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Reporter digs for the details to convey deeper insights to readers during pandemic Date: 01/07/21

Jessica Contrera

By Bara Vaida

Telling the deeply reported feature stories about COVID-19 and the impact on Americans is both more important and more challenging than ever. But doing these stories usually involves spending dozens of hours with sources in person, something journalists won’t be able to do for many months to come. So how can we report them? The Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera, who wrote a series of features in 2020, has some ideas.

She decided to pick objects as a way to tell the stories of life during the pandemic. One called “The lives upended around the $20 cheeseburger,” describes the human toll of COVID-19’s disruption to the food supply, restaurant, and service industries. Another, “The N95 shortage America can’t seem to fix,” explains how the lack of personal protective equipment has made the job of nurses more dangerous. A third, “Desperately trying to wipe the virus away,” tells the story of a box of Clorox wipes and put a spotlight on how the disabled community has been left even more vulnerable by the pandemic.

Here Contrera talks about how the stories evolved, how her reporting changed and how she adapted her work approach to painting detailed and memorable stories about COVID-19. She also gives some advice on how other journalists can tell these stories in their communities too.

How did the series you wrote come about?

My job at the Washington Post is to write about how people’s lives are being impacted by the news. This year COVID-19 is the news that is literally affecting everyone. So, our starting point was to write about the ways in which this pandemic was impacting people differently, depending on their circumstances. At the time, I was thinking a lot about N95 masks because my mom is a nurse. So, I decided to pursue a story that followed a single N95 mask, and that turned into a project about how can we write about important objects connected to the pandemic. I (also) followed a piece of beef and a canister of Clorox wipes.

How did the story about Clorox wipes become about caregivers and the group home for disabled women?

I started out thinking I would find a daycare that was using Clorox wipes to make it safe to reopen. After talking to about a dozen daycares, I settled on one that served children with disabilities in Virginia. But the day I went there for the first time, the nonprofit that ran it was in a panic because they had their first COVID case in one of their group homes for adults. They had just taken a huge case of Clorox Wipes to that house. So the reporting shifted to be about what people with disabilities were dealing with during this pandemic and how the people who take care of them had been sidelined. I started working on the story in May. But I was reporting the beef and N95 stories at the same time and then was covering the George Floyd protests in D.C., so I had to put it aside.  And, in the meantime, one of the caregivers in that home died.  I was stunned. I felt a responsibility to do her story justice.

What lessons did you learn from writing these stories?

I already knew stories never turn out how you imagine in your mind, but this was especially true with the Clorox wipes story. I let the circumstances and how they unfolded dictate how I approached and wrote the stories.

Did your story about the group home have an impact on policymakers?

Yes. After the story of the group home ran, the state of Virginia decided to provide more funding for group homes and for those who work for them. So that was a very cool impact from that story.

How did you choose the beef as an object, the cheeseburger?

I was working on getting access (to a hospital) for the N95 mask story but getting access was taking a really long time. I was having a conversation with my editor about it, and we started to talk about following the journeys of other objects that were important in the pandemic too.  It was the same week that President Trump had ordered the meatpacking plants to stay open, so we were thinking a lot about meat, and the part of the meat industry that was being hit the hardest by the pandemic was beef. So, we thought about the iconic foods in Washington, D.C. And we thought about [the restaurant called] Le Diplomate, which is famous in the area for their burger. We decided that it was a compelling way [to tell a story of the pandemic][ because we got to show the real inequality in the way that the pandemic is influencing people, from ranchers who are really struggling to delivery drivers to the people in the kitchen who are taking pay cuts. And then there’s the people who, like me, are working from home, being paid the same and ordering food to be delivered. I wanted to better understand the way each person’s choices can influence other people’s circumstances as we all go through this together.

What were some of the obstacles as you worked on these stories, and how did you overcome them?

There were a lot. The very obvious one is how to do this reporting safely. There truly is no substitute for being present with people as they are going through things. There were times, however, where that wasn’t possible. I couldn’t go to the emergency room with the nurses when I was working on the N95 story, so I met them in-person, socially distanced and masked, for walks so I that I could get to know them and experience them. But I had to re-create everything that was happening in the hospitals. And for the disability story, normally I would have spent two to three weeks with them, in their home and going to their day program. That, however, seemed like an unnecessary amount of risk for them because they have so many medically complex needs and are high risk if they get the virus. I obtained an N95 mask and chose to only spend two days with them. I isolated ahead of time to ensure that I wasn’t exposing them, as best I could.

