Columbia Journalism Review

The Essentials

On Friday the thirteenth of March, Lourdes Torres, the senior vice president of political coverage at Univision News, traveled from Miami to Washington, DC. Her team was to cohost, along with CNN, the first virtual presidential debate in United States history. Nearly two thousand Americans had already tested positive for the novel coronavirus; more than forty had died. In a matter of days, the debate’s organizers had decided to move the event from a large theater in downtown Phoenix to a television studio in the nation’s capital. There would be no crowd in the room—no raucous cheers or applause, no in-person audience questions. The two Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, would have to stand six feet from each other. The moderators would need to account for the public’s sense of fear and doubt over the spread of COVID-19. This was to be a defining event in the election, and a test with no precedent for everyone involved. “I left Miami that day feeling as if a hurricane was coming our way,” Torres said.

Florida was still weeks from a lockdown, but people were beginning to worry about stocking up their pantries and filling up their gas tanks. Having worked at Univision for nearly three decades, Torres soon realized that COVID-19 would be the single most disruptive story of her career. Fifty-nine and born in Cuba, with shoulder-length auburn hair and a slight gap between her front teeth, she is a behind-the-camera person, but the decisions she makes on set are always visible. Her staff looks to her for everything from story planning to conflict resolution. “When you’re dealing with an emergency situation such as this one, you’re not thinking about strategizing or about what needs to be done the following month,” Torres said. “You basically go into survival mode.”

The week before the debate, Jorge Ramos, Univision’s biggest star, had to drop out as host—he was worried he’d been exposed to someone with COVID-19—and Ilia Calderón, another anchor at the network, took his place. Univision banned all nonessential travel; in order to fly to Washington, Torres had to request a waiver from her supervisor for herself and four others—a small delegation compared to the multitude who awaited them at CNN. When she got in a taxi at Reagan National Airport, she asked her driver how he was coping with the crisis. He replied

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