(WEHT) — You see Tom Llamas every weekend anchoring ABC’s World News Tonight.
More and more people are now turning to his newscast during the pandemic.
Why is that? How has the pandemic changed his job?
Eyewitness News’ Brandon Bartlett talked one-on-one with Llamas to find out.
Brandon Bartlett: Tom Llamas joins us now from New York. Tom, thanks for taking some time to talk to us tonight. The Coronavirus pandemic has changed all of our lives in so many ways. How has it changed your daily job?
Tom Llamas: Well, for one, I’m coming to you live right now from my living room, so this is not the World News Set, as you could probably tell. Little things like that. I mean, for me personally, it’s taken sort of a different toll. I have three small kids here. We live in Manhattan. Early on in this pandemic we, me and my wife realized that this was not gonna be the best place for little kids at this moment. Luckily, we have family that lives in other parts of the country. We were able to sort of travel down before things got really heated and my family right now is living away from me. My wife is with my three kids, and I’m up here working. Sometimes when I have days off, I can go down and see them, but it’s definitely been difficult. There was about a month, a month and a half there where I wasn’t able to see them, so that’s taken a toll. You walk around New York, everyone’s wearing a mask. We go to do our newscast, World News Tonight, on the weekends, during the week, the studio is empty. Basically, just one producer is there in the studio with me, our floor director and essentially that’s it. So things like that, you know, obviously cooking a lot more at home like other people, you go to the grocery stores, long lines. And then you know, day in day out reporting the story, especially in the beginning, was emotionally incredibly hard because I mean, when you think about some of the numbers of the amount of people that were dying, and you know, those are human lives, those are families behind those numbers, and speaking to the nurses, the doctors, every single day nurses and doctors would tell me, this is like nothing I’ve ever seen before and some of these doctors were here on 9/11. Some of these doctors had been in trauma situations overseas. We were seeing things like hospitals being set up in Central Park, things you would never see before: The Comfort sailing into New York Harbor across Lady Liberty, things like that you’ll never forget. So it’s definitely been a new world. It’s definitely been one of the stories that I’ve covered that has taken the most professionally and personally, toll on me just because it is so difficult to cover. You’re dealing with all this stuff, you know, people who have either had COVID-19, have had serious complications, and some cases have died from COVID-19. So it’s tough and it’s ongoing, and it’s been ongoing for at least two to three months.
Brandon Bartlett: It would be tough. Well, let’s talk about the importance of journalism. Right now, viewers are obviously turning to World News Tonight to try to understand the world we live in right now. What process do you and your team go through in deciding what needs to go on the air each night?
Tom Llamas: You know, it’s a great question. At ABC News, our mantra is straightforward news. We want to basically give people the information- we want to inform you, we want to empower you, we want to inspire you. We try to do that throughout the newscast. And how do we do that? Well, in that first block, you’re going to get the most important news, what you need to know, where do we stand right now with the amount of people infected? Where do we stand now with the amount of people that have died from this deadly disease? What is reopening, what’s not reopening and why? Where are we on vaccines, on medication, on new illnesses popping up? So many families interested in this new illness that’s affecting children here in New York and other parts of the country. In that second block, now we’re trying to give you other news that you may want to know about the world, about the country, things that are happening. Early on in the pandemic, we were doing a lot of stuff with Dr. Jen Ashton and we still do on certain days. And then at the end, you know, we want to give you those stories to give you a little bit of hope. We want to give you the stories of those nurses that haven’t given up, we want to give you the stories of the doctors who are married and they’re both in the ER and they’ve sent their kids away, and now they’ve reunited with their families. At seven o’clock here in New York and all over the country, celebrating those healthcare heroes. So there’s a lot to think about. But I think the audience right now is following the news so closely that it’s important we give the information they can use immediately. And we have to make sure we’re up to speed with our numbers and with our information, because people are turning to us to really learn and understand what’s going on.
Brandon Bartlett: What is your goal when you sit down in that anchor chair? What goes through your mind? And what do you want your viewers to get out of your broadcast?
Tom Llamas: You know, I want to inform them, I want to make sure I can keep their attention. I want to make sure we’re giving them the latest information in a concise way. I want to make sure we’re connecting with them. And the way we do that is with the stories, is hearing from these parents, hearing from these doctors, hearing from these family members affected with COVID-19 in some cases, hearing from the people who’ve recovered from COVID-19 to to see what we can learn from them. I think the storytelling is very important here. I think the images we show to our viewers has to also be very important, we also have to be careful. And I think we have a responsibility, right to inform the viewers and to make sure that that is our only goal: to figure out what’s happening at this moment right now and give as much information, as much facts, as much truth as we can in our newscast. And that’s what we really try to go for when we’re formulating sort of the rundown of what you’re going to see on World News Tonight, we think about the different aspects. Is there a story that affects families? Is there a story that affects you know, the middle and the western part of the country, the southern parts of the country? What’s happening in the Midwest? Are we making sure all of our viewers are getting a full picture of how COVID-19 is affecting the United States? And of course, we’ve done a lot of reporting on New York and the tri state because this area was hit so hard.
