Journalism Lunch Talk: Love, Life and Death in an Uncommon Situation

March 24, 2021
Wendy Jackson, an emergency room doctor, and her severely immunocompromised husband Robert made the difficult decision to live together, six feet apart, during the pandemic.

By Lisa Kraege, Humanities Council

On March 18, the Program in Journalism hosted Joe Richman, founder of Radio Diaries and visiting Ferris Professor of Journalism in the Humanities Council, in sharing some of his recent work during a lunchtime talk. Titled “Love From Six Feet Apart: Telling Stories From the Pandemic,” the event focused on capturing and presenting the stories of people in uncommon situations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Richman was introduced to the Zoom audience by faculty discussant Judith Weisenfeld, Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religion.

Radio Diaries’ audio work, which airs on NPR as well as on the eponymous podcast hosted by Richman, starts with sending people a tape recorder and having them report on their own lives. The program has always revolved around people telling their own stories, so Richman knew from the start they were well positioned to document the pandemic. “In a way, what we have been doing for two decades was a bit of a journalistic superpower,” he said. 

Since the recording process often takes months and sometimes years, Richman’s team knew they needed to modify their production timelines if they wanted to collect more immediate stories of the unfolding pandemic, and thus Hunker Down Diaries was born. Rather than focus on an individual, Radio Diaries producers found people who were quarantining together in uncommon situations, and sent them tape recorders to use in interviewing each other. Richman played the audience several clips from the series and talked about what makes them effective pieces of journalism. 

One of the segments features 107-year-old Joe Newman and his 100-year-old fiancé Anita Sampson. Newman was a child during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and in the clip he tells Sampson about the hazy ways in which the deaths in his neighborhood manifested in his childhood consciousness. As their conversation moved to death more generally, Sampson said that just before her 100th birthday, she realized she was not as ready for death as she had thought. Newman expressed surprise at her revelation. Richman said that this moment of genuine surprise, in which the recorder catches “something happening,” is what he always looks for: “It’s the moment when the story moves from a 2-D experience to a 3-D experience.”

Richman played segments that reflect a range of family experiences, from that of an emergency room doctor and her severely immunocompromised husband, who are living in the same house but staying six feet apart, to an 11-year-old who accompanies her father to work every day at his pizzeria in the Bronx, because her mother is a nurse. 

Other clips explore pandemic life outside of the nuclear family. In one, an inmate at Sing Sing prison in New York recounts the self-protective measures that incarcerated people have been forced to take, cobbling together masks from blankets and acting as their own contact tracers. Another clip conveys people’s changed work situations, as experienced by two brothers who operate a family funeral business in Queens. They describe the pain of the socially distant funeral, witnessing an elderly widow unable to hug any of her grandchildren at her husband’s burial, and the toll taken on all involved.

Weisenfeld noted that all the clips have a sense of intimacy and honesty, which is all the more remarkable given that the subjects knew it would be aired. 

While the microphone lends a formality to the interview process, Richman explained, it also has the potential to fade into the background. “The goal is to get the sweet spot,” he said. “We want to make it feel as real as possible, but also create a situation where people can say things they might not say otherwise.”

Journalism’s next lunchtime talk, “What Migration Sounds Like: Reporting on Refugees in Europe for NPR,” will feature Joanna Kakissis, contributing international correspondent for NPR and contributor to The American Life, and faculty discussant Karen Emmerich on April 1 at 12:00 pm ET.

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