Politics

Hitting the Wall

Journalists talk about what it’s meant to spend 12 months trying to explain national trauma while trapped inside it.

A row of parked trucks
Refrigeration trucks being used as a temporary morgue are parked outside Bellevue Hospital in New York on April 5. Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

As the world began to shut down, the overarching sentiment was things wouldn’t go on like this: Whether it was the president’s fanciful message about a two-week lockdown or public health experts’ vision of an escalating, focused campaign to beat back the virus, the situation was definitely going to keep changing, somehow. Instead, all the different optimistic visions were replaced by open-ended stasis, immense loss, and extreme isolation. Refrigerated trucks turned into disaster morgues sat on New York street corners last spring, while U-Hauls outside of a local funeral home housed the dead who couldn’t be preserved. Neither cohort could be honored or enshrined by loved ones.

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Though infection rates dipped during a blistering summer, the season was defined by another type of loss. The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor sparked a wave of anti-racism protests calling for an end to the systems that take so many Black lives. The participants in the uprisings were, in turn, subjected to police violence and mass arrests. For weeks in mid-August, the entire West Coast was ablaze, and it was a particularly intense hurricane season. The fall was marked by a plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, mass anxiety about whether the president would leave office if he lost, and caravans of his supporters blocking roadways and chasing buses.

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Trauma often operates like a flat circle, a feeling that was more pronounced in 2020. And covering a string of unceasing traumatic events can be debilitating to one’s morale. I’ve felt this often throughout my career chronicling the impact of racism. It got significantly worse under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic.

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The heroic conception of the journalist is a stoic, emotionless being who lives and breathes the news but stands outside the events themselves. More often than not, we are human beings who are affected, in some way, by the happenings we cover. Many of us have hit the “pandemic wall,” a term popularized by Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway on WNYC/PRX. (Writing this story wore me out, and it took me much longer than I anticipated because, frankly, I’m tired.)

I spoke with a number of journalists, including Vega, about how being a journalist during the pandemic has affected their personal lives and their work. Seven stories are excerpted below. They all spoke for themselves, not for their respective news organizations, and interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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William Richardson Jr., a news producer in Indianapolis

The hardest part for me is trying to reinvent the wheel on how to tell people about COVID-19. There’s frustration in trying to be creative in reintroducing the information. You’re trying to do all that professionally, and then when you come home there are things that you can and can’t do. And for me, somebody who strives to be around people, going out, traveling, and doing things—mentally, it hasn’t been as seamless an adjustment as I thought it would have been.

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I moved in the middle of the pandemic from Jackson, Mississippi, to Indianapolis. I left my entire friend group that I spent three years building to come to a city where I don’t really know anybody. I’ve had to rely on my close support group, my mom, and my dad, who has been out of the country for the past year. Normally I would just pick up the phone to talk to him, but now it’s a coordinated effort. I have to go through Facebook to find out where he is and hope he has a signal. But being able to vent to somebody who isn’t in journalism—and who can say that things will be OK … I’ve needed that reassurance from somebody who’s not in it.

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The vaccines were supposed to be the first step towards progress, but when you’ve been in it for a year it’s kind of hard to agree that this is the light at the end of the tunnel, especially when you’re in a place where people are not getting vaccinated, or choosing not to, or can’t get vaccinated. It’s really hard to see that. And not much has changed for me. I still double mask. I work in person, so I have to go into my TV station, but for the most part, nothing has changed for me. It feels like every day I’m waking up and it’s the same day over and over and over again.

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It’s frustrating when you get calls from people who are upset that you’re still talking about the coronavirus—like we have a choice of talking about anything else. It’s kind of made me reevaluate my career. I love journalism and I love news, but it’s hard to stay neutral about these types of things. It really is. Our job is just to stay objective, tell what we see, and not really stake the flag one way or the other. But it’s really hard to keep doing this every single day.

I’ve had a lot of second guesses about whether this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, specifically because of the pandemic. I have to just kind of bottle up a lot of the emotions that I feel, for the sake of staying professional and staying neutral and not really inserting myself into the story.

