus or scared that they’re going to be. Part of being a journalist is facing the truth and not shying away from it and sometimes the truth can be brutal. I was on the phone with a source a week or so ago, and he told me how he lost his wife in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, which caused him to spiral into a state of depression and substance abuse. Now he’s homeless and worried about the coronavirus because he’s living in a shelter in close quarters with so many other people.
It’s unbelievably hard to hear things like this and you deal with it as best as you can. The most striking thing is that normally home for me, as a journalist, is a place where I can let go and unwind, focus on other parts of my life. But because I’m working from home — and I’m sure a lot of journalists feel that as well — the line between work and home has blurred.
You’ve been covering politics and breaking news. What methods are you employing to keep a check on the developments around Covid-19?
That has been a challenge for every reporter right now. It is tough to keep up with the developments around Covid-19, mainly because the death numbers and the number of confirmed cases globally and nationally rise every single day. Secondly, it is because the response from the White House and from other administrative officials tends to fluctuate often.
Sometime in mid-January or so Trump said that the virus was under control and a few weeks later individual states began taking it more seriously and people were told to stay home in many states. When you think about it, the President has a lot of information that is not readily available, and according to several accounts, has been warned of the affects and the potential threats of the coronavirus. Then in March, Trump again tried to reassure the numbers of the GOP and Republican donors that he had the outbreak in control. But just a couple of days later, he declared a state of emergency and completely reversed his original standpoint of having everything in control. There are a lot of conflicting messages coming from the White House that you have to keep track of and take into account as you report on developments.
“The Trump administration has been really adamant about giving information off the record, even if it’s a simple thing like directing you to another agency. ”
I am lucky because the CNBC team is on the front and keeping track of these developments. Every single reporter in the world is basically on the coronavirus beat right now. CNBC has been at the front of it. We sensed that we were doing a very big deal relatively early on from January when the coronavirus was still a major concern abroad and we tackled it though. Luckily, it’s been good.
Do journalists feel less informed and impeded in terms of the information White House has been keeping from them?
I have heard that being a journalist is tough at any point in history because it’s a difficult career to have. You’re under pressure, responding to these political figures and getting false information, and you have to sift through that. But it is especially tough right now in the Trump administration where you have this deeply polarizing figure at the head of the country, the leader of the United States, which is arguably the most important seat in the entire world. He is sometimes issuing orders of violence against you and directing his supporters to conduct those orders and it’s really scary.
It is a really weird time for journalists in America. Press freedom is given as guarantee and nobody can take that from you but then there is the Trump administration, in particular, doing some backward stuff that doesn’t coincide with the amendment. It doesn’t really make sense. They are trying to stifle the press, find different alternate ways to limit the powers of the press and limit the knowledge of the press.
The Trump administration has been really adamant about giving information off the record, even if it’s a simple thing like directing you to another agency. You don’t really know what to do with that information, you can write that ‘the White House has declined to comment’ in your article, which is kind of flimsy because they did not necessarily decline to comment but they declined to comment on the record. It is a little weird — press freedom is being twisted in a way that it hasn’t been twisted before.
What is your take on the ongoing layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs in the US media and journalism industry?
It’s terrible. Layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs at any time in the industry suck. They are really tough to deal with, especially the strain on local journalism, which is generally already suffering. It was suffering even before the outbreak. I don’t think people really understand how important journalism is. Maybe it is for a lot of reasons. Maybe it is partially because of the rhetoric coming of white house against journalists and the press; maybe because journalism is not usually taught in schools in the United States; maybe people are not interested in news or they are not following the news — whatever reason is.
I don’t think people understand the role that journalism plays. Journalism is supposed to lay bare what is out there and shines a spotlight on injustices, good deeds, struggles it contributes to and often begins movements. A lot of times, local journalism is where it all starts. I don’t think the public is receiving any favors when journalists are laid off, especially in massive waves like this. Going forward, it only puts a further strain on journalism and limits our resources and capabilities. It puts the US into this black hole in a way, which is not entirely a huge one, but it is the beginning of one where certain bits of information are missing and there are not going to be present or put out there because you have fewer journalists on line.
