As a freelance journalist who has always worked remotely, I have found my daily schedule relatively unchanged since the outbreak of COVID-19. I awake, have my coffee and head directly to my computer to start working on my ongoing stories. The only difference is that I’m sorely missing my regular workouts at my local YMCA; instead I’m trying out online yoga and dance classes. But I’m finding I have less time for that, since I’m busier than ever. Editors have been reaching out regularly to assign me stories related to the epidemic. When my New York Times editor suggested a story on the unique challenges that caregivers of those with dementia face with the outbreak, I thought it was a great idea. And it gave me the chance to explore the ways that these unsung heroes are proceeding. Sometimes as a journalist, you’re able to cross paths with someone who inspires you. That was the case for me. I interviewed K.C. Mehta, who has been caring for his wife for seven years. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she was 59. Mehta’s greatest concern is taking care of her and he’s trying his best to keep them both safe. Listening to him discuss the complexities of caring for her even under normal circumstances, all without complaint, demonstrated the strength of the many who are silently just trying to persevere. I was so pleased to be able to share Mehta’s story in this article. It provided a glimmer of positivity amidst a climate of despair. And it reinforced the reasons why I so treasure being a freelance journalist.
While many people have found themselves with some welcome time off, quarantined at home in the midst of COVID-19, that’s not the case for journalists, especially those of us who always work remotely. For me, the pace of work has increased as I’ve been assigned articles about various repercussions of the virus. The challenge in writing these stories is that events are unfolding and changing so rapidly that the stories are often outdated before they can be published. This was the situation I faced after a recent visit with my daughter. She had been in Lyon, France, teaching English as part of the Fulbright program. My husband and I had planned to visit her at the end of February. Since the virus hadn’t progressed much beyond China at that point, we kept our plans for the trip, traversing Lyon, Paris and Barcelona and even paying a visit to my 96-year-old Parisian aunt. When I relayed this experience to one of my editors at a publication I regularly write for, he suggested the inter-generational experience we embarked upon as the virus was closing in might make for an interesting piece. He couldn’t make any promises that his editor would agree. But I decided to write the essay anyway. His editor declined to run it. And within a week of my submitting it, there was a full blown pandemic underway. As a result, the story of our commitment to stick to our plans and visit with an elderly aunt in the face of the spreading virus seems irresponsible and cavalier. Keep in mind that when we were there, the situation wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it is now. The publications I usually write for didn’t feel comfortable publishing this essay in such a fast-changing environment, which is understandable, but I didn’t want it to disappear. So I published the piece on Thrive Global. I felt in this instance that having the piece published was a nice way to document this very special journey that I had with my daughter and husband.
One of the exciting parts of my job is the stories that editors reach out to assign to me, often from publications I’ve never previously written for. That’s what happened recently when the editor of Current, an outlet covering the public media industry, asked me to explore an ethical question. She had discovered through a Facebook post that the news editor of a public radio station was concerned by an amendment to a new state law which would make the voting preferences of everyone who voted in the primary public. This meant it would be easy to find out the political affiliations of journalists who voted. This editor asked how other public radio stations were handling this. It triggered a vigorous debate on whether journalists should abstain from participating in an activity that is the hallmark of democracy or risk being tainted as subjective. As a journalism instructor who discusses the issues of ethics with my students, I wouldn’t have seen this one coming. It’s a complicated topic with many wrinkles and I appreciated the opportunity to provide many perspectives in this article.During these particularly polarizing times, in a climate where journalists are often under fire, this was an example of another situation where there is no easy answer.
I get my ideas from stories from a variety of sources. And when I follow a lead, I never know where it will take me.