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Like when we’re hearing about food banks that are opening and more families having to go there because of the pandemic, it mentally affects me. And there’s not much you can really do right now. The end isn’t really in sight. So you just have to go on with your life as if nothing’s happening. You have this big, overwhelming cloud over you. It’s tough.

Danielle Maya Banks, a features writer for Blavity

I have been on a strict quarantine for 11 months now. That’s been extremely difficult, and being entrenched into the news cycle makes isolation feel that much more apocalyptic.

Last summer, I wrote an open letter to Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old who captured the murder of George Floyd on her phone. At that time, I was teaching high school. So I thought about my students and how they would come to class with crazy stories. And they would tell them matter-of-factly, like “I saw my neighbor stab his mom last night, but I’m good.” I spent a lot of time thinking about the trauma that Black youth carry around.

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Writing about Darnella was very difficult. Then I talked to Oluwatoyin Salau’s friends, so you can imagine the nightmares that I had after that. I did another story on the “nonlethal force” used by police, so we’re talking about rubber bullets, and that sent me down a rabbit hole. I’m looking at human rights laws that are talking about places like Chile, where the police were using rubber bullets to shoot the eyes out of people who were protesting. Police were using rubber bullets to make examples out of protesters and quell any form of resistance. Using them could be a violation of international law.

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If I wasn’t covering this, I would be able to take a step back from it and read my little Octavia Butler books. Those would be an escape, but there really is no escaping it.

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I’m somebody who avoided clips of people getting killed. I didn’t watch the police killing Philando Castile. I didn’t watch the footage of police pulling up on Tamir Rice. I didn’t watch these things because I just don’t have the stomach. After George Floyd got murdered, I made a commitment to watch the clips of Black people being killed when they came up on my timeline. That really took a toll on my mental health, but I felt like I had to do it just to be grounded in what I was reporting on. And I think it was effective, but at what cost?

I’m not doing great, honestly. I had night terrors all summer. It felt like when I closed my eyes, I just saw the things on the news. I struggle with writer’s block. I find myself in some ways less creative because there are certain places I’m just not willing to go to anymore. I try to bring as much imagery as I can to my writing. So I immerse myself in it and, when I say that left me exhausted, I might have an idea for two or three more assignments. And then I just can’t give it. I don’t have anything else to give. That’s been the most profound mark of my exhaustion. It’s robbed me of my creative productivity.

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Ignacio F. Vázquez, a freelance reporter who has worked in Europe, Asia, and the U.S.

I was 8 when my dad died of cancer. And I developed what is considered health anxiety, or hypochondria, that has haunted me all my life. It comes and goes with different levels of severity. When my dad passed away, my way of dealing with it was being silent. I never went to therapy. And at home we didn’t talk about it. It was like I decided to forget him. And throughout the years, I have suffered these hypochondria episodes where I think I’m dying of cancer.

When I was in the U.S. covering the Democratic primaries, I got stuck there due to the pandemic. I started not feeling very well. And then one day I saw a little spot under one of my toenails. I remember this vividly. I was listening to Post Reports. And I went to Google it, and I read that Bob Marley died of melanoma which developed under one of his toenails. So I started going down this rabbit hole. I was soon immobilized. I couldn’t do anything but think that I was going to die.

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Since I’m a freelancer, I didn’t work for three months because I didn’t have the energy. It was really scary, but it made me understand how my work had contributed to this. The stress that I was going through and all the research I was doing for work played a development of the panic attacks.

I was aware of my condition. But now, I see everybody suffering and dealing with what I deal with on a daily basis. When you see people hurting, it makes you think of the things you’ve lost and the things you may lose. The global state of things that makes you introspective. You go back in time and revisit things that you thought you had overcome. But I had never done that work in dealing with the death of such an important figure in my life. Seeing other people in pain, seeing thousands die, or being placed under curfew, or knowing that my family in Spain couldn’t go outside for, like, four months. It was really difficult thinking about the possibility of my mom dying. I’m 25, but I still rely on my mom. Thinking about losing my other parent was really complicated.