Several journalists — both, freelancers and full-time employees at media outlets — have suffered from the financial consequences of Covid-19. How has been for you and your colleagues at CNBC?
We’ve been seeing high traffic across all that goes on our websites at least. I haven’t heard of any consideration about layoffs or pay cuts. I haven’t heard anything related to the coronavirus accept that a few top leaders have announced that they’ll be donating part of their salary for funding research. Generally, we’ve been doing well, seeing high numbers and high traffic. I don’t think that is the story for a lot of other organizations, but at CNBC this is the case.
What new safety precautions have you observed that journalists have been taking? Are there any limitations in their ability to report safely?
There was this amazing photo circulating online where several reporters, surrounding Senator Mitch McConnell, were wearing masks, but McConnell was not. The reporters were standing six or seven feet apart from him. This was quite the sight because when reporters are on the Hill, they are bunched together, trying to get a word and hear what the official is saying to another reporter. But in this case, everyone was spread out, they were considerably fewer reporters, the seats were emptier and there was a lot of empty space. It was a sight to behold.
Journalists have started listening to CDC precautions, they’re wearing masks, some of them are wearing gloves, they are standing at a distance from one another, local reporters on TV are standing at a distance from their sources, and they are using extended mics to reach out to the source at a distance.
Local reporters have the brunt of limitations imposed on them because they are the ones who are on the ground or more hands on with the stories. A lot of local news reporters in New York, in particular, have had to forgo in-person visits to places that they’re covering, and people that they’re meeting up with. They have had to find other ways to do their jobs. But they are taking precautions, as advised, because it is a scary time. They don’t want to contract and spread the disease. They are trying their best to do their job as well as they can.
Following your reporting on politics in the US, particularly amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, what does the future of American politics look like to you, as a journalist?
In terms of institutional politics, a lot of change is going to arise. The thing about pandemics is that they showcase where you’re the weakest. In this case, the US was not prepared to deal with one. A lot of ideas that were deemed radical like Bernie Sander’s proposal for ‘Medicare for All’, Andrew Yang’s proposal for a universal basic income, are now suddenly being floated as real possibilities. Major heavy weights like Nancy Pelosi — Speaker of the United States House of Representatives — are considering these ideas because of the coronavirus. The coronavirus, like any catastrophic event, is going to change many things about the way our country runs.
Trump has been rather problematic following his take on Covid-19, especially in his interactions with journalists. The press briefings have mostly been about him saying things he shouldn’t be saying. How do you look at all of it as someone who’s been reporting every single day?
None of this is new and the coronavirus did not really spark any new traits out of Trump, it just exacerbated them. Trump has been president for his fourth year running now; he’s campaigning for his reelection. It is not like this is new to us. The coronavirus was not the first time that Trump downplayed a reporter’s ability or tried to turn the words of a reporter against her; and yes, it’s usually women reporters on the receiving end of Trump’s obnoxious behavior. Sometimes his press briefings, in particular, he turns them into a campaign style venue where he is able to promote himself and boost his own ego and morale, as opposed to provide an update on the US response to coronavirus, which is what the press briefings are for. But the way he also does that is by picking on women journalists, in particular.
There have been times when he has also picked on male journalists, but by just looking at what has been circulating on social media for example, it seems that he is predominantly picking on women journalists. There are many great journalists who remain standing, even as Trump raided them. If I were at these press briefings, I would feel pretty intimidated because the leader of the US is openly against you, and sometimes calls for violence against you.
People are watching these televised briefings. They are some of the most trafficked briefings in CNBC history at least; although I’m not sure about other sites. CNBC has been receiving huge ratings and hits from streaming these briefings in particular. Imagine how many people are watching these briefings and the president is calling on you as a woman reporter and telling people that your reporting is fake news and what you are saying does not ever match what the president is saying — it’s all just very intimidating.
This interview was originally published for Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism