Coronavirus and a Freelancer’s Dilemma

This year, my sixth as a freelance journalist, started with a phone conversation with an editor. I figured the call would either be a starting shot blasted into the air or a bullet fired directly into my foot. For years, I’d been living in Portland, Oregon, and serving proudly as a member of the Washington Post’s Talent Network, which involved covering breaking news on everything from race to politics to western courtroom dramas. I’d been on the scene whenever the Post needed me. But now I was finally willing to admit that the numbers weren’t panning out. I had other work that made more sense for the economics of my time. Besides, breaking stories was never a goal of mine; I’d taken the gig out of necessity. 

I told my editor at the Post that I was officially taking myself off their freelance list. I wasn’t looking to do less journalism, I said, just more of the work I’d always wanted to do: investigations, unexpected stories, profiles, literary pieces. I wanted to play to my strengths. 

“But I can still call you if something crazy happens in your corner of the world, right?” the editor asked. I laughed and said, “Of course.” Goals aside, I told her, I’m down for the cause. I’m a journalist. If I’m needed, I’ll show up. Bearing witness, sacrificing ourselves for the greater good—that’s what binds everyone in journalism, isn’t it?

THE MEDIA TODAY: In coronavirus coverage, a tricky balance between scrutiny and amplification

You know what happened next. Within several weeks, Seattle reported the first American case of the coronavirus COVID-19. As of this writing, nearly fourteen hundred people have tested positive in Washington State; seventy-four have died. Seattle is not a place I typically report on, but it quickly became clear that the virus was making a spectral path down I-5, past the shadow of Mount Rainier and toward Portland. It went east, too, over the Cascades and through the high desert, toward Spokane and Missoula, Montana. Soon it had arrived in every place I’ve ever called home, infecting new people, finding new hosts to unwittingly transport it closer and closer to everyone I’ve ever loved. People had been dying all over the world; now the story had arrived in my midst.

From my home—where I’m used to working, so social distancing is not that strange—I began following the spread of COVID-19 as if it were a story I was reporting, even though I wasn’t. A story: something to be observed, unraveled, interrogated, and then conveyed to an audience. A story: something you process, but ultimately pass through, like an earthworm moving through soil. You can take things from a story, but never let it take things from you. Journalism provides a way to witness life without ever having to feel it.

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But I sensed that, with this story, I was not just physically distanced, I was also emotionally distanced. For the first time in my career, I started wondering if I’d actually be able and ready to step in and cover the news if I was asked. Every journalist I know between Mount Shasta and the Canadian border is reporting, in some way, on COVID-19. Staffers of the Seattle Times have been filing articles about the scale and power of the virus while President Trump misleads the public. Those reporters never flinched. 

But I was flinching like crazy, clinging to a before-this-all-happened set of goals I’d made for myself at the start of the year. What if I don’t want to sacrifice myself anymore? I thought. What if I just want to feel?

 

Three weeks ago, I had stacked my year with a series of projects that would be intellectually and financially rewarding. God, what a “before” thing to think.

 

I SOMETIMES JOKE that I’m a garbage journalist. Knowing that every outlet will inevitably move on from a hot news story—remember two weeks ago, everything was all about Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders?—that’s when I come in and do my best work, poking around in the trash of a discarded news cycle. It’s a strange way to function—isolating. It took me years to figure it out. Freelancing will fuck with you if you let it. 

I tell people all the time that freelancing, for me, has been like running a small, lovely store where people come in, smile at you, sniff, and admire your carefully crafted wares; then they tuck your merchandise into their purses and pockets and leave the store. You, the shop owner, are left wondering if the price tags weren’t visible somehow. You blame yourself for whatever error caused them to steal from you. Then you hope like hell they will come back to pay you. (Most do. In ninety days. Maybe.)

Freelancers must learn to adapt and take work where they can get it. Doing what an editor asks is a big part of the job. Beyond chasing money and complaining on the internet—I’ve done both things plenty—what else is the obligation of a freelance writer, really? Does a pandemic alter our set of responsibilities? Should we put our personal ambitions aside and join the ranks of journalists, already sleepless and overworked, who are sacrificing themselves to bring truth in a time of crisis? I have to wonder how many freelancers are panicking right now, taking the first offer of $300 for a quick-turnaround virus story.

