Virtual Reporting: Telling the Stories that Matter on the Front Lines of COVID-19

Erika Hayasaki leans against a wall with her arms crossed
Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

How has COVID-19 changed the way journalists capture and report stories? Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, interviews journalist and author Erika Hayasaki, associate professor of English in the UCI Literary Journalism Program, about the challenges and opportunities of reporting in the middle of a pandemic.

Tyrus Miller (0:06–0:25): Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning in to “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” I’m Tyrus Miller, Dean of the School of Humanities, and I’m pleased to be joined by writer, author, journalist, and professor in our Literary Journalism Program, Erika Hayasaki. Hi, Erika.

Erika Hayasaki (0:25–0:27): Hi, how are you?

Miller (0:28–1:03): Very good. Thank you. Thanks for joining us. At the time of this interview, Erika, you’ve written two long-form articles about people on the front line of the pandemic. One for Marie Claire, where you narrate the experience of a nurse in the COVID-19 ward of a New Jersey hospital and also one for The Atlantic, where you follow a woman’s unsuccessful quest to donate plasma to her husband, who was dying from COVID-19. These are really incredible stories. How did you find them? How did you connect with these with these subjects?

Hayasaki (1:05–6:09): Thank you for mentioning those stories. I did both of those stories while social distancing. Usually, as a journalist, your instinct is to go to the scene and you want to spend time inside of the hospital alongside the nurse, shadowing them. You want to go with the person who is getting the COVID test or interview them in their home and we can’t really do that as easily now, obviously for safety reasons. Even our students are not going out into the field to report because of the dangers of contracting the virus. I still wanted to do some pieces out of this pandemic that I felt were important so I decided to try to do these while social distancing. I found both of these women online, actually through Facebook, so you know turning to your social networks, and I didn’t know either of them. I should say that they were strangers to me. The nurse, Emily, had actually posted on a mom’s group ironically in New Jersey which happened to get shared somehow through my network. I think because I wrote a book about a nurse several years ago and so it ended up in my feed and it was a re-post. I messaged Emily and I just said, you know, “This is what I would like to do. Could I shadow you virtually for a week and just find out what your daily life is like?” I asked her if I could check in with her daily. I even asked her if she would be willing to take notes in a journal through some of this experience, send photographs and other things like that. There was a staff photographer in the hospital who was capturing everything and I was able to access those photographs as well and use them with the story. I interviewed her daily for a week not knowing that she was gonna end up contracting COVID as well. I mean it was highly likely but that happened over the course of my interviewing her.

With Chloe, it was the same kind of thing. Actually, you know there’s all these different corners of the internet and Facebook where you find people on different chat groups or people sharing other people’s messages and I think hers came up because she was in Southern California and she was posting looking for a plasma donor for her husband and so when I reached out to her, she was in that process of trying to find a plasma donor. She had also tested positive for COVID twice and was trying to get a negative test so that maybe she could donate to her husband, who’d been on a ventilator for several weeks. I really hoped that that would have a more positive outcome — her story. I thought maybe I would be able to see her donate at least or you know him get the donation and unfortunately he passed away right as I was beginning to write the piece. I ended up just following Chloe a few more days through unfortunately his passing and talking to her and the aftermath of that as well, so that was tough.

Both of those stories came about through social media connections and, again, I did not report them on the ground.

Miller (4:42–5:10): So that’s really interesting because, in some ways, it’s maybe part of the normal background of we’re using social media much more to find out things, to find people, to do research, to get leads, but you know it’s taken on really exceptional importance in the situation where we’re literally cut off from a number of the other ways of contact.

Hayasaki (5:11–6:10): Yeah, and I have to say, I have colleagues and friends who are journalists, who are going out and reporting in the fields now. They are out there just like war correspondents and risking themselves. I know someone just yesterday posted that he did test positive for the antibodies and he had been out reporting the whole time but that’s a personal decision and a decision on behalf of whatever the publication is that you’re writing for. But for myself, at the moment, I don’t necessarily want to expose myself, but I also feel like it’s important, if you’re a storyteller, to find some way to tell stories in this moment if you can and so that was the way that I’ve approached it. Also, I think for our students, I wanted to show that they can also report these kinds of stories without exposing themselves to the dangers and the virus at the moment.

