The ‘Crash Course’ newsletter team brings you behind the stories this week with a podcast to hear from three Connecticut political journalists — Daniela Altimari of The Hartford Courant, Emilie Munson of Hearst Connecticut, and Amber Diaz of WTNH-TV. They talk about their experiences covering the 2020 election and the coronavirus pandemic. We also asked them to tell us what issues they’ll be focusing on now that election season is behind us.
Listen to our special ‘Crash Course’ edition of UConn Journalism’s Behind the Stories podcast below. Keep scrolling for the transcript.
Episode music: ‘Acoustic Breeze’ by Ben Sound
Fiona Brady: [00:00:00] Hello everyone and welcome to the Crash Course Election 2020 podcast. I’m Fiona Brady.
Mike Mavredakis: [00:00:11] And I’m Mike Mavredakis.
Over the course of the fall semester, we’ve been covering the 2020 election with a team of UConn Journalism students alongside professor Marie Shanahan. We created a weekly newsletter to help our fellow college students navigate the overwhelming amount of election news every week.
To help us in our mission to condense the whirlwind that was the 2020 election cycle, we turned to journalists, professors and experts for their insights throughout the process.
Fiona Brady: [00:00:37] We’ve learned a lot by looking at major election issues, such as race and policing, healthcare education and climate change. We focused on one major issue each week, and really tried to break down the information in a way that could be easily understood.
Mike Mavredakis: [00:00:50] On this episode, our Crash Course team members are taking you “Behind the Stories” by talking to journalists about their experiences covering the election and the ongoing pandemic. They also gave us a look into what issues they’re focusing on now that the election season is behind us.
Fiona Brady: [00:01:05] First, we’ll hear from Daniela Altimari, a state government and political reporter at the Hartford Courant. UConn Journalism Senior Ashley Anglisano spoke to Daniela about the reporting she did during the election cycle and the future for Connecticut news. type
Ashley, tell us what you learned from talking to Daniela.
Ashley Anglisano: [00:01:22] Daniela explained that 2021 will be another busy news year — with more Connecticut budget discussions, continuing the focus on COVID as well as a possible shift in Connecticut political parties. Here’s what she said she focused on in her election reporting.
Daniela Altimari: [00:01:36] Two things primarily, looking at the national election through the lens of Connecticut. the presidential race obviously was a big one that I also wrote about the congressional races in Connecticut, particularly in the fifth district, which is the Western half of the state — because that was probably one of the more competitive districts and the third district a little bit as well. That’s the new Haven area.
And I also wrote about some of the local races, although perhaps a little less about that.
Ashley Anglisano: [00:02:04] As a reporter, Daniela saw firsthand the ways in which this election year was unlike any other.
Daniela Altimari: [00:02:09] Well, it was as you know, an election year, unlike any other, certainly quite extraordinary and not the least of which is that we didn’t have a winner for what, five days after. That was kind of in some ways novel
Also, voting in the middle of, of a pandemic and all the restrictions that, that brought, and then the huge influx of people voting absentee. Those all made a really sort of unusual election year.
Ashley Anglisano: [00:02:36] Now, that election coverage is wrapping up, I asked Daniela what she’s shifting her focus to now.
Daniela Altimari: [00:02:40] I think for the time being, I’ll probably be doing a lot more writing about COVID victims. that’s something that I was doing earlier this year and sort of the early stages of the pandemic when politics kind of shut down. So I’ll probably pivot more to that.
And then. You know, we have the legislative session starting ostensibly in January, and there’ll be a lot happening there. we’re still not sure what form that will take if it will be online, primarily if there’ll be some delays. So we’re sort of waiting to see, but there’s a lot of issues related to the pandemic and, and some of the other things going on in the country right now that the legislature will be taking up. So it’s going to be pretty interesting. type here
Ashley Anglisano: [00:03:19] I also asked Daniela what she thinks Connecticut residents should be focusing on. And she said 2021 will continue to be a busy news year. She said we will see things in the news ranging from more racial inequality discussions, Connecticut’s budget, and Connecticut’s continued response to COVID-19.
Daniela Altimari: [00:03:35] I think there’s going to be a lot happening this year on a number of fronts. we had seen a little bit of action over the summer and a special session in response to the George Floyd killing and some of the discussion that that’s found long overdue discussion on racial inequities and things like that.