I’m no health reporter. But unlike with wars or riots or mass shootings, there are no guidelines for covering COVID-19. What’s the size of the risk? Could a journalist, trying to be brave, contract a virus we don’t fully understand for the benefit of an outlet that isn’t going to pay a dime toward health insurance? Might some publications fail to pay entirely, if we’re staring down a recession?

That I’m not reporting on COVID-19 gives me pangs of guilt, a sense of cowardice. I’m not sure, though, if courage is a requirement of my job—a job in which it’s up to me to determine the rules. The feeling in my stomach may be something else entirely: that I feel so broken by the never-ending pace of reporting that, finally, something has made me realize a story is a story and living a life is something else. Being a journalist shouldn’t be at odds with humanity.

 

THREE WEEKS AGO, I had stacked my year with a series of projects that would be intellectually and financially rewarding. God, what a “before” thing to think. Why do we always believe we can control our future? 

Overnight, we all stopped shaking hands, stopped giving high fives, weighed whether chewing our fingernails was worth it. Suddenly, loud, boorish America went silent. With every pull-to-refresh of my phone screen came another catastrophe. There was no March Madness, no spring break. There was no school, no preschool, no college. No more lunch with friends—the restaurants were closed. No more working from a coffee shop—those were shut, too. Thousands of people in Portland are now out of work—bartenders, servers, cooks, and also staff at The Columbian and most writers at the Portland Mercury, a local alt-weekly. (Its sister paper, The Stranger, in Seattle, let most of its staff go, too.) The Portland Tribune cut the hours of some of the best watchdog reporters in the city, as a way of avoiding layoffs. Powell’s Bookstore, a place whose aisles I know so well that I can smell them if I close my eyes, is letting most people go. My heart is in my throat. 

A project that would have had me reporting in the Midwest next week was put on hold. I don’t know when, or if, it will get picked up again. I can’t rely on it for money anytime soon; that I know. Another editor wrote and told me to push pause on an idea we were developing, for which I have no contract yet. Yet another editor advised me to cease all face-to-face contact with sources. Even if I were to remain free of symptoms, everyone in my family could be ripe prey for COVID-19. A cough, for me, could be the end for them. 

I thought, I have to get away from all of this. The inundation of bad news. Journalism is supposed to comfort the afflicted, not afflict everyone. Journalists shouldn’t be making predictions, tweeting erroneous statements wrought out of fear. Few, if any, of us have covered a pandemic before. And let’s be honest: few, if any, of us know where the line is, where our hard work and courage and lack of feeling about a story might become obsessive, even harmful.

The other day, my husband and I woke up, got in our car, and drove. We parked at the edge of a trail up on Mount Hood. We fixed our hiking boots into snowshoes and looked toward the peak, blurred by the white gauze of a lenticular cloud. I’ve never been afraid to live in the shadow of volcanoes. Looking at Hood now, they seemed like benevolent goddesses in comparison to this invisible virus.

We walked for miles silently, the quietest we’d been in days, pausing to stare up high into the trees, where the wind blew like a fierce song. The story—this virus—was with me the whole time. What was I going to do? What were we all going to do? What was my role in all this?

I am not infected with COVID-19, but in a way I am plagued by it. We all are. Things aren’t going to go backward. As I walked, I realized that I will, eventually, write about COVID-19. I will have to, when the time is right, when the initial sting has faded into a yellowed bruise. When society is changed, when our culture shifts, there will be no way to avoid this story. Like snakes, we will all shed our skin, leaving behind the time that came before this and settling into a new cycle of life in the time after death.

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Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist who has written for the Washington Post, High Country News, the California Sunday Magazine, the New York Times, and several others. She is the host of the podcast Bundyville, a two-time nominee for the National Magazine Award. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

TOP IMAGE: Mount Hood