New York Times journalists Sarah Maslin Nir and Tim Herrera both tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-March. As journalists, it made them unique chroniclers of the disease as the nation awakened to the pandemic. It also made them aware of their privilege.
Nir, staff writer for the New York Times, and Herrera, who edits and writes for the New York Times Smarter Living section, discussed their personal experiences with the outbreak during a virtual conversation Tuesday hosted by the National Press Club Journalism Institute.
“Living the experience is the key, right? … This is sort of the ultimate shoe leather,” Nir said of her decision to use her bout with coronavirus as a reporting tool.
“That said, we also have to recognize that Tim and my experience as gainfully employed, middle-class Americans is not the real experience of coronavirus. Black and brown people in New York City are dying at twice the rate of white people.”
Herrera said he works primarily with freelancers who have less financial security and who, thus, bring a different and needed point of view to their stories.
“Their writing and reporting and the way they’re framing stories is informed by being a person with a very precarious job situation,” he said. “So many of my freelancers have taken the stimulus checks and need them to survive, and I’m very grateful for them offering to share that perspective.”
New symptoms are old symptoms
Nir remembers realizing she might have the disease when a neighbor handed her a Clorox wipe and she didn’t detect the scent of bleach. “I remembered a sentence in a story that the Times had done from China about two Chinese healthcare workers, one lived and one who died,” she said. “The sentence was, ‘She lost her sense of taste and smell.’ ”
At the time, losing sensory perception was not widely known as a sign of the disease. “Actually,” Nir said, “I desperately slacked the science desk and said, ‘You have to write about this symptom.’ ” (They did.)
Herrera said he found his experience getting sick particularly confusing because, initially, the doctors and institutions he dealt with were not sure how to respond.
“I’ve written stories that were accurate and true one week but were outdated in less than a week, just because things are evolving so rapidly,” he said. “It’s really frustrating to navigate covering all of this because what is true one day is not necessarily true the next.”
But Nir challenged the notion that the virus is a completely unknown quantity in the U.S., given that there had been experiences with the disease in China and Europe weeks before it broke out in the U.S.
“Was this just us not listening to the other countries’ experiences as journalists, or was it them not sharing,” she said. “It shouldn’t be news in L.A. that Covid toes are a thing, when hundreds of thousands of Italians probably had Covid toes.”
What compelled them to tell their stories?
To Herrera, the process of finding out if he had the virus was so chaotic and confounding that he said he thought: “We really need to let people know. As it became clear that this was going to be the way the process was gonna go, I was thinking, ‘Remember this fact, take a note here, remember that quote.’ I kind of knew this was going to change into a story.”
So he reached out to an editor on the metro desk and said, “Hey, I just spent five hours on the phone, and I have a test tomorrow. Should we write about this?”
Nir said she had her virus test taken at a drive-through testing site that she had just reported about and discussed on the Times’ The Daily podcast.
“At the end of the day, my experience of this was of a tremendously bad and lasting flu,” she said. “… But because you’re part of a larger narrative of death and destruction, it’s very frightening. So it was a coping mechanism for me, but I tweeted: ‘Well, sometimes you report the story sometimes you are the story.’ ”
She said she felt journalistically obligated to write about her experience in hopes of addressing some of the uncertainty. She even created a document on coronavirus best practices that she said she distributed to colleagues and by now has been shared by thousands of people.
Share lessons in perseverance
Nir said her father was a Holocaust survivor who had a motto: “Let them say no first.”
She said that after freelancing for the Times for a while, she was asked to take on a six-month job during someone’s maternity leave. “I said, ‘Sure, I just have one condition.’ And they were like, ‘I’m sorry, you have a condition for The New York Times?’ And I was like, yeah, yeah. I needed a metal nameplate — one of those engraved plates that everybody has on their desk. I want one at my desk for the six months. They gave me a nameplate, everybody thought I worked there, and I have ever since.”
Herrera said he has been dumbfounded by the desire of colleagues to help journalists in more precarious situations during this particularly difficult time.
“I think a kind of weird but very nice benefit from that is that people have been extremely generous with their time and expertise when they have it. And I think people really are extremely willing to help. And so people who are having …frustration right now, I think it’s a really good time to reach out and ask for help.”