Miller (6:11–6:50): That’s really important. In terms of the way that you handled those stories, you also talked about shadowing and, of course, that’s through these virtual means, but you also managed in the writing to really convey a kind of immediacy and a presence that is really a function of the literary technique and the writing that you do. Could you talk a little bit about how you took this raw material that you collected from afar and brought us close up with that kind of immediate view?

Hayasaki (6:51–9:16): Yeah, I mean absolutely so, in our program and in the kind of journalism that I appreciate reading and writing, it’s very much scene based and details are everything and without those details it’s just not the same kind of story so that requires, first, access. When you have somebody who’s willing to give you access to send you journal notes for example or check in with you daily and let you interview them or send you photographs or let you be on FaceTime with them, which is what Chloe did, taking me along on the ride with her as she was getting tested and going through this.

That’s access and that’s something you build with the person, the people that you’re writing about, but then once you have that access, you have to pay attention to the details and the scene. Just like when you’re on the ground so in the nursing story, a moment that became important is when a woman, who was on her deathbed, she had COVID, was describing before she got very ill, the nurse was actually describing how her daughter could not go on this trip to — it was like a Holocaust Memorial trip — and she was disappointed because she was gonna learn about the Holocaust and the woman who was the patient explained she knew a lot of Holocaust survivors and she wrote down on a napkin the names of these people, wanting to help this nurse’s daughter learn more about it and then the nurse took the napkin home and intended to keep it and in the end the napkin got thrown away by accident but it was just one of these details that sort of represented to me you know the kind of helplessness in all of this. You don’t have control. She meant to keep it. The woman ended up passing away so you just have to pay attention to those little details along the way.

And that’s something we talk about all the time in our program. What are the details that matter and maybe resonate thematically somehow in the piece and then you pick those out and include them in your story. It’s a combination of observing, and sometimes observing through video and photos or social media, but also asking the questions that elicit those kinds of details and then delving into that a little bit more as well.

Miller (9:17–10:44): So you’re also talking about maybe selecting an image or an event or a scene that, first of all, carries an emotional charge, but also is memorable for a reader. I mean just hearing your recount, I think lots of people will be thinking about that image of a napkin and we all have some kind of memento that we’ve wanted to save and somehow we’ve misplaced or left behind. And I’m really struck as a literary scholar by the way in which that resonates with the techniques that a novelist or poet might select in terms of communicating in the fictional vein, you’re using it to convey a real-life story but utilizing in some ways some of the same toolbox that fiction writers are using. You’re in a program called literary journalism and we talked about that in terms of especially long-form journalism and a kind of longer narration of stories. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what’s special about having that longer form? And possibly the ability to apply a kind of more extensive narrative to a story to unfold that for a reader?

Hayasaki (10:45–14:26): Yeah, I mean you’re exactly right. So we are looking at the techniques and examining the techniques of fiction in our classes and thinking about how these techniques become important in nonfiction, too. So sometimes, you know, you’re not imagining the detail of the napkin; you’re actually seeing the napkin and then thinking about interviewing the subject about what the importance of the napkin is, right? But that still becomes a literary detail. In our program, this is what sets us apart from traditional journalism programs, which we do a lot of that too, and I think that traditional journalism is so important just to get to the level of understanding how to report an interview and do the reporting that finds the details in the napkin. But we focus so much on characters, real-life characters, who are going through things whether it’s in the moment or have gone through something in the past and reconstructing that so that readers can connect on some kind of human level. We look for those human themes in life and try to convey that on the page.

We often try to write stories that are not just quick-hit stories done in a day — although you can do narrative in a day. I tell my students, sometimes you can follow a person’s day from the beginning to the end and there’s a natural narrative arc in that progression. But you can do that over a week, with the nurse for example, and you can do that over a year. You can do that over ten years or you can go back and reconstruct over time, but chronology provides a backbone to daily life and you find that in your stories and you can follow chronology. That’s why I think it’s important for literary journalism, in this moment, there’s so much journalism happening and the news is moving so fast every day and it’s really hard to slow down and so what I encourage our students to do, and writers, and what I’m trying to do in some of these pieces, is to just slow down for a little bit and follow a person for not just a little more than a few hours but over a course of a few days or weeks and see what it’s really like to go through something like this and just find those moments. I think that that becomes memorable.