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Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway on WNYC/PRX

My son was born at the beginning of the pandemic. I am overjoyed with being a mother. But the support that mothers usually get in normal times—the casseroles that people make for you, or passing around your beautiful baby to your family, Mommy and Me, or being able to take a walk in the park—just aren’t there during a pandemic. The first time I took my son out of the apartment, I took a selfie because I couldn’t believe that it was spring and I had a cloth over his carriage and I was wearing gloves and a mask. And this was our first spring walk. It was a little heartbreaking, but at the same time you’re saying, “I have to enjoy this moment. You don’t get this moment again with your child.” And so I’ve tried for his sake, and for my own, to have as much normalcy as possible in this year and to not let the year overshadow the beauty and the joy that is a healthy baby boy.

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As I was preparing for his one-year Zoom birthday party, it really hit me how long this year has been. I came back from maternity leave the same week that George Floyd was killed. That’s the intensity that I’ve been dealing with since I sat in the host chair again: George Floyd being killed, having a baby in a pandemic, and suddenly going right into a lockdown, never having the opportunity to connect with other mothers, not even in my family. Then you add the job that we do. I love what I do. I love journalism. And I don’t have any reason not to love what I do. It’s the circumstances that we find ourselves in that are bordering on demoralizing. We need to be mindful of the fact that we’re not machines, that these are not normal times, that we need to allow ourselves some grace.

I had trouble watching the George Floyd video. After a while, I dreamt about it. As a journalist, you’re used to taking in difficult things. If you have to cover something that’s really difficult to cover, you do it and then you step out of it and you deal with the emotional impact afterward. But it’s gut-wrenching to watch that. A human life is being taken in front of you.

In order to take care of myself, I try to get out if it’s 40 degrees or more. I try to, even if it’s just a walk around the block with the baby. I make it a point to get as much sleep as I can. I’ve also just stopped criticizing myself for eating things that I really want to eat. And another really small thing I’ve been doing is trying to find really good-smelling soap.

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That feels a little indulgent when there’s so few things to do that we can be with other people.

LaVendrick Smith, a former reporter who is now a media and communications specialist with the ACLU of Washington

When the pandemic hit, I got stressed immediately. And—this is as simple as I can put it—I saw this five-year plan that I had shrink up. I got really stressed out watching the story consume everything. It makes sense obviously, but it was just inescapable, and it heightened a lot of stress that I already was dealing with.

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Before the pandemic, we had a particularly wild news year in Dallas. Stuff ranging from crazy weather events to mass shootings. You get repeatedly exposed to people’s trauma. And I feel like in this industry we don’t talk enough about that. We covered the Amber Guyger trial, and that trial was an emotionally taxing thing to watch as a Black man. I saw footage of Botham Jean’s apartment and saw that I had a similar couch in my place. It all just boiled over. We work in a high-stress, emotionally charged job. We couldn’t even get a week past that without Atatiana Jefferson getting killed in a similar way. Then, we had a third mass shooting. Months later, we have another shooting. There was a tornado that went through Dallas. These events stress everybody out, whether you are a victim to it or you’re someone who has to report on it.

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And then, I’m watching everything close off around me and throughout the world. I had planned to go home—I’m from the Pacific Northwest—to see my family. And I couldn’t do that, so I was homesick.

I started self-reflecting and I just asked myself if this is what I wanted. It wasn’t one thing that pushed me out. I really wanted to stay in for several years. I wanted to see how far I can take it because, as far as I’m concerned, I’m good at it. And I may go back one day. It just got to a point where I got tired of writing about death every day. You can only do that for so long. People who stay in the business and stay on those specific beats, I got a lot of stuff for them because after a while you gotta deal with that.

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But I wanted to prioritize happiness and being a little bit selfish, in a good way, where I put up a boundary and say I don’t want to be identified by my job anymore. I want to be able to exist in the background. I wanna be able to exist and seek happiness, finding hobbies. Journalism is such a public-facing position where we get scrutinized every day by people who don’t know how the media works. I didn’t feel like dealing with it right now. What I needed was a break.

