Chronicling COVID: Sarah Turnbull, Parliamentary Journalist
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Ottawa journalist craves camaraderie, consistency & communication
Journalism is essential during a crisis – and harder than ever during a pandemic when a reporter can’t get close to their sources. That’s why Argyle is turning the tables by interviewing prominent Canadian journalists. We aim to learn how they are coping, staying on top of the 24/7 news cycle, delivering fresh angles and insight, and engaging with communicators.
To kick things off, Argyle’s Corporate and Public Affairs Director Joanne Pitkin sat down (virtually) with Ottawa-based parliamentary reporter and producer Sarah Turnbull.
Argyle: We’ve all had to adjust how we work. At a time when reporting has never been more important, how has the virus impacted your newsroom and your own process for filing a story?
Sarah Turnbull: Like most workplaces, the pandemic has shifted the day-to-day operations of a newsroom.
I produce three days of the week from a desk aimed at my TV, making calls and writing scripts. Much of the work can be done remotely and it’s been fairly seamless to connect with others minus a few technical glitches. Guests are now required, of course, to appear virtually, which requires a few additional steps. I breathe a sigh of relief when an interview flows from start to finish with limited freezing, stutters, or cat appearances.
The rest of my time is spent reporting online, which of course can be done remotely. I miss the camaraderie of the newsroom and the ease of brainstorming ideas.
Argyle: The way parliament functions has changed significantly. How have you had to adapt to stay in the loop with government?
ST: Now that politicians aren’t a stone’s throw away, gathering information or comment can be a challenge. Before, you knew when they’d be around, what their schedule was like, and could predict more easily the day’s news cycle.
With that said, the government has been accessible throughout this time. The prime minister’s daily media briefing and his team’s follow-up press conference have allowed journalists to keep officials accountable and get the answers they’re looking for. It also provides some consistency in an unruly time.
I think pundits, journalists, and politicians alike understand the need for strong democracy right now when government is making hugely impactful and costly decisions in response to the pandemic. We saw this week the importance of Parliamentary accountability when opposition adjusted the Liberal’s student aid package. Much to my surprise – and I think to the surprise of all 338 MPs and everyone else watching – the virtual House of Commons sitting wasn’t as technically challenged as it could have been. Thoughtful questions were met with thorough answers – and less heckling! Refreshing!
Nevertheless, I stay in the loop by absorbing news from different platforms (TV, social media, radio etc.) and outlets. Everyone does a good job of filling each other in on scheduling details/changes etc. Communication is key!
Argyle: How has the way you work with communications professionals to obtain information changed?
ST: It comes down to communication. While you may not see people face-to-face anymore and pick up tidbits of information through an impromptu conversation on the street or in a hallway, we’ve got phones to fill that void. But it does take more effort. The communication staff I’ve been in touch with understand the importance of this and have been readily available. After all, it’s a two-way street: their representatives also want their views known to journalists. Like many of us, I prefer the in-person interactions and feel like they’re often more effective, but we’re all making do.
Argyle: What is helping you get through this strange time?
Wine, chocolate, Netflix…
I think most of us are holding on to a vision of the future when social restrictions are lifted and the economy is up and running again — when things return to normal. It’s that bit of hope and optimism that gets me through, knowing this isn’t permanent. I’ve become so much more aware of the little gifts – the sounds of nature, the days getting longer, a warm sip of coffee.
Most of all, though, I’m thankful for my health, my family’s health, safety, a roof over my head. Thinking about those who don’t have the essentials during this time reminds me to give my head a shake when I start to feel sad about current conditions. We’ll all come out of this more appreciative.
About the Author
Joanne Pitkin is VP, Corporate and Public Affairs, a member of Argyle’s ESG communications consulting team and serves on the Communications Committee for Women in Governance.