Brandon Bartlett: When you’re not anchoring, most nights, you’re the lead reporter and covering the top story of the day with the news changing almost by the minute, how difficult has it been covering the pandemic?
Tom Llamas: We’re news, so we’re trying to find you know, every new angle of the story. You know, it’s more difficult. As far as logistics go, we work with the same exact crew every day, I work for the same producer every day. We’re very careful. We’re all using hand sanitizers. We all wear masks around each other, it’s become so normal now that I’ve been working with the same crew now for two months. And I don’t even notice the masks anymore, even though we’re wearing them because I’m so used to seeing everybody in the masks. You know, every time we’re going to interview somebody, we did a story at a testing site in Manhattan. And we were going to be interviewing people that possibly were either positive with COVID-19, or they tested positive for the antibodies. And you know, we have a conversation we say, is everyone comfortable doing this? We’re going to stay six feet apart, we’re not going to get close to the people we’re talking to. We’re going to give as much space and time to those people, those patients as they need because they you know, maybe they want to share their stories, but they’re at times, you know, a little concerned. We want to talk them through everything. The same with the doctors. I mean, there are doctors like for instance, last night we spoke to a pediatrician. A doctor who was helping out looking at some of these new cases, this mysterious illness, it looks like Kawasaki syndrome. And we were trying to interview her and she said, Listen, guys, I’m so busy right now, can we do this via Skype instead of in person? We were going to talk to her at the bottom of the hospital. And we said, Sure, no problem. We’ll talk to you. If you’re so busy that you need to Skype with us and you can give us five minutes, we’ll take it because we know whatever information you’re going to have is going to be so pertinent and so up to the minute and we learned something new in that interview. She told us Kawasaki disease usually affects kids under five years old. We’re talking about sort of that toxic shock syndrome. Some children have been affected. What we’re seeing now with this strange illness is that it’s affecting kids that are a little bit older, even younger adults, but it resembles Kawasaki disease.
Brandon Bartlett: Wow. I want to ask and you talked about this a little bit. You live and work in New York City, the hotspot for the coronavirus and the United States. It’s changed New York City a lot. What has that been like and what is it like there right now?
Tom Llamas: It’s a lot more empty. I mean, you go out at six o’clock and the streets are empty. There’s not a lot of traffic. Sometimes, you know, you have to get in the car because we’re traveling around the city, you get into an Uber or Lyft and the entire sort of front of the car where the driver’s driving and the passenger is wrapped in plastic. So there’s a plastic barrier in between the passengers in the backseat and the driver. So many restaurants, businesses that we loved are closed. In our neighborhood, you’ll run into some of the business owners and you can see the desperation on their face. They’re concerned, they’re trying to figure out ways they can reopen. Everyone’s wearing masks for the most part. Central Park on a nice day is full. Interestingly, and this may have worked out for the stay at home orders, the weather has been really bad in New York so people have sort of been forced to stay home but anytime there’s a break in that weather, Central Park is so full like in some areas, you can’t even see the grass there are so many people so you notice that but look most families I know, people who had family outside the the the city have left, they’re living away from the city right now. Some families are returning, other people decided to kind of ride it out here and see what would happen. But I think a lot of New Yorkers are definitely going stir crazy that that is without a doubt. And everybody just they want a solution.
Brandon Bartlett: My final question to you: as a journalist, you get to see and experience things that many other people don’t. What is one thing you’ve seen while covering this pandemic that you’ll never forget?
Tom Llamas: You know, I think I’ll never forget the doctors and nurses because you have to understand from day one, they told us this is like something we’ve never seen before and yet day in and day out, they went into those emergency rooms, into those intensive care units, they applied those ventilators, you know, which is one of the most dangerous jobs in the medical industry right now because of the contamination, and they never gave up and you could see how tired they were when we would interview them. You could see they were putting their lives on the line. They had to be fully clothed in that PPE, the face shields, sweating and working for hours upon hours and they’d never gave up and they’re still going and they never once even said this is too much, you know, they just kept doing their job. And they kept working harder. And I was always inspired by them because we would talk to them. They would get emotional talking about their team when they had no idea the entire country was emotional, just witnessing them do their job day in, day out.
Brandon Bartlett: That would be inspiring. Tom Llamas in New York, thanks for joining us tonight. I appreciate it.