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How we balanced safety and trust while reporting on the Navajo Nation amid COVID-19

How we balanced safety and trust while reporting on the Navajo Nation amid COVID-19

Laverne Blackhorse sits in front of pageant ribbons won by her daughter Valentina, who was one of the first COVID-19 deaths on N
Laverne Blackhorse sits in front of pageant ribbons won by her daughter Valentina, who was one of the first COVID-19 deaths on Navajo Nation.
(Photo by Jonathan Dineyazhe/KOB4)

There’s something almost inhumane about staying 6 feet away as a grieving Navajo mother details how her 28-year-old daughter was one of the first claimed by the coronavirus. There were no hugs. No embracing. We cried as Laverne Blackhorse bared her soul with us — yet our own emotions and normal human reactions were concealed by both cloth masks and distance. 

This moment illustrates our constant struggle to balance access to in-person interviews amid the pandemic with our own reporting team’s efforts to protect ourselves and others from the virus. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Navajo Nation was primed for uncontrollable spread of coronavirus. Our 2020 National Fellowship project explored a combination of risk factors, including multigenerational households, a fragile health care system, a population vulnerable to preexisting health conditions, and disparate access to running water and electricity. 

We set out to tell untold stories from the Navajo Nation, which had become one of the earliest and deadliest hotspots for COVID-19. By November, the Navajo Nation had surpassed 600 deaths. At least one in 14 people living on tribal land had been infected. The reservation had also maintained a higher death rate per capita from the virus than any state in the country. 

Our reporting team produced a 30-minute news documentary, “The People vs. The Pandemic,” which aired on KOB 4, the NBC-affiliate based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The news special highlighted health disparities throughout the Navajo Nation and explored how federal neglect — including months of delayed CARES Act funds — had contributed to the Nation’s ability to respond to the pandemic. 

Undertaking such an ambitious project required a certain level of risk. While some interviews could have been conducted via video conferencing, we felt it was important to provide firsthand access to the Navajo people and efforts on the ground to contain the virus. We also knew many of the stories we set out to tell would involve people who did not have access to electricity or broadband, so video conferencing would not be a viable option. 

We knew our reporting would not be complete without shedding light on the experiences of those who were actively battling the virus. However, we wanted to ensure we could do so safely. We reached out to the HEAL Initiative, which helped operate isolation centers at hotels and motels in Gallup, New Mexico. After consulting with Dr. Samuel Hatfield, we agreed on a plan to screen patients to identify which ones were willing to participate in on-camera interviews and which ones were likely no longer contagious. We took those considerations and were supplied with personal protective equipment by the physicians to ensure our safety. We also carried hand sanitizer and disinfectants to sterilize our equipment between each shoot and before loading our gear for transport. Our interviews were set up with social distancing in mind — using shotgun microphones and stands and all participants wore masks during the interviews.

We encountered some hesitation during the initial phase of our documentary. It was difficult to convince people who had been diagnosed and recovered from coronavirus to speak with us on camera. When we asked why they were reluctant, many people said they were afraid of being stigmatized. There were a couple reasons for this. Some didn’t want to be seen as flagrantly disregarding public health orders (even though that’s not how they contracted the virus). 

The other reason has cultural origins. Many Navajo people believe that speaking about negative things will bring even more negative things into their lives. This is especially true when it comes to the topics of sickness and death.  

Securing interviews was an exercise in sourcing. Our team started out with online resources. We reached out to possible interview subjects via social media, Native American groups and friends of friends, asking if they’d be willing to go on camera. Considering the strict lockdowns implemented by the Navajo Nation and the fact that our on-the-ground reporting had to be limited in many ways, we utilized every avenue for finding possible interview subjects.

One of the earliest people who agreed to talk to us was Vanielle Blackhorse. Her sister Valentina, 28, contracted the virus and passed away from its complications in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic. We had spoken for at least a week to build a relationship with her. After showing the Blackhorse family genuine compassion and concern about their tragic situation, they agreed to speak with us. 

Mistrust in the media was also another factor we had to consider. Many of the folks we talked to did not like how national media coverage was framing the Nation, oftentimes depicted as a place of poverty. Many pointed out that national coverage often neglects to give the proper background, including the mistreatment of tribal communities by the federal government and how colonialist practices set them up for failure. 

Our team set out to tell these important stories in a respectful way. Since the coronavirus pandemic is a shared global experience, our reporting team found it helpful to share personal insight into our own experiences during the pandemic. We shared personal stories of family members who were battling the virus and we believe this helped engender trust with our interview subjects.

One of the biggest challenges producing this news documentary during the pandemic was the obstacle and necessity of masks. Masks can often muffle the audio of an interview subject, making it difficult to understand. They can also act as a barrier to facial expressions and emotion, which is a key component to visual storytelling. While some television journalists might take the risk to allow the interview subject to remove their mask if the interviewer and interviewee were socially distanced or outdoors, we felt it was more important to follow tribal public health guidelines and protect ourselves and others. We required all of our interview subjects and our reporting team to wear masks while interacting. Through this practice, we also demonstrated mutual respect, which also helped us to build trust. 

This was a once-in-a lifetime reporting experience for our team. We learned how to navigate health orders to protect ourselves and our sources from this deadly virus. We also balanced health data with truly tragic stories. We also learned to collaborate better with others and push our storytelling to a new level. This collective experience will help us in our mission to report on disparities in underserved communities in the for the rest of our careers. 

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