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Maya Abdallah, a fourth-year journalism student at MacEwan University, was on site at the Edmonton International Airport taking photos for a story about the impact of COVID-19 on international students when the airport’s closure was announced.

Communicating in crisis

April 9, 2020 | Society
When Jackson Spring walked into the weekly story meeting for the Magpie on March 14, he thought he would be discussing snow-clearing issues, downtown real-estate prices and toilet paper shortages. 

It was his turn to act as managing editor for the online news site where MacEwan University’s journalism students publish stories focused on Edmonton’s downtown core. Jackson knew they needed to amp up the Magpie’s coverage of COVID-19 – he just never imagined that his professor would suggest scrapping everything and starting over from scratch.

“It made sense to shift gears and make covering COVID-19 the priority, but it still felt like a risk,” says the fourth-year Bachelor of Communication Studies student. “We’re all students taking other courses too – would we be able to write a whole set of new stories in just five days?”

Dr. Brian Gorman, an associate professor in the degree program’s journalism major, says he had no doubt his students could pull together a solid slate of meaningful, hyper-local stories on the Magpie’s home turf, which also happens to be MacEwan’s neighbourhood – from Jasper to 107 Avenues and 101 to 124 Streets. The area is busy, densely populated and includes some of the most stressed and underprivileged communities in the city, says Brian. “News organizations don’t always have the resources to cover it, and that’s where we have a role to play.”

So only a few hours before the province shuttered daycares, schools and post-secondary institutions, the Magpie editorial team was putting together an entirely new lineup of stories that more closely reflected the city centre’s new reality. In less than a week, they wrote, edited and posted news pieces on everything from the politics of a pandemic to its impact on the downtown food scene and international students – relying on Skype, FaceTime, text messages and emails to connect.

 

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Maya also contributed a piece on empty downtown spaces, which included this deserted shot at City Centre Mall. 

 

“It was an opportunity to show students how newsrooms mobilize and organize themselves to cover a single story,” says Brian. “And the students came together beautifully, operating on a tight deadline and under stressful circumstances.”  

That experience is one Brian's students will likely look back on with gratitude, says MacEwan journalism alumnus Kyle Muzyka. During his more than four years as a reporter with CBC, Kyle has had to quickly change gears in response to a crisis more than once. In the case of today’s pandemic, his editorial team tossed their plans for six weeks of stories.  

“I believe the work journalists do is always meaningful and important, but you really see just how important it is and the impact it can have when you’re covering a crisis,” he says. “And you also get to directly see how grateful people are for the role the media plays.” 

It was an opportunity to show students how newsrooms mobilize and organize themselves to cover a single story.
—Dr. Brian Gorman

Journalists aren’t the only communications professionals who have important stories and messages to circulate in challenging times. When there’s a flood, fire, cyber attack – or even a pandemic – all kinds of organizations rely on professional communicators to shape and share important messages . Developing the skills to do just that is something professional communication majors in MacEwan’s Bachelor of Communication Studies focus on throughout their program, says Associate Professor Dr. Iain Macpherson. 

“Crisis communications is a matter of striking a balance between challenging and reassuring messages,” he says. “Our students learn to do that not only by developing tactical skills like writing and editing, but also by learning to use those skills while thinking and acting strategically.”  

Those strategic thinking skills are something that Mike Francoeur, a professional communications alumnus, who also has a master’s degree, relies on every single day in his work at Alberta Health with the province’s chief medical officer of health. The first months of the year typically see Mike focused on issues like influenza or Lyme disease, but in early 2020 – before the province had its first case – he was already fully immersed in communications around the novel coronavirus.  

Leaning heavily on strategic plans and procedures established for crisis communications, Mike was translating complex and rapidly changing information into website content, incorporating it into speeches and using it to respond to questions from the media – all in an effort to equip people with the information they need to make decisions in their own lives. It’s the part of his job he loves most.  

“I know that the issues I’m communicating with the public about are important to them,” says Mike. “That public service aspect of the work I do is really rewarding. It makes me feel like I’m doing something meaningful and it’s what gets me out of bed every single morning.”  

 

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