The PEN Pod: The Pandemic’s Impact on Journalism with Sandy Mui
While we’re still in the throes of the pandemic, we’re taking a look at the impact COVID-19 has had over the past year—particularly on local journalism. At PEN America, we’ve been documenting the closure of local news outlets nationwide and the consequences for democracy, even before the pandemic. This week, we’re out with a new project, titled Journalism and COVID-19: The Toll of a Pandemic, that shows how the pandemic has accelerated the decline of local news. Here to discuss is our very own Sandy Mui, who has spent months researching this issue and is out with her findings today. Sandy joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss providing a humanized look at the pandemic’s impact on journalism, her project trajectory, and ways in which we can support the future of local journalism.
Why don’t we start with what you found—what has the impact of the virus been on journalism and journalists?
The goal of the project was always to humanize the impact of the pandemic on journalism in the United States, and the project is divided into three sections to show that. There’s a section to remember the journalists and media professionals who have passed away due to COVID, another section that highlights five of the U.S. states among the most negatively affected newsrooms, and the third section that brings attention to various incidents of free speech threats that have a direct relation to the coronavirus. So the project shows the impact of the virus in those three specific areas, and of course we’ve never intended for the project to be comprehensive—it’s already limited in scope by focusing on the United States—but we hope the project helps us begin to understand the toll of the pandemic on journalism in the United States
The impact on free press is important to us at PEN America, but I’m wondering: How did you, personally, come on this issue?
As all things have gone in 2020, the idea for this project—and executing it—was unexpected. I think it’s helpful for me to provide some background and clarification first. This project was published on PEN America’s website, at pen.org, but it was actually something I primarily worked on in my own time, because it was a project for my studies. Yes, I’m the digital communications assistant at PEN America, but I’m also a student at the CUNY Graduate Center. One of the programs I’m in is the certificate program for interactive technology and pedagogy. The culmination of the program involves students executing an independent project that ties to interactive technology and pedagogy in some manner, and the criteria for that is treated fairly loosely.
“I’m grateful to all the family members I’ve spoken with, who provided me with headshots of their loved ones or permission to use a specific photo of them, which I really believe further helped humanize the pandemic’s impact by putting a face to the names of those we’ve lost.”
Last semester—I’m talking about Spring 2020—I was taking the last core class in the program where students had to pitch their own independent study project ideas. Of course, with the spring semester starting back in January—when COVID hadn’t really hit the headlines yet—I had zero intentions entering the semester to execute on a project that involved detailing the toll of the coronavirus on journalism in the United States. Coming into the class, I actually wanted my project to be an email newsletter that features internship and job opportunities for students and early career professionals who desire working in the media industry. I still think that project could be valuable—it could be a valuable undertaking at some point—but my professors actually wanted me to think bigger, and to think of something more impactful. So by the time I was told to come up with another idea, if I recall correctly, it was around March or April—definitely after COVID cases had already started climbing in the United States.—and my mind naturally shifted to: “How can I incorporate the toll of the pandemic in some way for the project?”
As someone whose early career has primarily been in the media and digital spheres, plus working at PEN—where part of our work is focused on supporting journalism—it just made sense for me to combine journalism and COVID for the project. Believe me, it wasn’t easy—my frame of thinking started with just COVID, and I probably went through 30 different, unrealistic ideas before I landed on this one. But I think that I came up with something good. Then, how this all got to PEN—I believe I had come up with the idea over a weekend, and on that Monday, I nonchalantly messaged you, [Stephen Fee, senior director of communications and marketing], saying this would be something I’d work on as my independent study, if all went well with my professors.
You were more than thrilled for PEN America—or pen.org specifically—to be the platform for the project, which also made me excited. Then, we brought it up to Summer Lopez and Nora Benavidez, our colleagues in the Free Expression Programs team at PEN America, who ended up becoming major consultants for the project.
“Furloughs, layoffs, and newsrooms shuttering entirely directly affects the wellbeing of everyone who brings us the news and powers the newsrooms—and they’re the journalists themselves.”
We are so glad that you brought the project to PEN America. You said that you hope that this project humanizes the impacts of the pandemic—what do you mean by that, how do you think this project does that?
I think humanizing the impacts of the pandemic is most obvious through the “In Memoriam” section of the project, which of course pays tribute to the journalists and media professionals we’ve lost due to COVID. A quick note to say to that I’m also grateful to all the family members I’ve spoken with, who provided me with headshots of their loved ones or permission to use a specific photo of them, which I really believe further helped humanize the pandemic’s impact by putting a face to the names of those we’ve lost. The family members I’ve spoken with also had really kind words to say about the project, which deeply touched me.
In terms of the project’s other two sections, seeing how we humanize the impacts of the pandemic is a little more implicit, but we focus on newsrooms and five U.S. states that were among the most negatively affected. Of course, there are journalists, their lives, and their livelihoods that are affected as well. Furloughs, layoffs, and newsrooms shuttering entirely directly affects the wellbeing of everyone who brings us the news and powers the newsrooms—and they’re the journalists themselves.
Then with the “Free Press Threatened” section of the project, we see the threats—some of which are physical threats—and challenges that journalists have faced while reporting on the pandemic. Many journalists have faced attacks or harassment while doing their jobs during the pandemic; risks to their safety; and also challenges to do with censorship, denigration, and restrictions on information—it’s really quite inconceivable.
“One of the easiest things people can do—if they are able—is to support local journalism through subscriptions, donations, and however else their local outlets request funding or help. . . People who are interested in supporting local journalism may want to consider contacting their lawmakers to ask for local journalism to be considered in future relief bills.”
I was there when you were reaching out to a lot of these families, and it’s meaningful to be able to honor the work that was done, and also the lives that have been lost and how much that impacts all of us. Obviously these journalists and their families are affected most directly, but it’s also affected so many communities and democratic accountability in those communities. How do you want people to respond to this project? What can we do to bolster local journalism?
One of the easiest things people can do—if they are able—is support local journalism through subscriptions, donations, and however else their local outlets request funding or help. But with the pandemic, I know stimulus bills have also been up for heavy discussion in the House and Senate, so people who are interested in supporting local journalism may want to consider contacting their lawmakers to ask for local journalism to be considered in future relief bills.
In terms of the project at large, I’d ask people to just pore over it whenever they have a chance, so they can learn more about the pandemic’s toll on journalism in the United States. Again, the project is not meant to be comprehensive, but we have these three large umbrellas of how we approach showing the pandemic’s impact on the lives lost, newsrooms affected, and how free press has been threatened. I hope people do see the value of this project, which was a large undertaking over the last few months, and why journalism needs to be supported now more than ever.