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Melissa Greene-Blye: 'We can survive 6 to 8 hours in a mask'

Melissa Greene-BlyeAs a newly hired faculty member, Professor Melissa Greene-Blye takes an interesting perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic at the University of Kansas. Upon starting at KU, Greene-Blye was worried that the university would have to close two weeks into the semester. Luckily, her students from KUJH have been mindful when they come into the studio because they do know that it is a privilege to still produce shows in person. Because of Zoom, she says  they were able to reach more sources who might not have been pursued originally.

The KUJH team is her only obligation this semester, so she has felt like she has been able to remain more present to her students and provide support to them. However, she does worry about their mental health that comes as a result of the pandemic and the election. On a more personal note, Greene-Byle feels particularly supported by Dean Brill and the other administrators. The Journalism School has had a proactive awareness and initiative to take action during the pandemic. Greene-Blye reminds us that if we remain mindful of the moment, we can benefit from this.


► Listen to the audio version here.


Brenna Dillon: This is Brenna Dillon. Today is Nov. 4, 2020. I’m interviewing Professor Melissa Greene-Blye for the William Allen White School of Journalism Pandemic Oral History Project. Thanks for joining with us. Just to start, going back to March when the pandemic kind of started to pick up, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit, and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Melissa Greene-Blye: OK, so my experience is a little bit interesting because this is my first semester at KU. So when COVID hit, I knew I was coming to KU, but I was still teaching at the University of Tennessee. I was teaching our upper-level broadcast course there and my students and I thought we were just taking an extra week at spring break.

We never got to see one another in person again. So I ended up having a news team that was spread from Australia to Las Vegas to Long Island because those students scattered and went home because they had to move out of campus housing, etc.

So it was very interesting for me because I had already made the decision to come to KU. And COVID started to change a lot of things because many universities started instituting hiring freezes, there was a lot of uncertainty around what impact it would have on university budgets. So being a newly hired faculty, I was just really excited that I did have the chance to come here.

Yeah, so I started really following what was happening at KU through the e-mails that were coming from administration, and from the e-mails and the communication that was coming from administration here at the School of Journalism. I will say I feel like while the university obviously was sending us pretty forthright information about concerns on fiscal impact, administration at the journalism school I felt like continued to be extremely supportive and encouraging about how we’re all in it together.

Brenna Dillon: Wonderful. So how has this semester been different comparing – well obviously you came from a new – a different university, how is -- that been different being here versus at your other university? Um, what were the changes like?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Sure. Well fortunately having that experience in the spring with my University of Tennessee news team really prepared me to be able to jump right in with the KUJH team. Those students that I have this semester unfortunately had their spring semester cut short, so they didn’t have the normal process in the course that proceeds their experience at KUJH.

So they and I had to kind of find where some of those gaps were early in the semester, but they were very anxious to just kind of hit the ground running and start turning out newscasts.

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Greene-Blye:  So it’s been interesting. They have stepped up to the challenge, but it definitely has changed the way we gather news. Obviously we’re doing more Zoom interviews, how we work in the studio in the newsroom because we have to be mindful of distancing as well as being masked. So the only people who are unmasked are anchors and talent who are on the air, and as soon as they finish their segment they have to mask.

In some ways, it’s made news gathering – I don’t know if the word ever in news is easier, but we can access sources we might not otherwise pursue because you can access them via Zoom and that’s acceptable, whereas in a traditional news environment we’re going to prioritize those in-person interviews and that kind of thing.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah, to allow for more accessibility, I guess.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Well right, and just more local emphasis in our coverage.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah, that’s great. Um, what has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Melissa Greene-Blye: I – the flipside of that is it is harder to get people who want to do in-person interviews. Obviously we’re home to a large pool of experts on many topics, but the majority of them are not on campus these days so you can’t just say, “Oh, Doctor So-and-so, can I come interview you about climate change?” Well Doctor So-and-so is probably working from home and may or may not want one more Zoom in his or her day.

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Greene-Blye: So I think the challenge is for the students -- has just been balancing the rest of their COVID experience with the demands of being in a newsroom, but I see them doing that really well. And of course we had this election year during a pandemic and we still had a, I will say, highly successful election night with a team of 25 to 30 student journalists here with KUJH and the Kansan. And it still had that kind of fun camaraderie about it.

