Zara King: ‘You can never get used to that level of death and grief’
IMAGE chats with broadcast journalist Zara King about Covid, becoming a social media stalwart, and asking the questions that the people of Ireland want to know
Sitting down to chat with Zara King, my mind immediately casts back to the beginning of the year. Zara, a journalist with Virgin Media News, was among the faces on our screen informing us of a new and potentially deadly virus that was making its way across Europe. Did she ever expect that things would come to this point?
“The night the first case was confirmed on the 29th of February, I was actually in my pyjamas on the couch,” she says. “We got an email to say the first case of Covid had been confirmed, that there was going to be an emergency press conference within a half an hour, and I had to run upstairs and get dressed and get back into town for it.
I think at that point, I was just kind of running on adrenaline. I had no idea what was to come. I don’t think any of us could have anticipated it.”
And none of us did. Since that fateful day in February, Ireland has seen over 50,000 cases of Covid-19, almost 2000 deaths from the virus, two national lockdowns, mass job loss, and a complete reimagining of how we work, socialise and interact.
While the majority of us have been muddling through, Zara has been smack dab in the middle of it, reporting on the pandemic daily for Virgin Media News. She, along with her fellow reporters Richard Chambers and Gavan Reilly, have ridden the relentless wave of Covid-19, posting up-to-the-minute information on their Twitter and Instagram profiles, as well as reporting live on television.
As a result, the trio have amassed a collective following of almost 235,000 on Twitter, becoming firm fan favourites on the platform. To many people, they have becomes the face of the pandemic – the source of their daily Covid updates, providing factual information that cuts through a sea of, for want of a better term, ‘fake news’.
So, what’s the secret to her soaring popularity? Zara laughs, as she tells me she has no idea. “Richard and Gavan were always more active than me on Twitter – before the pandemic, I really wasn’t great at it. But I’ve always been committed to engaging with people, and from the get-go, I wanted to get a feel for how people were feeling, what they were doing.
I think it comes down to families gathering around the TV to watch the news, and then being hungry for more information when it’s over. I’m very lucky that they come to me to get it. At this point, we’re committed to informing people as much as we can – we’re constantly refreshing our phones, waiting for numbers to drop, waiting for new clips or information, so we can send it out.”
“Who else is asking?”
Zara’s following is such that she has begun to represent a new and unique kind of journalist – one with a real rapport with her followers. Zara’s inbox is ‘overflowing’ with messages from news viewers, suggesting questions that they may be embarrassed to ask elsewhere. But, according to Zara, there’s no such thing as a stupid question.
“I may have been laughed at for questioning the Taoiseach on when hairdressers and salons would be able to reopen at the beginning of the pandemic, but that’s what people wanted to know,” she explained.
“I think people appreciate being represented and feeling like the questions they wanted answers to, were finally being asked. At the end of the day, the main function of my job is to be that line between people and those in positions of power, and asking questions like that is what I get paid to do.”
As lockdown measures were eased across the country, many women spoke out about feeling left behind with maternity services remaining restricted. Zara received messages from women around the country who had been affected, including a woman who had suffered two miscarriages during lockdown. “I can’t imagine going through what she went through. If I’m sitting at the press briefing every week, I have an opportunity to ask for people in positions of power to be accountable for why these women have to go through this alone. It would be remiss of me not to use that opportunity to get those answers for those women; because who else is asking?”
Zara’s dedication to her role in the pandemic is admirable, but with such dedication must come an impact on her mental health.
Relentless negative updates have affected all of our mental wellbeing – how can you cope when you’re the one reporting it? “It absolutely is hard”, Zara says. “I don’t know if any of us could have anticipated the devastation that came in terms of the high volume of people who died in the pandemic.
When things were at their worst earlier this year, I remember being handed an update before going on air that 77 people had died. My thoughts immediately went to their families, how awful it was, and it was tough to stop myself crying on camera. I’ve gotten used to the whole ‘new normal’ to an extent, but you can never get used to that level of death and grief.
On the personal side, I’m in the same boat as a lot of people – I find it hard to switch off because of my job, and I really miss my family. I’m an only child and am very close to my parents, but I probably won’t see them again before Christmas. That’s been very tough, but I’m just getting through it as best I can, like everyone. I’m so conscious of those who have lost loved ones, or their jobs, and have been impacted heavily by all this. In the scheme of things, I’m very lucky”.
“I’m a girl’s girl”
Zara’s passion for doing right by the people of Ireland is palpable, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Every evening as I scroll through Twitter, there are women of all ages and backgrounds singing Zara’s praises – from her questions right down to her own hair and make-up.
It’s so rare for a woman on television to be universally loved, that I feel awkward asking Zara about her beauty routine – it feels like a reductive question to ask a female journalist. But Zara is delighted to divulge.
“I love it!”, she laughs. “When there’s so much happening, someone sending me a message asking about how I do my smoky eye is a shred of joy in the middle of what can otherwise be a really heavy day.”
“I’ve always been a real girl’s girl,” she says. “I’ve always had this rapport with women, and it’s amazing to receive such lovely messages from them. I feel lucky that the vast majority of people seem to be positive, and for them to take the time to send a message, even if it’s just a sentence, is unbelievably nice.
Not everyone is going to love you and that is completely fine. You have to take constructive criticism, and I’m always willing to be open to being corrected. Everyone has their own opinion, but the fact that they take the time out to message me and say something nice, is really special.”
Asking Zara what’s next feels like a silly question – if she had only known what was coming down the line back on that night in February. But, as always, she’s doing her best to represent the people. “I’m working on a new documentary that is going to air on Virgin Media at the beginning of December”, she reveals. “It’s my first time filming a documentary for TV, and I’m really excited for it to be seen.”
And the subject? You can probably guess. “Covid has completely taken over our lives this year, so with this show, I wanted to hear from people who’ve been directly affected – not just those who have become sick or lost someone – but other people too, like those whose businesses were impacted.
This, for me, is getting back to the part of the job I love the most, chatting with people about what’s going on in their lives and what’s bothering them. Sure, it’s a bit different now – we’re having our cups of tea out the back garden with our masks on,” she laughs. “But for people to have this opportunity to reflect on what this year has brought to us all, and to hear people’s stories, is what it’s all about”.