So I think we’ll be seeing more of that, particularly as it relates perhaps to housing issues and education issues. So. I think that’s going to be really interesting and then sort of on a parallel track there’s going to be, or there already is, in some ways a budget crisis. Connecticut’s budget is always, always has its issues.
This year because the stock market has done so well that’s actually alleviated some of the short-term problems, but there’s also, the costs it related to the pandemic. And there’s also a real drive, I think, among some in the legislature to provide some relief to businesses and individuals who have really struggled to, to this health crisis. I think that some people are saying, we can’t wait for Congress to get its act together because there doesn’t seem to be really anything happening there, so people need relief now — restaurants, small businesses, people who have been furloughed or unemployed, they need help. And the federal government stepped in early on with a package that many people said wasn’t really big enough. And then that was it.
That’s gone now. I think there’s going to be sort of a lot of discussion on that front as well.
Ashley Anglisano: [00:04:58] With a new presidential administration entering the White House in 2021, Daniela said she’s interested to see how it affects Connecticut politics, including the state of the Democratic and Republican parties here in Connecticut.
Daniela Altimari: [00:05:09] I think it’s going to be interesting to see how many of these trends sort of last after Trump, at least for the Connecticut Republican party, didn’t really help their cause. The party, you know, continues to hold no seats in Congress. It continues to be outnumbered in the legislature. We have a governor’s race coming up in two years. So I think it’ll be interesting to see what the impact will be and what Connecticut Republicans will be doing. Will they be sticking with, if not Trump, the Trump doctrine, the Trump philosophy. Or, will they sort of pull back and move more towards the middle. Both paths have potential risks and rewards.
So I think that’s going to be really interesting. And then on the Democratic side, I think it’s going to be fascinating to see the struggles within the democratic party. There’s a real sort of almost a civil war going on between the sort of moderate perhaps the Biden wing of the party, the very sort of mainstream democratic party. And then people on the left who are saying that this pandemic and some of the racial justice issues that were raised over the summer –point to a need to, really shift. And then you have, big issues like climate change and other things that are on the horizon and the democratic party has been much too sort of tepid and not really seizing the momentum on those issues.
So I think you’re going to see a struggle between those in the left and those in the center, within the democratic party as well. little bit of a reflection of the democratic primary when we had, the Elizabeth Warren wing and the Bernie Sanders wing. And then obviously now we could call it the AOC wing, versus, the more moderate, Mayor Pete, Biden perhaps as well. So I think that struggle is going to be fascinating to watch, to see which side wins that could do some damage to the party as well. It really could tear it apart or it could help it get stronger for the future. So those are kind of some of the things that I’ll be watching.
Mike Mavredakis: [00:07:02] Emilie Munson covers both Connecticut and New York politics for Hearst, Connecticut media and the Albany Times Union, and is based in Washington, DC. UConn Journalism senior Ben Crnic spoke to her about the nature of the 2020 election and how the pandemic affected it as well as that, how it influenced elections here in Connecticut.
Ben Crnic: [00:07:21] Emilie Munson has been covering Connecticut and New York politics in Washington, DC since 2019 and focuses on those Congressional delegations as well as the work of the federal agencies and how they touch on New York and Connecticut specifically.
I asked her what her major takeaways are from this year’s election. And she explained that multiple factors combined put a unique strain on our election system.
Emilie Munson: [00:07:40] It definitely was an unusual year. We have not had such a stressor on our national election system, like the pandemic for years and years and years. So, in a matter of months before the presidential election States had to completely re-conceive how they were going to manage this election system from how would ballot be sent to voters? How would voters be able to access the ballot, whether that’s in person or in their home? The absentee system. To how would those ballots be counted and how with the safety of poll workers be preserved so much of this election was re-imagined.
And then you layer on top of it such, a polarizing candidate as president Trump who has intense, popular support amongst his base and also extreme animosity on the left.
And so, you know, those two factors really made it different than any other year. You know, now that we can look back and reflect on the election, I think we saw that in the turnout that many, many people felt energized. By the, presidential candidates. And that really had a trickle-down effect through races all the way down ballot. And we saw a lot of unexpected results in house races in particular. It was a fascinating year, you know, as someone who enjoys government , the election system stuff was really fascinating to cover those preparations and the strain on the system.