But you hear a lot of talk about the mental health and, and, and the stress around the pandemic and the election, and to the point where many colleagues were posting on social media, “What are you doing to help your students deal with the election?” And I was like, “My students will be in the newsroom all night long and back the next day.”

So what I see my team doing is in some ways the work I think is helping them through that.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah.

Melissa Greene-Blye: And maybe it’s providing a sense of normalcy.

Brenna Dillon: Definitely, yeah.

Melissa Greene-Blye: You know, for them the big stressors come after the work, which is trying to line up capstones is very challenging right now because stations are not allowing students in to do internships. They’re not letting students in for these capstone experiences. So this – this group of students and probably the group that comes behind them is going to have to get creative in how they’re going to be able to fulfill that requirement potentially virtually or remotely. And that’s a very real challenge not to mention, you know, trying to be out on the job market -

Brenna Dillon: Definitely, yeah.

Melissa Greene-Blye: - in, in these circumstances.

Brenna Dillon: Yes.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Yeah.

Brenna Dillon: OK. Ah, how has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Oh, that’s interesting. I – every semester I feel like I’m trying to get my feet under me. And this semester is slowing me down and I’m still not always sure I have my feet under me. This semester is unusual because, since it’s my first semester at KU, I only have the one class to focus on. Spring will bring a new challenge because I’ll have two classes, and, you know, my research obligations.

This semester has been great because I have been able to focus on this group of students in this moment as I’m learning a new institution and a new studio and a new newsroom it’s been really nice to have just this, this core group of eight students that I can really, I hope they feel like and would agree, invest in. Um -

Brenna Dillon: Yeah, I’m sure they appreciate that.

Melissa Greene-Blye: - in that – in this moment. So -

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm, definitely. How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time, and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Boy, is it my perspective? Is that -

Brenna Dillon: Perception.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Perception?

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Well, again, when this started in mid-March we thought we were just taking a week break. You know, two weeks seem to be this magic number. Everybody leaves for two weeks and will come back and everything will resume normally.

I think even after the six week kind of shutdown it was like, “OK, anybody can get through six weeks of kind of being at home and eating at home.”

And I kind of actually enjoyed not having that pressure of going out and doing things, you know? It was kind of nice because my family was at home, we’re all working at home, we’re doing school at home and I kind of enjoyed that, but none of us dreamed we’d still be doing it, you know, seven and eight months later.

I feel like as far as like emotionally, it really has not been that challenging for me. I do see where the fatigue factor starts to set in, especially as we look at the, you know, possibility of more lockdown, shutdowns in this kind of secondary third wave. I do see where some people just kind of give up and say, “You know what? It’s inevitable. I’m going to get it.

I’m just not going to go over the top to – you know, I’ll do the minimum to protect myself,” but in the beginning we were all extremely mindful of everything, and it’s very hard to maintain that state of hypervigilance. Yes, if that makes sense.

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm, definitely.

Melissa Greene-Blye: So, so I do – I do sense a little of that fatigue and I see that in the students as well. You know, fortunately they see the opportunity to be in the studio space as a benefit and as a privilege. And so we’re very fortunate that, you know, when we have these groups in the studio they’re all very mindful of understanding that one misstep means we can’t come back.

Brenna Dillon: Yes.

Melissa Greene-Blye: So yeah. So I think that’s what’s kind of helped keep us vigilant.

Brenna Dillon: Good. So to continue about like KUJH, how has the pandemic impacted KUJH?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Again, how we work in the space. We have to be mindful of how many people are in the studio, how many people in the newsroom, mindful of, you know, handwashing, sanitizing, masking. As far as out in the field, I really haven’t heard any of the student journalists feeling like they’ve been limited in the stories they’ve covered. The stories I see them covering are well done.

It probably to some extent has limited them in what they can cover just due to, “Well, I might go cover this, but those businesses are not open,” or having a hard time getting access to locations to do stories. So maybe we’ve relied a little more on B-roll from – you know, we have access to CNN News Source so maybe we’ve had a little bit more of that in a show than we might normally.