I felt like I was regaining some power. I don’t necessarily know what the long-term effects of all this is going to be. I know that I do feel a little bit happier. I’m still jaded just because of everything that’s happening—it’s kind of hard to be happy, but I think there’s been a clear difference.

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You know, I can’t see myself all the time, but there is power in being able to take agency over your life and make a decision that’s best for you.

Mike Denison, the audience engagement editor for Science News

I triage reader emails, and some of them falsely accuse Science News as being part of this massive hoax. I don’t take any of it personally. I know that they don’t have credible accusations against my work, and most of the time they don’t have credible accusations against any journalist’s work. They’re just mad and want to yell at somebody.

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But there’s this idea that for every person to actually send the email, they represent some percentage of your audience that thinks this way, but didn’t take the time to write the email. So it’s hard to not wonder, well, why am I doing any of this work? COVID has led to a sort of existential crisis for me working in journalism. When some of your readers claim that any facts you present that are inconvenient to their personal narrative are proof that you’re embedded in a conspiracy, you can only take so much of that before you start to question whether or not it’s worth it.

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The predominant emotion here is feeling powerless. We get into journalism because we want to make a difference. We want to speak, to be able to speak truth to power. We want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We want our work to have some kind of impact. And when I am constantly seeing these sorts of messages and realizing that represents a broader portion of not just our readership, the country, it’s really easy to turn to apathy. We’re just kind of stuck here. And that’s a pretty sad place to be.

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It feels like we’re kind of screaming into a void. It’s infuriating, right? I’m all about having a really robust debate, but this is profoundly ridiculous. And the fact that there are people in positions of power who are gaining from this widespread disinformation and insisting that these conspiracies have validity is infuriating. Hearing some of the misinformation around masks and vaccines repeated back to me from my own parents was really painful. It’s like spitting in the face of everything I do and everything that my colleagues do because you heard something about case counts being fake or that the vaccines have aborted babies in them.

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It’s the sort of thing where I feel like I’ll turn to being furious because it’s better than feeling powerless. At least anger has an outlet. Powerlessness just sticks with you.

Sara Pequeño, a reporter in her first job with Indy Week

My experience with this whole pandemic has been really weird because I’m trying to learn to be a journalist for the first time. I graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in August 2019, and I started working at Indy Week. I didn’t have a defined role for a long time. But recently I started writing as a beat reporter covering Orange County and Chapel Hill.

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My feelings about it fluctuate. The hardest time was when UNC reopened in August. That was one of those times where I was experiencing some of the best moments of my professional career thus far. I was breaking news, and a video that I shared was posted on CNN. People were really starting to recognize me as a journalist, which was really exciting, but I was also absolutely exhausted. I was staying up all hours of the night trying to make sense of what was happening at the university and navigating how students feel about things. I had college students coming to me and asking “What do I do? I think I might have COVID,” or
“My roommates were out partying last night.”

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I’m trying to report the truth and trying to do my job and be as good of a journalist as I can be. But at the same time, I’m also a 23-year-old girl. I don’t like rejecting people or making people think that I don’t care about them. So that’s a really complicated feeling of wanting to be there for these college students and also understanding that’s not something I can necessarily do.

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Everything was coinciding with these really big moments in my personal life. For example, I moved in June, and the night before, I had been covering protests in Raleigh, having tear gas hit me and protesters and trying to report that. The next morning my parents came to town, and I was like, OK, I need to figure out how to move in the middle of all of this.

It’s been really exhausting, but at the same time I really like the work I do. Being in a small newsroom, you get this feeling like you almost can’t take a break. If I take a break, then someone could not hear about this thing that they need to hear about. And I take my job as a public servant really seriously. So I think if I am not there, if I’m not on the top of my game and able to make sure people know about different things, that means that we have a less informed public. I see my job as something that I need to continue doing, to make sure that people have an understanding of what’s going on.

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