In June, I was reading the notes of a group that meets twice a month in Dexter, Michigan to discuss a range of issues affecting the community. These are usually fairly typical and ordinary matters, like road construction and local political campaigns. But in this most recent missive, buried amidst a summary of discussions about door to door solicitors, siren tests and programs for the elderly was mention of an African American, Ed Francis, who wanted time to get something off his chest: intimidation that he feels as one of the few people of color living in Dexter. After he spoke, others recounted incidences of racism that they observed. The email was written in a matter of fact tone, but I became curious whether racism is more inclined to thrive in Dexter as well as the surrounding communities of Chelsea and Saline, where fewer than one percent of residents are black. I had no idea if the racist incidents were pervasive beyond those reported at the Dexter Forum gathering. I was nervous about investigating this topic and it triggered a defensive, angry response among some of those I contacted to interview. Many were concerned that I had a preconceived notion that the areas were racist — which wasn’t true. It would have been easy to shelve the idea and not pursue this, but I had the sense that something was happening that needed to be uncovered.
My reporting led to this article and the sad realization that blacks in these communities often experience discrimination. I was fortunate that many people — both black and white — were eager to speak with me. After conducting interviews with several people of color, I was surprised and sad to learn that Ed Francis was hardly alone in enduring discrimination as a minority in one of these small towns. Much of this is a result of ignorance — a lack of understanding when you’re surrounded primarily by those who look just like you. The community’s leaders, worried about the impact that lack of diversity can have, are working hard to combat the perception that they’re not welcoming. And I included many initiatives that they’re trying to implement to attract a more diverse population. But it’s not an easy problem to solve.
What I found is that people rarely have the courage to undertake the conversation that Ed Francis started. Worried about treading on sensitive territory, we are often afraid to talk about race in situations that directly affect us. I appreciated that my editor allowed me the length to explore this issue in depth, exploring many facets of what makes a community remain primarily white and the repercussions of that situation. I hope it becomes the springboard for many more conversations that lead to tolerance, acceptance and a more inclusive atmosphere in towns surrounding Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I must confess that many times when I plan a vacation, I think about whether it could be the springboard for an article. That’s the life a freelancer: you’re always spinning your wheels trying to figure out if your life experiences are fodder for a compelling article. I especially enjoy this exercise when it comes to travel. There’s something particularly exciting about finding a way to write about my journeys in a way that’s helpful to the public. I was fortunate enough to be able to feature my travel experiences in two articles recently. Last December, when I headed to Mexico with my extended family, I wrote an article for Considerable with tips for creating the best intergenerational travel experience. This past spring, when my sister and I decided to take a long weekend getaway to celebrate my daughter’s college graduation, I wrestled with how to pitch that story. We were getting a great deal at a luxurious resort because it was in the depths of the desert; I wondered if there were other bargains to be found at similarly hot luxury resort destinations. Indeed, there were. Just as the three of us were packing up to leave our resort, I got an email from The New York Times travel editor that she wanted the story. The result was the piece, Chilling in the Desert, that ran in both the online and Sunday print edition. It’s definitely a perk of the job being able to write about your travel experiences and have that documented in a public forum. I hope I’ll have more opportunities to do this in the future as I embark on travel to new destinations.
In pursuit of some ideas for stories recently, I began to peruse trend data issued by Pew Research, as I often do, to see if the data pointed the way to possible interesting topics. I was struck by a disturbing new statistic that the organization revealed: 61% of teens surveyed say they feel much pressure to get good grades. These pressures fuel a significant amount of unhealthy anxiety that teens experience. I initially pitched a story to The New York Times that would present some proactive ways to address this problem: providing guidance for parents on ways to de-stress the academic environment at home, to send the message that a child’s worth isn’t tied to their grades or test scores. My editor there steered me toward another subject she wanted to explore that I thought was interesting as well: a new paid Facebook group that provided the opportunity for parents to ask advice on college admissions and affordability directly to a panel of esteemed experts. She saw merit in trying to provide guidance to parents on how to find the best resources for navigating the complex college admissions process.
I was a week into reporting the story, appreciating a leisurely deadline, when the college admissions scandal broke. Suddenly, this piece became more urgent and I needed to quickly turn around this article that ran today. We decided to redirect the focus of the piece on what the average income person could do to avail themselves of resources that didn’t break the bank.
