Who’s on Watch? Q&A with BGA Reporter Madison Hopkins
Tell folks about your pre-coronavirus work for the BGA.
During my normal life at the BGA, I am an investigative reporter. I joined the team in October 2016, just a few weeks after I finished graduate school. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to participate in some of the largest investigative projects the BGA has taken on during that time, including a series on the oversight of nuclear power in Illinois, and Chicago’s worst-in-the-nation recycling rate, as well as other short-term stories.
I also serve as BGA’s unofficial staff photographer. I took on this role a few years ago because I’ve always had a passion for photography, and taking photos for other BGA projects gives me the opportunity to help out our team while growing as a reporter. When I go out with one of the other reporters to shoot photos for their stories, I not only get to watch them in action and learn from their strategies, but I’m also exposed to so many more topics and issues than I could ever encounter while only working on my own projects.
How are you doing things differently in light of the pandemic?
Like the rest of the world, the BGA has had to adjust to a new normal since the pandemic hit. Luckily, investigative reporting is a field that can be somewhat easily transitioned to a remote work environment. We still have FOIA requests to review, data to analyze, and interviews to conduct – although those are now mostly done over the phone or video conference. As for how we are adapting as a group, I’d have to say that we’ve handled the change surprisingly well. It seems as though somehow our team in the investigations department has managed to check in with each other more often than when we were all sitting in the same room. We now have a daily quick video call to say good morning, talk over stories, and most importantly, show off our new Zoom virtual backgrounds (my favorite one is Hogwarts).
And while we’ve temporarily sidelined many of our ongoing projects to shift focus to COVID-19 coverage, I think our entire team is happy to make that small sacrifice. I can only speak for myself, but as a journalist, I feel a pull to help in any way I can. I’m eager to dive into the issues surrounding coronavirus, which will be hands down the biggest story of the year, if not of our entire generation. At the BGA, we’re in a great position because we’re allowed the time to go deep on some of the aspects of this issue that are not as easily recognizable, and I’m sure we’ll be investigating the effects of this pandemic for a long time to come.
Meanwhile, I’ve also spent much of the last couple weeks venturing out into the world with my colleagues to take photos to accompany their impressive work. There are some obvious differences at these shoots compared to what we were used to just a few months ago. We now wear gloves and masks, use elbows to open doors, and before ever going out, we have serious discussions with our editors to determine if the photos are worth the risks of leaving home, and how we can get the shots in safe and efficient ways.
But there are other aspects of COVID-19 photojournalism that I’ve found to be unexpected and intriguing. For example, while I would have thought taking someone’s photo while half their face is hidden by a mask would diminish the picture, it turns out that the opposite is true. I’ve really enjoyed the difficult challenge of trying to capture a moment or a feeling through just a subject’s eyes and the environmental context.
What are you looking for in how governments respond to COVID-19?
What I expect from the government hasn’t really changed from my pre-coronavirus opinions. I view transparency, consistency and well-informed decisions as key indicators of strong leadership. I’ve also been interested in following how our local and state governments are managing to get the word out to residents about changes in restrictions or updates on the overall pandemic. So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by their efforts – but like any reporter, I’ll withhold my final judgement until I can really check things out.
What government responses to COVID-19 have surprised you? Which ones haven't?
I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed in the lack of cohesive guidance for the country on how to handle this crisis. I worry that without a clear top-down message on the importance of social distancing and the dangers of coronavirus, many Americans might not be taking this disease as seriously as we need to come together as a country and protect each other.
One thing that has surprised me is Lori Lightfoot’s sense of humor and its effectiveness at informing Chicago residents. I have many friends in their mid and late-20s that have told me they knew very little about the rules of social distancing before they saw her viral videos and the community-created memes.
I live fairly close to the mayor and I’ll sometimes walk past her house with my dog, Brady (who I recently bought a “BGA Watchdog” bandana for just so I would feel like I still had a coworker nearby). In the front window of the mayor’s house, there is a sign that looks like it was drawn by her daughter reminding people to “Stay Home, Save Lives.” To be clear, the BGA will always be keeping a close and unbiased eye on the mayor and her actions, but as a citizen and neighbor I enjoy seeing her family reach out to our neighborhood and be a part of our community during such a frightening time.
Who are you most worried about during this outbreak?
A few days ago, I tried to actually write out a list of all of the people and things that I’m worried about during the pandemic because I thought somehow that would make me less anxious. Spoiler alert – it did not have the intended effect and I don’t recommend it. I kept adding to the list until I realized that it would be easier to just cross off the page and write “EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING” in all caps across the top.
But to sum it up, I’m of course deeply concerned about those who are sick, our healthcare providers, essential workers, and the loved ones of those who have died. I’m stressed about the financial impact this will have on so many people. I feel for the children who are missing their friends at school, and those who don’t have the technology at home to keep up on their classwork. And I worry everyday about my parents who are in their early 60s and luckily are very healthy, but live in California and don’t have any other family around to take care of them if they were to fall ill.
I also often find myself thinking about my peers in journalism, particularly those at newspapers and radio stations that produce daily content and cover breaking news. They are the ones that don’t have the luxury we do at the BGA to greatly limit the time we spend reporting in the field during the pandemic. They are also the ones who are bringing us the critical updates on how our community is fairing in real time, and any new guidance on how we can keep ourselves and our families safe. I am very grateful to these reporters and I hope that others are too.
As the BGA adapts to the growing challenges facing our community. We want to make sure we are covering the stories that matter most to you. If you have questions about the government's response to the outbreak, visit the "What The Gov?" section of the website. You ask. We investigate.
Madison Hopkins is an investigator for the Better Government Association. She received her master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in August 2016. During her time at school, she worked as a research assistant for the Chicago Tribune in the investigative department and contributed to reporting projects at the Invisible Institute and WBEZ.