Horses and Reporting in the Field


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After several weeks under lockdown orders in Melbourne, getting in my car to go out to cover a story was both a surreal and welcome experience.

I was frustrated by reporting from my kitchen table, now transformed into a mess of papers, electric cables and snacks. I longed to pack a toiletries bag with tiny bottles of soap, stay in a soulless motel, and speak to my sources face to face.

While it’s possible, of course, to do a lot of reporting via phone and video calls, these methods are usually no match for reporting in the field. You can’t read the expressions on people’s faces, observe their passing conversations with others, or gauge the way they hold themselves.

Many of the cues we use to figure out a person’s character, motivations and integrity are stripped away.

So when my reporting for a story on the fight over Australia’s wild horses, considered both invasive pest and icon (which you can read when it is published this weekend), coincided with the easing of restrictions in Victoria, I was eager to get in the car and go.

There, in the High Country, about 100 miles from Melbourne, a group of ranchers said they were planning a vigilante muster in an attempt to save a mob of wild horses, known as brumbies, from culling. Our main source, Philip Maguire, told me and our photographer, Matthew Abbott, that we should come prepared to camp in freezing and muddy conditions in the national park.

We expected to follow the ranchers, to glean scenes with action — and, of course, to see a lot of brumbies. Instead, we were met with a mob of other journalists, whom Mr. Maguire had corralled to his property. Being there made it clear very quickly that the story was more complex, as it always is, than we had first assumed.

Brumbies can be challenging to capture — especially when being chased down a slippery and rocky terrain. Yet in the ranchers’ ranks, few appeared to be fully equipped with a horse strong and quick enough to do so. Quietly, even the activists themselves were skeptical of their chances of success.

Instead, we observed Mr. Maguire fielding calls from lawyers and other media outlets; we saw a crew film a short promotional video involving four cowboys cantering on horseback across a river; and we also witnessed the way that, as the media presence trickled away, the drive to muster the horses began to fade.

Ultimately, the experience felt closer to a watching a performance dressed up as an authentic attempt at action — the symbolism of the brumbies and the lifestyle they represent almost seemed to mean more to the rural activists than the lives of the animals themselves.

Would we have reached the same conclusion with phone calls? Maybe, maybe not.

But being there is our default setting as New York Times journalists, and many of us expect to struggle with that as the pandemic continues.

Though it might be advantageous to be in the field, we are still far from being out of the woods with the coronavirus, as recent spikes around the globe have shown. Scientists say that for the moment, we need to learn to live with the virus. So what does that mean for journalism?

At The Times, we’re erring on the side of caution. Reporting trips have to approved by editors and a security adviser. We have guidelines and reminders for masks and hygiene.

In the case of the brumby story, my editors made the call that it was safe to go. But now, as cases rise in Victoria again, questions of a second wave and a second lockdown are looming. Increasingly, I am asking myself, what am I missing if I can’t be there, and if the coronavirus fundamentally alters how we report at least for now, how can we get more adept at filling in those gaps?

With that to ponder, here are our stories of the week.


  • Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.



And Over to You …

Last week, we asked about your calculations of risk as you step out into the world with the easing of lockdowns in many parts of Australia. Many readers said they were concerned about the indifference they see all around them.

Since our new normal, I am a little hesitant to go out to group reunions where physical distancing will be problematic, with good friends who still want to have hugs and kisses etc. as though all life is back to normal.

I have this feeling that many people now believe this pandemic is over and as we escaped those terrifying hospital scenes in Europe and New York. I have many friends who say the lockdown here was an overreaction.

I don’t agree with them, but I keep it to myself. I don’t think anything I say will change their view.

— Michael May


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