The not-rich are those who are most angry about the development that indicated money and privilege can buy admissions to the most elite colleges. But it seems worthwhile to take a pause to consider what the fuss is all about. Why do so many parents seem to care so much about getting their kid into the highest ranking schools? I find it astonishing that parents not only paid astronomical sums to get their kids into top colleges illegally, but that many drop hundreds of thousands of dollars through legal means. Since my children entered college, I have been shocked and dismayed at the value parents place on admission into a highly competitive school and how much they and students will invest — often borrowing vast sums of money that will take years to repay — to do so. I’m the parent of young adults who have attended both public and private schools and am a journalism instructor at my Alma mater, the University of Michigan. I’ve learned that college is what you make it and that you can easily succeed without attending an elite institution. I have consistently seen hard working students hustle to get internships and juggle paying for college with academics become shining stars in the professional world once they graduate.
But private schools continue to capitalize on the value that so many wealthy parents continue to place on their schools, relentlessly raising tuition. Duke University, where my daughter is a senior, did it again. Next year the cost will be $73,000 a year. Duke has plenty of company in its Ivy League colleagues, which now have similar price tags. Despite the skyrocketing tuition costs, these colleges continue to see an increase in the number of applicants. Undaunted, they’re the fortunate beneficiary of the college admissions hysteria machine. I continue to wonder what the tipping point will be for the many middle income families who are eager to give their children the benefit of this type of education. Will it be $80,000? $100,000?
Just as students shouldn’t be defined by their academic record and test scores in high school, parents shouldn’t equate their value with the type of school that admits them. You are not where you go to college. An elite college education is not a guaranteed golden ticket to success or happiness. If more parents realized that, perhaps it could help take the anxiety down a notch that students are feeling in high school. Parents may feel less compelled to put so much money toward getting them in to the most competitive — and pricey — schools. And they may find their children do just fine regardless of the college they attend. Then maybe fewer applicants will flock to the elite, pricey schools; these schools may finally feel the pinch and stop raising tuition. Of course, that’s just a pipe dream. But even if a version of this change in mindset comes to fruition, it could insert some much needed sanity into the process, benefiting both parents and students.
As a founding member of The Society of Environmental Journalists, a group dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of environmental coverage, I always look forward to attending the annual conference. This year, environmental justice was the theme, as the annual conference was held in Flint, Michigan, home to the catastrophic lead in water crisis. The kick off speaker was Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who persevered in bringing the flagrant violations to the attention of the public. She’s the author of the new book, What the Eyes Don’t See. In her presentation, Hanna-Attisha thanked the media. She said were it not for enterprising journalists who alerted the public to her findings, the world may never have learned about the horrors occurring in Flint. It’s gratifying to hear of the impact of the work of my fellow journalists. As I spent a few days mingling with my colleagues, I am continually inspired by the tenacity of individuals who are committed to uncovering complex environmental problems. Many journey to dangerous countries, risking their lives to find their stories; others find similarly precarious situations at home during an era where journalists are often disrespected. Some of that tension was evident in an exchange between two other speakers: Eric Lipton of The New York Times and Jeffrey Holmstead, formerly with the Trump EPA. The conversation grew tense as Holmstead challenged Lipton about his portrayal of the administration and Lipton vigorously defended his story. These conferences always energize me and give me fresh ideas for articles. I led a Future of Mobility tour, taking 30 journalists to a test track for self-driving cars where we got to experience a ride in a driverless shuttle that is already operating on the University of Michigan campus — clearly a glimpse into what the future could look like. I moderated a panel on how to freelance and not go broke, which was well attended. When SEJ launched, few were freelancers. Now, with newspapers downsizing, they make up a significant constituency of the organization. It was exciting to see roughly 500 people gather for this conference to network, exchange ideas and learn. During a time of onslaught for journalists, SEJ provides crucial support and resources. I’m pleased the organization continues to thrive.