Um, but for the most part this team I think has almost seen it as a challenge to prove that we can still do this even in the midst of -- and of course our anchors when you see them on the air have – you’ll see a very thin silver line on screen, and at home you can’t tell, but that’s a Plexiglas barrier between the anchors.

Brenna Dillon: Oh.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Um, yeah, so they’re unmasked but we have a Plexiglas barrier between them -

Brenna Dillon: Great.

Melissa Greene-Blye:  - and that kind of thing. So honestly for the most part I feel like this group of journalists has just continued to move along.

Brenna Dillon: That’s great.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Yeah, honestly. It’s been pretty amazing.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah. So to kind of continue with that, what has it been like to cover the pandemic through these student media organizations like KUJH?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Sure. I’m trying to think. They – we haven’t overly focused on every show having a COVID story, just as we didn’t necessarily focus on every show having an election story heading into the election. I’ve given them a lot of freedom to explore other stories. I think what we’ve kind of talked about is, because there’s not a television station in Lawrence, we have an opportunity to tell stories that maybe aren’t being done. You know, we have to rely on what Topeka is covering, or what Kansas City is covering, and we’re not going to be those stations.

And so they’ve come up with interesting things. Ah, one student did a story about the – I think it’s the Bee Keeping Club at KU.

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Greene-Blye: It was a fantastic story and it was so interesting. Another student did a story. There are some gardens on the KU campus and it’s sort of a – it’s a place where people can go and enjoy time, but it’s also sort of a stopping point, a resting point for monarchs on their migration and so that’s been pretty interesting.

Brenna Dillon: Wow.

Melissa Greene-Blye: So they’ve really kind of sought out almost, I don’t know if I want to say anti-COVID, anti-election because we’ve definitely covered some of those. The things they have covered around COVID have been things that are really relevant to like the university. For example, when they offered the voluntary separation for employees. You know, we turned a story on that.

And when there have been issues and coverage related to some of the Black Lives Matter or social justice protests, we’ve definitely jumped in on that and, and have that coverage.

Brenna Dillon: Great.

Melissa Greene-Blye: So what I see them doing I think is kind of a nice balance of the news of the day with the opportunity to tell really good stories that you might not see somewhere else.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah, a nice balance between it all.

Melissa Greene-Blye: I think so. Yeah, and a recognition that right now we’re a different media outlet and we fill a different niche than these other television markets.

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm. So how has the media’s coverage of the university changed due to the pandemic?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Oh, if we’re talking just campus media, I assume you all will talk with somebody from the Kansan because they’ve done some pretty hard hitting things taking on administration as far as reopening and that kind of thing. By the time the KUJH team came together this fall, because we are situated in an academic course whereas the Kansan is an independent institution, you know, those decisions had already been made.

I do know that we covered, um – there were some incidents of graffiti sprayed on campus about Close KU. There were some die-ins. So we definitely stayed up to date and kept the audience up to date on, you know, some of the concerns amongst the campus community and the larger community about what reopening would mean.

Um, I think we chose as a group not to just do this kind of number count coverage that you see at the network level a lot about number of cases and that kind of thing. I think one of the big stories for them this year was, of course, athletics moved forward. And at one of the games, you know, the house parties that I think we’re sort of seen as a super spreader event.

We definitely took on coverage of that because that, you know, the students are journalists, but they’re also students, and, and I think they understood kind of both sides of that, which is I’m a student and, and I want to be able to have a normal existence, but they also understood the safety issue there, and so what I see them doing is balancing both sides of that in their coverage, but they were right on top of that.

Brenna Dillon: Fascinating.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Yeah. And we have to think about what, what we do, which is we are a visual media, so we really target the stories that we can tell with good interviews and with good visuals.

Brenna Dillon: How do you feel about the School of Journalism’s response to the pandemic? I know that you mentioned it a little bit previously but -

Melissa Greene-Blye: Sure. Well, again, being new I honestly have, um – when I’ve had the opportunity to dialogue with either other new faculty across campus, or in meetings or events with campus community members outside of the journalism school, I have always been able to confidently say I really do feel supported.

I do feel like Dean Brill and the other administrators have been very mindful of checking in with faculty and staff asking us to be mindful of checking in with students, and just to have really sensed a great deal of support for understanding the need to be flexible and also for them giving us the ability to self-determine what that needs to look like.

