Skip to main content

How WTTW News Tried to Make Sense of 2020

Julia Maish
Protesters confront a line of police officers at State and 35th streets, about 3 miles south of the Loop, where police set up a blockade. (Evan Garcia / WTTW News)
Protesters confront a line of police officers at State and 35th streets on May 31, during protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo: Evan Garcia / WTTW News

Making Sense of 2020 airs Tuesday, December 1 at 7:30 pm and will be available to stream. 

2020 has been a year unlike any other in memory, with a worldwide pandemic, a recession, racial reckoning, and a presidential election. As COVID-19 turned everyday life upside down, Chicagoans were left with more questions than answers, and WTTW News had to innovate as they tried to provide them. News Director Hugo Balta, Senior Supervising Producer Jay Smith, and Senior Line Producer Crystin Immel look back on the year and its challenges, while documentary producer Daniel Andries reveals how he went about Making Sense of 2020. The new documentary follows this tumultuous year and WTTW News' coverage and response to it. 

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you learn about Chicago and Chicagoans in 2020? 

Hugo Balta: I discovered how resilient Chicagoans are. No matter what 2020 threw at the community, courageous men and women picked themselves up, rolled up their sleeves, and persevered.

What role do you think WTTW News plays during turbulent times such as these?

Balta: Our role now is the same as it has always been to produce fair and accurate coverage reflective and inclusive of the public it serves. In a situation where Chicagoans are overwhelmed with seemingly overlapping emergencies, WTTW News helps them make sense of it all with trustworthy reporting.

You made the decision to send WTTW News out to different neighborhoods throughout the spring. What challenges and opportunities did that present?

Balta: In telling the COVID-19 story, clearly it was imperative to go into Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods to hear directly from them, especially when it came to disparities in access to vital resources. We then had to figure out how to do it while keeping our teams healthy and safe especially in covering the unrest in response to the death of George Floyd. But the opportunities this approach gave us to help build bridges between communities outweighed any challenges we faced.

Jay Smith: I think that being live from a different local community each night allowed us to give our audience an invaluable look at how their neighbors were dealing with everything they were facing.

What changes did you make to the WTTW News operation to ensure that everyone, guests included, would be safe?

Crystin Immel: Toward the end of March we made the decision to ban guests from the studio, which meant doing all of our interviews via Zoom. We had used similar technology a few times before, but never on a nightly basis! At the same time, we set up the majority of our broadcast and digital staff to work remotely. This had the added benefit of keeping our show hosts Brandis Friedman and Paris Schutz separated, so that if one were to get sick, the other would still be able to serve our viewers. 

Smith: Brandis reported from the studio each night and Paris co-anchored the show from the field. Our crew was very careful to wear masks and social distance while reporting, and to constantly clean and sanitize all the equipment we were using.

What were the most important ways that WTTW News met the public’s need for trusted and timely information during 2020?

Immel: We expanded our coverage online to seven days a week as well as adding two weekend programs, and regularly brought on public health officials and other medical professionals to provide updates on COVID-19, as well as business owners and employees to address the economic impact of the virus.

Smith: In addition to covering the pandemic, of course 2020 was an election year. Our WTTW News Voter Guide was a great resource, enabling voters to hear from candidates in their own words.

Looking back, was there a story covered by WTTW News that best captures 2020 in Chicago?

Immel: A story that I think represented the best of 2020: a mother and son who used their 3D printer to make face shields, sharing the instructions online for others to do the same. An Oak Park resident who saw the story created a group called the “Noble Army,” and they’ve distributed thousands of free face shields to healthcare workers. 

How did you decide which stories to highlight in Making Sense of 2020?

Daniel Andries: I wanted our audience to be reminded of how our team’s on-the-ground reporting was vital in helping us make sense of what was happening. Some of what they uncovered was shocking: the CEO of Roseland Community Hospital revealing the record numbers of African-Americans patients dying, having received none of the drugs they needed. A Little Village alderman tearfully apologizing for approving the destruction of a smokestack that sent toxic debris into his neighborhood. An audio recording (shared thanks to reporter Heather Cherone) of a profanity-laden showdown between Mayor Lightfoot and aldermen grappling with citywide violence and destruction. But I also wanted to point up some creative and life-affirming stories, such as artists taking their work directly to citizens’ yards. 

Aside from the people viewers are used to seeing on Chicago Tonight, who will they get to know in this special? 

Andries: They will meet the behind-the-scenes team that brings them the news, , from Chicago Tonight to Chicago Tonight: The Week in Review to Latino Voices and Black Voices, as well as the people behind the website. People like producer Quinn Myers, who covered the neighborhoods with Paris. And Chicago Tonight’s line producer Nicole Cardos, who reported from North Lawndale during the protests. And Rebecca Palmore, WTTW News website editor. And ground reporters who did incredible work 24/7, as protests led to National Guard troops mobilized in the streets. 

What do you hope viewers take away from this look back at the year?

Andries: 2020 is a year that defies understanding. COVID-19 dominated our behavior, the long-overdue racial reckoning continues, and the presidential election has been mind-bending. Communities around the city did their very best to help each other stay healthy, stay fed. Our activists and community organizers walked a fine line between outrage and leadership, pointing the way to greater equity for everyone. And the record number of early and mail-in voters and the crowds who turned out peacefully on election day showed that in Chicago, democracy is still very much alive and well.