And then, from the political and campaign side, watching two very different presidential candidates wrestle it out in a year in which they’re not able to campaign in the normal ways where they have to completely alter their messaging to take into account the fact that we’re now in the midst of a severe economic downturn. Yeah, it was crazy.
Ben Crnic: [00:09:36] I also asked Emily about what she thought of elections here in Connecticut. And she talked about how she thinks the presidential election may have had a beneficial effect on Republican candidates here in the state.
Emilie Munson: [00:09:45] we did see the heat of the presidential race trickle down into some of our local races. The most competitive race in Connecticut in 2020 was that between, U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes and her challenger, Republican David Sullivan, that was in the fifth district, which is the most purple district in Connecticut — although it’s been represented by a Democrat for some years now.
And then in addition, in the third district, that’s where, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro is, she had her strongest challenger in decades this year, a Republican candidate who was able to pour a lot of her own personal funds into the race. Her name was Margaret Streicker.
She made Rosa DeLauro go on TV for the first time, since 1992, I believe, takeout advertising and, and both, both those representatives went on to, to win their races. But we do see that there can be kinda competitive races in Connecticut and certainly with the right candidate and the right combination of personal background funding and message a Republican candidate could succeed in one of these districts in Connecticut.
Ben Crnic: [00:11:05] Okay well, thanks for talking to me. It’s definitely interesting hearing from someone in the business.
Emilie Munson: [00:11:09] Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me on your show here.
Fiona Brady: [00:11:20] Now we’ll hear from Amber Diaz, a television news reporter at WTNH News 8 in New Haven, UConn Journalism Senior Allison O’Donnell has that conversation for us. Alison?
Allison O’Donnell: [00:11:30] The longtime journalist began working at News 8 in March at the beginning of America’s ongoing pandemic response. In the midst of an already unique election year COVID has become a pressing political topic.
Diaz speaks on how reporting during a pandemic is different, but also an important job for journalists.
Amber Diaz: [00:11:47] I signed a contract to come back home because I’m a Connecticut native in March, and I literally moved right when the pandemic struck the U S well, obviously we we’re, we’re hearing now that, you know, it probably happened in December, but, when we first really started reporting and, and collecting data on it, that was in March.
So it’s, it’s been tough. Yeah. It has been tough. As reporters, when we go out into the field, we have to adhere to safety protocols. So we have these long poles, if you will, they really are poles that hold the mic. They extend six to eight feet. Always have to have a mask on at all times.
We’ve been literally soaking our hands and hand sanitizer. I’m sure you guys have too. And cleaning your areas. That’s a big thing just to keep us healthy and safe. And in regards to the company itself, we have a lot of our producers now that are working remote from home. And, we are separated.
So the reporters and the photographers are upstairs in the building and the anchors are downstairs at our desks. So it’s, it’s been tough. type
Allison O’Donnell: [00:12:52] Amber told me that news doesn’t stop. But COVID has changed the way journalists report and conduct interviews. So I had to ask Amber if these changes affect the quality of reporting.
Amber Diaz: [00:13:02] That’s actually a really good question, Allison. Yeah, I would say –yes in short to answer that question, the one difficulty I find is with the zoom interviews, cause we’re doing a lot and a majority of the time now I’m anchoring Monday through Friday and that’s what we do. We just do the zoom interviews.
It’s really tough because it’s not as personal when you’re sitting across from someone, you usually get a read on how they feel or their stance and how they’re acting and their demeanor. And it’s really tough to tell on zoom calls. I feel more often than not people tend to act more robotic on zoom calls, unfortunately. It’s just, it’s not as personal.
In regards to story quality, more personal stories are coming out than they normally would. I would say that obviously a lot of people have been affected by COVID. People have died. People have just been sick for months. So that’s really been really, what’s been happening in that regard.
Allison O’Donnell: [00:14:00] One of Amber’s stories is about a COVID vaccine trial candidate. Not everyone wants this vaccine, which is why I had to ask Amber about what it’s like reporting on a news event that’s constantly evolving.
Amber Diaz: [00:14:11] Well, this is the thing everyone’s going to have their opinion. Right? So for example, last night, I spoke to a man who is the director of the community communications, excuse me, director at the Shubert theater. He participated in the Pfizer vaccine trial in August — August 28th. It’s the first of two, he got his first or two injections.