For Chloe, the woman who was trying to donate plasma to her husband, you know it was very unlikely that the plasma was necessarily gonna work. He was in a really end-stage moment and so what her story showed so much of though was the sense of desperation, clinging to any kind of hope that she could and there was a moment where, after she tested for COVID and she did not know yet if she was negative or positive, but she drove to the hospital because she actually worked at the hospital but had not been allowed in. But they were gonna let her come back to work because she wasn’t having symptoms and she got to the hospital to drop off her paperwork and snuck in to see her husband and stood outside the glass. She told me she was going to do that before she did it and then she actually did it and then that very next morning around 1:00 a.m., he passed away. It was such a powerful moment. It’s not the kind of moment you would see in a normal news story because it would get passed over among all of the quotes and news of the story, but it was a moment that resonated.

Miller (14:27–14:49): Yeah, it’s a really moving moment and it’s a moment of clearly, of a kind of pain and a grievous nature but also you know that sense of almost the tragedy of desperately wanting to do something and just coming up against the limits of what one can do. It’s a classic, kind of almost tragic story.

Hayasaki (14:50–15:18): Yeah, unfortunately and, again, I didn’t know. I didn’t want it to be a tragedy. I wanted something else, you know, but that’s the thing about writing about real life and that’s like the moment that we’re in and in so many ways in both of these stories, it shows the helplessness or the despair and there are many positive stories, too. But this is the reality of what a lot of families are going through too, so you have to capture that.

Miller (15:19–16:09): I wonder if you could say a little bit about what, when you’re advising your students or other people that you’re talking to about following stories and effective storytelling in this moment of social distancing: what are some tips that you have for teaching your students or that you would share with people? Might not even be professional advice. We’re all kind of caught up in the need to communicate our experience from at a distance or you know try to capture other people’s experience from a distance — are there ways in which you could advise us to navigate that distance more effectively, to capture those experiences and those stories?

Hayasaki (16:14–20:21): The use of video has been quite handy for us and I can’t even tell you how many video interviews I’ve been doing that wouldn’t naturally be video interviews. Although it’s not the same as being in person, it is a little better than doing it over the phone because you have that face-to-face and you have that scene that somebody’s in. I recently have been asking subjects I interview, even for stories that aren’t fully narrative pieces, “Can you take me inside of the world for a little bit with FaceTime?” For example, just yesterday, I’m working on a story, that’s a completely different kind of piece, about robots and sort of the future of robots after the pandemic and I made sure that I could get into this grocery store in St. Louis that is already using robots and have the workers kind of walk me around with the robots and show me how it is in the store and you see then the people with the masks that are shopping and how they’re kind of running up against the robot and looking at it strange, all these little moments that happen. Video is quite useful in that way and we’re sort of forced to do that now as journalists if you want to have these scenes and get inside.

Like I said earlier, following time instead of just calling and doing the interview and then being done with it. Following somebody over a period of time, even if it’s just a couple days can be helpful, asking the subjects themselves to think about, to understand that what you’re doing is a different kind of journalism, so it requires a level of detail that they might think doesn’t make any sense. Like why am I asking questions about what it looks like in the room or what was going through your mind at that moment or what you were wearing or what somebody said to somebody else in that moment? I often have to explain to the subjects that it’s almost as if you have a documentary camera following you around and so that’s the level of detail that I need and almost training people for that kind of reporting, to be journalists themselves. The nurse really turned into a journalist herself.

She was journaling and writing notes and then sending them to me at night, which was huge on her part and I think she actively felt it was so important to have the world, especially since this is kind of in the beginning of the outbreak, to understand what it was like in hospitals at that moment. It was important for her so she agreed to participate in this way and you know sometimes they’ll say they do that and they don’t, but she really did sort of turn herself into a journalist. She even said, “I feel like I’m doing journalism.” She had to take these notes on the ground and describe. She would take photos and then sort of describe — she used the “Stranger Things,” that was her description, of the tubes coming out of the windows. Those are just a couple of techniques, but it’s using a lot of what we’ve always taught in our program and just using it in different ways now.

