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The COVID-19 Pandemic Changed The Way Media Covered Michigan State Basketball

Sara Tidwell
Sara Tidwell

Two student reporters that covered the men’s basketball team, Jayna Bardahl and Sara Tidwell, discuss their journey through a challenging year.

A year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause to the sports world across the globe, due to a deadly virus that no one could contain. 

It has been a year since the virus swept the U.S., putting a temporary pause on all things sports and getting back to normalcy has been a challenge not only for athletes, organizations, and fans but also for journalists covering sports. 

Journalists had to face the harsh reality that soon set in, many were laid off, furloughed, internships postponed/cancelled and lived with a lot of uncertainty about what would come next.

This stress was felt here at Michigan State, in students who are training to become sports media.

The State News student newspaper sports writers Jayna Bardahl and Sara Tidwell said adapting to cover sports during the pandemic has been a challenge that they didn’t expect. 

Both Bardahl and Tidwell covered MSU men's basketball this past season, where they attended every home game to write game stories, feature stories, profile stories along with other sports stories. They covered many away games off T.V., from their homes. Sometimes, especially later this spring, they were able to be at away games in-person.

Because the virus spread so easily from person-to-person employees weren’t allowed in The State newsroom together and when they were able to go out in the field together for stories the stadium had many restrictions that kept them far apart.

Bardahl and Tidwell were able to attend all the home games but faced with a lot of restrictions that complicated their jobs. 

“At MSU and the other stadiums I went to, we had to fill out a screening form within a 24-hour period of the games,” Bardahl said. “You went in and you would fill out a form and answer questions like do you have a stuffy nose, where you exposed and some other stuff.”

Bardahl said once inside, they had to wear a mask the entire game, weren’t allowed to take it off and social distancing was enforced.

Even after all the stadium restrictions, Tidwell caught COVID - but still had a job to do. She watched the team play in her room and continued to write her stories.

“I wrote stories while I was sick, I covered the Purdue game and another game as well,” Tidwell said. “The team ending up getting COVID during my second week of quarantine so there was nothing going on because the team was also sick at the time.”

Forming personal bonds with athletes and coaches was another challenge for both beat writers. Normally, beat writers get to attend practices, talk more informally to the coaches and players, and develop critical professional relationships.

“It sucked, because I really wanted (Coach Tom) Izzo to know my face,” Tidwell said. “Same with the players, I wanted to be able to go up to them and they’re like, ‘Hi Sara’, rather than someone introducing me like, ‘O.K., here’s Sara from The State News’.”

Interview sessions were all on Zoom, to limit spreading the virus, meaning the media were not able to do the usual in-person interviews or roam around in locker rooms to chat. 

“I wanted to have a more personal connection because if I did, I feel like I could have gone deeper into my stories,” Tidwell said. “I would be able to pull them aside and sit down and have a conversation with them and not be limited to one question and get a 30-second answer or sometimes less than that even.” 

Tidwell said the hardest part about the Zoom interviews sometimes were the answers from the athletes.

“”I don’t know’, they would just say that,” Tidwell said. She felt as if Zoom made doing interviews a chore rather than something enjoyed by the participants.

And being on Zoom also meant being chained to a laptop, both for class and for reporting.

“I feel it definitely took some time to adjust to; I hate being on my computer all day,” Tidwell said.

Adjusting to covering sports during the pandemic

Adjusting to covering the basketball team was a challenge at the beginning of the season for both juniors, but they used their love of sports to fuel them to keep pushing and persevering. 

“It took some time to adjust to just staring at the screen constantly watching games, watching stats and emailing people,” Tidwell said. “But once we were able to go to games in person in the stadium, it got a little easier and it was worth it.” 

Being able to start attending games again gave both writers the push they needed. The feeling of leaving the house to go cover a game was all the motivation Bardahl needed to keep writing.

“I struggled with COVID before that season just because I felt like my life was so repetitive and I wasn’t leaving my house ever,” Bardahl said.

Bardahl finally felt she had responsibility and accountability, she had to be somewhere to cover a game and loved that feeling. 

“I really enjoyed going to the games,” Bardahl said. “I will get ready three hours before the game just because I was so excited to have a place to go where I would do work and so that kind of motivated me to keep covering it.” 

Once Tidwell began attending games in person, everything made more sense, she was able to keep “flaming the flames”.

“I push myself; sports have always been something I’ve wanted to do so I always keep it close to my heart,” Tidwell said. “Living it out is definitely unmatchable and the adrenaline rush you get from going to sports games and being able to talk to players, coaches and fans afterwards is worth it.”

Before COVID, both writers showed up a little early before the game kicked off to network with other reporters, have dinner at the stadium, among other things. But with all the restriction’s things are much different - but they’re thankful for the little normalcy they had at the end.

“Pre-COVID I used to arrive at the game 30 minutes before the game started to prepare, '' Tidwell said. “Now I leave one hour before because I have to do a screening, setup and all the other stuff.”

Positives of covering sports during the pandemic and what’s next

Although it was a tough road, Bardahl and Tidwell were able to find some positive outcomes in the adversity they were faced with while writing stories.

“The experiences I got and learning how to do completely remote work has been really been the most helpful thing I’ve gotten out of covering sports during COVID and that will be really helpful in the future,” Tidwell said.

Bardahl agreed that this has been a challenging time for all reporters, but also said there was some good to come out of it career-wise for a lot of young journalists.

“I think all of us reporters and journalists had a really cool opportunity to get really good stories out of this pandemic,” Bardahl said. “Especially since we’re so young this is experience; we will need when we’re applying to internships.” 

“I’m proud of all the work I’ve done in the past year. I think all of us should be proud of ourselves for continuing to cover things during the pandemic. I think it will help us a lot in the future.” 

And the hard work is paying off for both juniors this summer. Bardahl locked in a summer internship in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Tidwell is going to the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

“I consider the State News a jumping point and I’m just really excited,” Tidwell said. “I’ve been at this jumping point for two years now and I’m just ready to jump to the next point.”

Bardahl and Tidwell are also excited for their last year working for the State News. They have hope that there will be some type of normalcy when they go out and cover games, something both juniors are looking forward to in the fall. 

“I’m excited to kind of cover that aftermath and see how the semester goes and how MSU deals with it,” Bardahl said. “I'm interested to see how the 75% in person will work.”

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