Reporting When the World is on Fire: A Journalist’s COVID-19 Experience

The following article is a diary entry written on April 22, 2020, from when I was reporting for The Daily Texan newspaper at the beginning of major COVID-19 media coverage in Texas. I am now attempting to take a break from breaking news reporting after realizing the importance of my mental health during this pandemic. I am also using this time to further amplify the voices of BIPOC communities—which is the reason I began my work in journalism in the first place. I will never take a break from promoting social justice, and I hope you don’t either.

If a world pandemic hits, the best advice you can probably give yourself is: stay home. But for journalists like me, we are being pushed beyond our comfort zones to chase stories during this COVID-19 pandemic. 

As a city and politics senior reporter for The Daily Texan newspaper in Austin, Texas, I always acknowledge my great responsibility in informing my community of the latest issues and events. Considering all the responsibilities that come with being a reporter—writing stories at 2 a.m., running around town in an Uber to interview sources and carrying the weight of various deadlines—I always knew this role would be challenging. But, I never imagined the people in my field would be met with the challenging expectation of risking their lives for a 500-word article.

When I put it that way, maybe risking one’s life to write an article sounds a bit foolish. But for journalists, we recognize how important our roles are in providing news updates at a time when people want information to ease their anxiety and hold their government officials accountable. It is almost as if we, as journalists, take an invisible oath to protect our community with credible reporting—in times of crisis or not. 

As our community began to shelter in place, I found myself facing those huge responsibilities of a journalist by covering Governor Greg Abbott’s first major COVID-19 press conference at the Texas State Capitol on March 13. It was anticipated that Abbott would declare a state disaster in Texas—which he did. I was one of a handful of reporters admitted to participate in this historical event; an experience I can tell my grandchildren about one day. Yet I have to admit, I was beyond nervous and hesitant to attend this public gathering.

Austin Martinez reporting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s state disaster declaration due to COVID-19 at a press conference on March 13, 2020.

The week of Abbott’s news conference, I had been watching news broadcasts of world leaders being exposed to COVID-19, forcing politicians like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) to go into self-quarantine. And just that morning of the conference, my school, The University of Texas at Austin, canceled classes on campus due to COVID-19. So, finding out I would attend a conference surrounded by traveling politicians and reporters before social distancing and shelter-in-place orders were implemented, I was more frightened than I was excited to take on this once-in-a-journalist’s-lifetime opportunity.

No matter how fearful I was of the news being reported, I still had to do my job. I had to place my fear of exposure to COVID-19 aside and focus on providing the world with news. While people were staying home, I went out.

Even when I have moments of anxiety while reporting during a pandemic, I am grateful for my job as a journalist because it provides me with a platform to release crucial information and ask leaders questions the public wants answers to. The day following the conference in Austin, I was traveling back to my hometown of San Antonio. Listening to a local radio station on my car radio, I heard San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg say the pandemic is causing severe blood donation shortages. Speaking from the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center in San Antonio, Nirenberg asked communities to donate blood to prevent the health crisis at hand from becoming larger. Minutes after listening to the broadcast, my parents and I rushed to the Center—for them to donate blood and for me to speak with donors for a potential news article. 

To my surprise, I caught Mayor Nirenberg walking out of the donation site after having made his blood donation. I waved to Nirenberg, introduced myself and asked him for an interview. Apologizing for not being able to thank him for his time with a physical greeting due to health concerns, I told Nirenberg “I promise I would shake your hand if I could” and he laughed. This conversation with my mayor is the last in-person conversation I had before shelter-in-place orders and face mask recommendations were implemented. Who knew that speaking with my mayor would be my last memory of normalcy?

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks with Austin Martinez (right) about the need for blood donations due to blood shortages.

I must remember to give myself some credit and be proud of my work as a novice journalist. I was a college freshman—the youngest journalist in the governor’s COVID-19 press conference by far—covering a major state event with only a few years of journalism experience wrapped under my belt. Unlike the other reporters at the conference who had official press passes and expensive equipment, I only carried my school ID, cell phone and notepad. For the first time, I realized I am just as worthy of gathering and delivering information as the “pros”. These experiences have made my career pathway in communications a reality. 

I am thankful that journalism has opened my eyes to the obstacles the world is grappling with during this global pandemic. Up until covering Abbott’s COVID-19 press conference, I felt like the pandemic was surreal and far away. Standing in front of the governor who was saying the world is amid a disaster awakened me to how real and dangerous this crisis really is. I found new meaning with my job as a journalist—creating a new responsibility to portray this event as something people should take seriously and work together to fix.

Just a few months before the closings of schools and businesses, my co-workers and I were sitting in the newsroom discussing story pitches and paying little attention to the topic of COVID-19. I remember reporters saying they were worried about sensationalizing the topic with news stories, especially with little word about the disease from government leaders. Personally, I backed away from reporting on COVID-19 because I had seen discriminatory acts toward Asian and Asian American communities on my college campus, in news stories and on social media. Like my fellow reporters, I worried discussing the disease (which at the time was not an everyday topic in Texas) would further the discriminatory practices toward racial and ethnic groups. Now, like many other reporters, COVID-19 is the only topic I report on.

Since attending the state press conference by Gov. Abbott and meeting with the San Antonio mayor in late-February, I have been reporting on COVID-19 and its impacts on Texas communities nonstop. Along with my reporting co-workers, I am also responsible for keeping an eye out for news updates about my university. From reporting UT’s first student confirmed COVID-19 case to UT President Gregory Fenves saying fall classes will be held as scheduled, I have been breaking news to my classmates and documenting my school’s actions during this world pandemic. And although much of this university news affects me as a student, I try to eliminate my emotions of fear and anxiety while reporting.

I have always been impressed by journalists who keep their composure while reporting emotional stories. While mental health professionals warn people to avoid packing in their emotions, journalists are often seen on television doing exactly that. How strong one must be to broadcast news that breaks their heart and not show signs of sadness or fear. The journalists around me are warriors through it all, working to bring comfort and information to families by sharing the facts.

As a kid, I thought with time and experience, I too would gain this “emotionless face” when reporting and not let tragic stories get to me either. I never imagined I would encounter a story of this volume so soon. COVID-19 has been a true test in my ability to stay strong as a reporter. 

As weeks of reporting during this pandemic pass, I realize trying to be emotionless is impossible and nor should I or anyone try to avoid their emotions.

I had the chance to reflect on my COVID-19 experience when a professor with expertise in politics and anxiety spoke as a guest lecturer in one of my Zoom classes. She said anxiety levels rise when people watch an abundance of news during a crisis and recommended students limit their news consumption during this pandemic. “Just turn off the news,” she said. It sounds easy enough … right? But what if you are the news? As a reporter, I have to keep up with news updates every hour I am awake—and while asleep if I could—to fulfill my duty as an information provider.

The lack of an “off-switch” for my news consumption has without a doubt made me more anxious and overwhelmed than ever before. I truly worry about the physical health of other reporters out there, and the long-lasting effects it will have on their mental health. This is just another reason why mental health awareness and support is critically important. Because by the way, when asking the guest professor, How do reporters ‘turn off’ the news? and How do reporters reduce their anxiety?, she had no answer, just kind words of sympathy and support.

But that is exactly what everyone needs at this time: support. I hope that during these uncertain times, not only journalists but everyone pays more attention to the importance of mental health care and community support. We are being forced to fight a destructive disease, but we do not have to do it alone.

Thank you to the brave and loving frontline workers fighting for the safety and health of everyone around the world. You are true warriors.

Keep up with Austin and her reporting updates @austinmxrtinez.

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