A lot of us are looking at the current moment and we’re reporting it similar to how literary journalists have reported events of the past that they couldn’t witness like Hiroshima, for example, by John Hersey, which is a book all of our students read. He was not there to witness the atomic bombing in Japan but he went back and interviewed all these people and reconstructed it in such incredible detail based on that reporting for something he could never have witnessed and he was not there at least for himself, right. Seabiscuit is another example or Hellenbrand. Barry Siegel in our program does this. It’s narrative reconstruction, but we’re doing it live in the moment now.

Miller (20:22–20:37): That’s a really interesting point — the kind of idea of a distancing in time and mediation through even archival sources that you’re creating into narrative and the relationship to social distancing.

Hayasaki (20:37–20:38): Yeah.

Miller (20:38–21:02): I also was really interested in what you were saying about the kind of almost co-creation or collaboration. I’m sure that in what we would call you know traditional journalism, there was always a strong element of it, but sometimes a bit hidden behind the story and this is an interesting instance where that’s coming even more to the fore.

Hayasaki (21:06–21:50): It doesn’t work for every person. Not everybody wants to do that. As you know, not everybody that’s living this in the moment wants to go home and journal for a stranger, but sometimes you can talk people into it because they also see the importance of stories. Once you can explain why it’s so important to have these details, because that’s what helps make a story stick out and be memorable compared to so many news stories we’re just getting inundated with every day. It’s really hard to keep up and, for us, it’s important to try to write these stories that have just a few memorable moments that will stick with you that are these human moments and I think that’s how it comes through.

Miller (21:50–22:40): As a concluding question, I wanted to just kind of pull back the camera a little bit on a big level question. On the one hand, I think we’ve seen partially because of economic pressures, partially maybe because of the political situation, but a certain decline and maybe hollowing out of a space of journalism that we’ve been able to count on. For instance, newspapers that are closing down, those sorts of things. Also, obviously a kind of political attack on journalism, discrediting even very high quality journalism. I wonder if you have any thoughts that you wanted to share about the enduring value of quality journalism in a moment of national crisis like we’re in.

Hayasaki (22:43–24:50): I was at the LA Times and left the LA Times around 2009 and that was a moment where everybody was very worried about the future of journalism. Lots of magazines were shuttering, layoffs were happening all over the country, newspapers were closing down and people said journalism is dead. That was ten years ago and I have seen a lot of struggle in the journalism industry and it’s changed and it’s evolved, but what I continue to see though is incredible work on the part of these journalists and writers and colleagues and former colleagues and freelancers and students.

Because I’ve had the benefit of seeing this over time, I know we’re entering into another moment, where people are very worried about the future of journalism, and we have been this whole time, but now it’s, “Is COVID gonna kill the last newspapers?” But you see more publications pop up in different ways and thinking about different, more innovative ways to produce storytelling. Some places do not survive and some places do, but I have not witnessed the death of great storytelling. In fact, over the last ten years, long-form journalism, narrative journalism, in-depth feature writing, is wildly popular. That’s thanks to the internet and there are many, many places to publish. Now it’s not always easy, especially for students coming out, to make a living publishing this kind of work, but the passion is there and the hunger is there and there are places that want really quality storytelling and stories and real reported pieces.

I don’t think that ever goes away. It’s just a constant conversation about what does it look like? And how do you keep up with these changing times? I’m an optimist about that.

Miller (24:53–25:24): I want to be as well and I think that’s a heartening message. We’ll be following your stories as you continue to respond and bring to the fore different aspects of our current situation. I want to really thank you for this wonderful conversation. I’ll just say to our audience, thank you for watching and we’ll see you in the next episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” Thanks, Erika.

Hayasaki (25:24–25:25): Thank you so much.

Miller (25:25-25:26): Bye, bye!

Related links:

The official account of the UCI School of Humanities: Ideas that Matter.