As COVID Drags On, WDIV Finds Fresh Reporting Energy
Since 2005, Dr. Frank McGeorge has split his professional time in emergency rooms and on the air as a medical reporter for the Graham-owned NBC affiliate WDIV Detroit. He says in retrospect that everything he’d done in his career up to the point COVID-19 struck the United States last year prepared him to cover its impact.
“People have referred to COVID as my Super Bowl,” McGeorge says. “But the big difference is the Super Bowl would be a one-day event. COVID has gone on for months and months and months.”
That’s true for both McGeorge and the rest of the WDIV news team behind him. They’ve been able to endure the pandemic in ways that have kept their extensive reporting on the topic compelling — while retaining some impressive viewership growth from this past year-plus.
McGeorge’s established profile in the community as a physician and reliable news source proved “useful” in his reporting, he says, ensuring widespread viewer trust at a crucial point in history, with lives very much at stake.
However, not everyone was a fan.
“I never received hate mail before,” McGeorge says. “I was receiving emails about lying about masks, lying about vaccinations, lying about various treatments.”
He says he’s used to being “the good guy,” and can’t recall a time when disagreeable viewers ever turned angry about his reporting. Between the now year-plus grind of covering a single, generational story and the sometimes-hot-blooded response to it, McGeorge has naturally experienced moments of COVID-19 burnout.
“It’s really hard to maintain energy for this long, there’s no question about that,” McGeorge says, surely echoing the plight of many other professionals who’ve been tasked with delivering gripping stories about the topic on a daily basis. Viewers have also suffered from the same fatigue.
In fact, reports of COVID-19 viewer fatigue in the TV news space go back as far as early May of 2020, just a half-dozen weeks after the crisis began in the U.S. With pandemic news still flowing 14 months later, the challenge of keeping viewers tuned in, while at the same time tapping into the dilapidated energy reserves of news team personnel hasn’t gotten any easier.
But the WDIV news division has been up to the task, producing COVID-19 reports that have been as titillating as they are dynamic, such as the piece where McGeorge discussed the “Swiss-cheese approach” to virus protection and the profile of another medical worker who offered online tutorials on how to make PPE.
In the early days of the crisis, reporters like McGeorge ran on adrenaline. It was “fairly easy” to keep pace, he says, because “everything was fresh, the public was interested, and it was obviously top of mind.”
Of course, such conditions could not last forever. “There were periods of time last year, particularly toward summer and fall, where I began to feel more stressed and more pressure,” McGeorge admits. “At that point, it was important to take a little bit of personal time and refresh myself, so that I was able to maintain a level of enthusiasm about COVID that the public needed for television purposes.”
Vacations can only last so long, though, and since then McGeorge says he’s had to focus more on “identifying the science that people were interested in” to conjure up relevant, compelling reports.
“To this day there are still things — whether it’s the Delta variant, vaccine development, whatever — that people are still interested in,” McGeorge says, feeling fortunate to not have to reach too far to find sources of story inspiration. “I hope that we’re maintaining a perspective that people continue to watch and are continuing to be interested in, because it’s essential to get people to understand what it is we’re telling them because it is in their public health interest.”
It appears he and the WDIV team behind him have done just that. According to Nielsen ratings provided by the station, WDIV’s local news broadcasts at 5 and 6 p.m. topped all market competitors in May 2020, scoring a year-over-year increase in adults 25-54 of 63% in both time slots.
Given the unprecedented circumstances that propelled the station — like so many others across the country — to such incredible viewership heights in 2020, WDIV has not seen a further increase in viewers this year. However, in May 2021 its local news ranked No. 1 at 5, 6, and 11 p.m. And in comparing this year’s viewership for those broadcasts to that of pre-pandemic 2019, they’ve enjoyed respective timeslot increases in adults 25-54 of 13%, 11% and 31%.
“Covering COVID for the past year and a half has shined a bright light on the critical role local news plays in informing and educating our communities,” says Graham Media Group President-CEO Emily Barr. “Dr. Frank McGeorge, an accomplished ER doctor, and a crucial member of our reporting team, truly enhanced our coverage and undoubtedly saved lives by dispelling misinformation and encouraging safe behavior and vaccine adoption presented in a calm, easy-to-understand manner.”
WDIV News Director Kim Voet-Potter also credits McGeorge for helping lead the charge. “We are probably one of the luckiest, if not the luckiest television station in the country because of having Frank here, and our health producer happens to have her master’s in public health,” Voet-Potter says. “We were armed from the get-go on how to handle COVID.”
But a medical reporter and producer — as dedicated and experienced as they may be — cannot account for all the victories of an entire news division. Voet-Potter says their sustained success across coverage of this extraordinarily long-standing story stems from early workflow pivots and expressions of empathy.
“We heard our people,” Voet-Potter says of the station’s leadership. “It was very important that we listen to people across the board, our reporters, photographers, producers, everybody. As they were doing their jobs, we wanted to make sure we heard what they were dealing with as content creators. We tried to do things to make everybody feel safe and accountable to one another.”
This included an early adoption of remote working and the incorporation of technology into their news delivery processes, such as the use of smartphones as cameras, as well as GoPros in ways that had not been explored before — not to mention the now-ubiquitous interview tool of Zoom and other webcam communication platforms. The station also worked out its data visualization muscles to develop an easy-to-understand, interactive series of COVID-19 graphs that chart changes in local case numbers and other important information.
Lately, WDIV news has produced a slew of human interest pieces related to the continuing COVID-19 crisis, including Spirit of Detroit primetime specials about the ways “neighbors were helping neighbors,” as Voet-Potter describes them. She says viewers have adored those presentations and, in looking back on this trial, believes the crisis made the reporters and supportive staff at WDIV better, in lieu of social distancing restrictions.
“It actually, I think, piqued the creativity of many people,” Voet-Potter observes. “They took it upon themselves to use creative ways to tell their stories.”
When it came right down to it, though, the rallying cry the WDIV news team needed most in facing off with this insuperably relentless story was perhaps hiding in plain sight.
“The message we kept reiterating time and time again is: ‘Guys, this is the reason we got into this business,’ ” Voet-Potter says. “Our jobs have never been more important; our jobs have never been more necessary for the communities that we served.”
The COVID-19 reporting done at WDIV was aiding its community on at least two fronts. It was keeping people informed on how to protect themselves from the virus and understanding why it was important to adhere to social distancing restrictions put in place. It also arguably served to help keep the peace after armed protestors stormed the state capitol to challenge the science-based protocols.
Good luck trying to get Voet-Potter to self-congratulate in such ways, though.
“I would love to say we saved lives,” she says. “I don’t think we can take total credit for it at all, but I think that if you look at the depth of our medical- and science- and fact-based reporting on this, I think that’s something we can definitely hang our hat on.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.