Do you think not being able to spend so much personal time with the people you wrote about impacted your reporting?

I am sure that it did. There really is nothing better than observed reporting. I had to figure out how to make up for that. I would spend more time on the phone with people than usual and had to talk to a lot more people than I usually would. I did interviews with around 30 people who didn’t appear in the disability story. You have to do more groundwork to make up for what was missed.

How did you re-create the hospital situations in your story when you couldn’t be there?

As much as I could, I tried to interview the nurses when their days were fresh in their minds. I developed a routine with the two nurses in the story:  they would call me on their way home from their shift, which was incredibly generous of them because they were exhausted. I would say: “Talk me through each of your patients today,’” and it was just for 20 to 30 minutes so I could identify moments that I might later write about. And then, on their days off, I would go back through those moments with them. They were kind enough to take notes for me too. They would jot down their feelings and what they were seeing, and they took photos for me and made audio recordings for me. I had to ask them to do more than I normally would because I really wanted to do their work justice. They were gracious enough to be reporting partners with me for the story because they wanted to make sure it was accurate.

What kinds of questions do you ask to help sources re-create their days for you?

The thing I do most often is I explain to people why I am asking what I am asking. It helps to say, “I want you to paint me a picture of what that room looks like, and I am asking this because if a reader can imagine themselves in that room, then they get a chance to walk in your shoes.” I’ll ask them to tell me, in as much detail as possible, what something looked like, smelled like, sounded like. The more that I do that, the more that people understand the level of detail of what I am looking for, and eventually, they begin to offer it up without me asking. Sometimes, I will try to model the level of vulnerability that I hope they will share with me. So, for example, if someone asks me, ‘How are you doing?’ I will never answer, ‘Fine.’ I will tell them something real about what is going on with my day. My colleague (Washington Post reporter) Theresa Vargas taught me that even before I ask a question, I can show someone the level of detail I’m hoping they’ll give me when the answer. I might say, “I will describe my desk to you. I have crumbs in my keyboard, more pens than I will ever use, and a really cold cup of coffee. I have some papers I should probably throw away and a copy of “On Beauty,” one of my favorite books. Then, I can ask them to describe their workspace to me and get a much more full answer than I might have before.

What advice do you have for journalists who are interested in writing feature stories about this pandemic, say about objects, which, by the way, I think was a great idea?

I try to approach everything from a place of empathy. No matter what you are writing about, the story is better told when you imagine what that person’s life is like and see the ways in which we have things in common. That helps us understand them and the world better. Sometimes we as journalists refer to this as “adding color.” But those details are actually the heart of the story because if you can’t convince a reader to sit and stay in a moment and learn about an issue, then the information in the story won’t’ stick anyway.

What were some of your favorite resources for the stories in your series?

For the N95 story, it was helpful to talk to people who are in that industry. Part of that story was trying to uncover for people why there was such a shortage of N95s and why they weren’t prioritized even though we know they are so powerful. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was helpful to me, as were people in professional organizations, like the International Safety Equipment Association, and the unions that represent doctors and nurses and their professional organizations.

How did you get finally get access to Johns Hopkins Hospital to tell your story?

By reaching out to a whole bunch of hospitals and telling them what I wanted to do, and I was patient. There was a PR person at Johns Hopkins, Patrick Smith, who was immediately into the idea. But it took weeks for him to be able to get me the access we needed because they were being so careful given everything going on. We had to explain again and again what it is we wanted and why because it was so much deeper than what most journalists asked for. I’m so grateful that he advocated for me and for the story. And the nurses in the story did the same.

If a journalist can’t get access to a hospital, what do you suggest?

There are other health care facilities that aren’t hospitals where stories can be told. Group homes, nursing homes, prisons, outpatient clinics, dialysis centers, rural doctors’ offices … I am hoping in 2021 we see more stories of health care workers who have been sidelined because they don’t work at major hospitals.

How are you taking care of yourself?

I am involved with the mental wellness committee within our union and that has been a great place of support this year. The Post has also been paying for therapy for people this year, which is an incredible service. I am trying to find time to do things completely different than journalism, so I am attempting to learn to roller skate – 'attempting' being the key word.

Jessica Contrera (@mjcontrera) is a reporter for The Washington Post's local enterprise team. She reports on people whose lives are being transformed by major events and issues in the news. A native of Akron, Ohio, she joined The Post as a features writer in 2014 after graduating from Indiana University.