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Greene-Blye: I’m in a studio class. I wanted to be in the studio because I – the students – it’s hard to replicate that experience remotely. So I at least wanted to get in in-person in case we did have to go remote. Because when we started this semester, that was a very real, you know, what if we get there and in two weeks we have to leave again.

You know, now that seems to have kind of settled in a little bit, but again we don’t know when the spring semester starts where we’ll be, and will that – will that again be kind of hanging over our heads.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah.

Melissa Greene-Blye: You know?

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm. How has the pandemic changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU as a whole?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Wow. I don’t think we know the answer to that yet really, truly because it really depends on, on what aspect of that you want to talk about. Nationwide amongst institutions of higher learning, there’s concern about lower enrollment numbers. There’s concern about budget shortfalls because of tuition shortfalls and, you know, avenues of revenue that normally keep the entire community moving forward have changed -- housing, food, revenue generated through athletics.

So I think those practicalities are things that KU is tracking closely and being very mindful of at the campus-wide administrative level. For the School of Journalism, I don’t know if we know exactly what changes. What I – what I hear and see is the School of Journalism really trying to understand who today’s college student is and how we can position ourselves to be relevant and an attractive major to the students. So how are we connecting what we teach with the reality of students understanding what they can do with those journalism skills in the field of journalism and maybe even beyond?

So I guess what I see here is a very proactive awareness and initiative to be prepared for whatever that post-pandemic environment looks like.

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Greene-Blye: So it will, you know – I guess we won’t know if we’re successful until a little bit down the road because we’re not post-pandemic yet.

Brenna Dillon: Right.

Melissa Greene-Blye: So -

Brenna Dillon: Right.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Yeah, so there’s a lot of guesses out there about what will – you know, will we ever go back to things as they were before. And I suspect some of these habits we’ve picked up during the pandemic will linger.

Brenna Dillon: How do you think KU will be better from everything that has happened?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Wow. Um, well if we’re ever to face a similar challenge – because we’ve truly never faced anything quite like this. You know, we can go back to the -- what is it the 1918 pandemic, you know, but our generations haven’t had to deal with this.

Maybe we will learn to – I don’t know if we’ll – you know, World War II, there was truly a rally around the flag majority mindset. Now there were still, as you know because you’re in history, some voices in opposition to that war, and an opposition to some of the ideals behind why we chose to intervene in World War II and beyond, but for the most part, there was this majority agreement on why we were doing it and what we do.

I don’t know if we’ve seen that around the pandemic so I don’t know if we can say, “Oh, maybe we’ll learn as a country to pull together in hard times.” We kind of have, but we’ve also had division. You know, my hope would be maybe we learn how to better mediate the discourse and, and maybe involvement to an appreciation for the greater good. I don’t know, that sort of thing.

Brenna Dillon: Ah, so last question here for you. Ah, what advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Melissa Greene-Blye: Oh wow. You know, because who knows what technologies we’ll have available at that point. Um, yeah, I think it depends on, you know, what, what seat, what perspective are you experiencing this pandemic from, right? I think it’s -- all of us benefit from being mindful that this is a moment, even though it’s an extremely long moment, and to maybe appreciate some of the lessons we can glean from it versus just the immediate discomfort that we’re having to endure.

On a lighter note, it’s like we’ve all figured out we can survive six to eight hours in a mask. I – you know, I don’t think there’s anybody who looks forward to wearing a mask, and it’s just crazy that we’ve – that it’s become so politicized, right, and that kind of thing.

Um, you know, I would say I hope if we’re even in a similar circumstance, be it a pandemic or similar circumstance, perhaps we can separate the what needs to be done to address the problem from, you know, what’s sort of driving the problem, if that makes sense. That to understand that sometimes it’s not about discourse or politics. It’s about the greater benefit for all of us.

But right now, we are not able to really agree on what is the greater benefit for all of us and that’s hugely problematic.

Brenna Dillon: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Greene-Blye: Yeah.

Brenna Dillon: Well, thank you for your time.

Melissa Greene-Blye: I hope that helps.

Brenna Dillon: Yes. And -

Melissa Greene-Blye:  I’ll be the newbie perspective on how KU has done all of this.

Brenna Dillon: Yes. And so this is the conclusion of this oral history.


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