He has dedicated his body to science for the next two years. Now it was a blind study. He doesn’t know whether he got the COVID vaccine or if he got a placebo. So the reason why I tell you this is because he wanted to tell his story as to why we should be getting it. There were a lot of people who don’t believe in it. A lot of people who still think COVID is not real. That is saying a lot, so reporting on it and, and having these people who are vouching for the vaccine and comparing it to the people who, don’t want to get it.
It’s been a struggle and I feel like a lot of the time you can’t convince them. They’re just gonna think what they want to think. So it’s good to have those examples of those people who are going through it have experienced it, why they want to do it. And for this gentleman’s case, he was tired. He told me of seeing people around him die and pass away. And I asked him, why did you take part in the trial?
And were you scared? He goes, well, I feel like I wanted to take part in something that will contribute to being a solution. And no, I wasn’t scared. I’m more afraid of COVID than I am the vaccine.
Allison O’Donnell: [00:15:49] Journalism has this power to change the way that people view things like the vaccine, I think.
Amber Diaz: [00:15:55] Setting that example is key. And obviously we’re not supposed to have an opinion, but I’m gonna say this anyways. Our current president in office — it’s been tough reporting on that as well, because we do get a lot of flack. Even reporting on President-elect Joe Biden. You can’t say anything right now, nowadays you just can’t.
There’s a lot of tension. So it’s your bias if you’re sent to a Trump rally that you’re you’re for Trump for. Or you’re biased, if you go to a Joe Biden rally. So, even if you’re unbiased in your reporting, someone will find something. it’s difficult, but yeah, back to what you were saying, it’s it really shows, you know, that that’s that’s leadership, you know, showing that, Hey, it’s okay, do it, get it.
Allison O’Donnell: [00:16:39] Amber mentioned, this is something that’s bigger than us. And that’s where I think journalistic objectivity becomes important. Does COVID take on a more emotional stance than simply just reporting the facts.
Amber Diaz: [00:16:52] I think a little bit of both, if I’m being totally honest and in full transparency, a little bit of both.
You’re getting to know these people who are having to say goodbye too early to the ones they love. We’re human too. I mean, it’s our job, but we’re human too. So having that emotion kind of draws the viewer in, not kind of it does, it draws the viewer in, they can relate and then they can make a decision.
Hey, do I want to get the vaccine or do I not? What is right for me? So, I would say a little bit of both. Obviously you always have to vet your stories and, report the facts, but let your interviews do the talking, let them tell the story. If that means a longer sound bite, then that’s what it is. It’s a longer sound bite.
And it’s all about emotion right now, even in the, in the political environment or atmosphere rather. It’s, it’s all about emotion.
Allison O’Donnell: [00:17:47] Before I let you go. Is there anything else that you want to add?
Amber Diaz: [00:17:50] I would just hope that students and just people in general don’t lose faith in the democratic system.
And I would just say, don’t, don’t lose hope. Don’t lose faith. This has been a really tough year and election cycle and we still have the right to vote. and yeah, I, I just, I urge everyone to just have faith and, and yeah.
Allison O’Donnell: [00:18:17] Okay. Awesome. Thank you so much.
Amber Diaz: [00:18:20] You’re so very welcome.
Mike Mavredakis: [00:18:29] We hope you enjoyed a peek behind the scenes from this election cycle.
Fiona Brady: [00:18:32] We want to thank the journalists, professors and experts who took the time to share their insights with us this semester, and to our subscribers for following our coverage. We really enjoyed bringing you these stories every week, and we hope you’ll continue to follow UConn Journalism students next semester, as they continue to cover new issues.
Thank you for listening. I’m Fiona Brady.
Mike Mavredakis: [00:18:50] And I’m Mike Mavredakis. Thank you for checking out our newsletter and make sure to subscribe to the UConn Journalism podcast feed so that you can catch future episodes of this podcast. Thank you.
Reporting for this episode is brought to you by UConn Journalism majors Ashley Anglisano, Ben Crnic and Allison O’Donnell, with Fiona Brady and Mike Mavredakis as your hosts. The project was overseen by Associate Professor Marie K. Shanahan. Read more about us »