As part of our collection of interviews exploring how human connection and relationships have been altered by the pandemic, the Viral Papers interviewed J.
As a journalist reporting in ICUs during the third wave of the virus, J found themselves on the ‘front line’ of the crisis. By matching harrowing footage with hard numbers (hospitalisation, death, and infection rates), J helped to provide the images iconic of the last few years of white coats and hasmat suits. J reflects on their time reporting in the wards, the challenges that opened up for them as a journalist building a relationship with their subjects, and what it means to bear witness to life and death moments in the lives of others.
VP: When you were at journalism school, were you taught anything that would potentially prepare you for this experience? Did you ever talk about how to cover such intense and traumatic situations?
J: No, not at all. It was a lot more practical – you’re not really put into those situations straight off the bat.
I did talk to colleagues before I went in because a lot of them have experiences with that sort of thing, particularly the camera operators. They are actually the most interesting people to talk to about it because they are very self-effacing, even though they’re the ones who have to actually focus on the picture and what is going on. They’ve seen really terrible, terrible things, and I get the sense that, with the older guard, they haven’t really had time to process a lot of stuff.
“The last thing you want to do as a journalist […] is to get visibly upset or overcome”
In general, I did get a sense from my colleagues that they ended up being a bit distant to what they were seeing – they were just observers. So, they didn’t speak about their experiences a lot. So no, I suppose no one really talks to you about what to do or how to feel.
VP: So, did you do any prep before you went into the hospital for the first time to film? And did your work provide any prep support?
J: At work, we do have a risk assessment person, who is quite old fashioned and practical. They talked about the formalities, about what we were going to have to wear, what the eventualities might be, what instructions the hospital had given us.
On a personal level, before I went into the first ICU, though, I did register that it would not be very nice, so I went and sat in the park, and listened to some music. I just wanted to be really calm – I tried to drain myself of feeling and get into a space where I was a bit cold and open to seeing things but not become emotionally attached to them. That’s the only way of describing it really. The last thing you want to do as a journalist, and I’ve seen it happen a few times, is to get visibly upset or overcome. That is really self-indulgent – you have to detach yourself from what is going on. So, by the time I met my colleague I wasn’t in a rush, I was ready.
VP: And how were you allowed into the hospital? As a journalist, are you able to have access to wherever you like? Or did the hospital have the choice to refuse your presence?
J: Definitely, they are. So, you have to arrange it first – someone got in touch with the press team there, who then talked to the doctors and nurses about us coming, to help them get ready and sort everything out. But very often, because things get organised so quickly with these sorts of visits, you just end up turning up, at the will and whim of the situation. I didn’t really know what was going to happen – I hadn’t really ever even been to a hospital properly, so I didn’t understand the difference, for example, between the ICU and a ‘hot ward’ (which is where patients who are still awake but very, very ill are kept). You just have to go in and absorb it all, really …
VP: What was that like, then, going into a hot ward where people were actually conscious? Obviously, they had been warned that you were coming in but what kind of reactions did you get? How did you feel when you went in? Did anyone look at you in any particular way?
J: That was definitely the weirdest part of it. People were sat there, awake, and obviously very bored and very, very ill. You’re not sure whether they want you there, although there were those who were happy for us to talk to them. And then, the strangest bit was the eye contact – you have to wear all of this stuff on your face, a vizor and a huge mask that covers almost all of your face, so, you can’t smile. It turns into a really weird interaction because you’re not there to help, you’re there to observe. A doctor or nurse would go up to them and do something useful. But we’re just there to look – that was something I felt really uncomfortable with, just the sensation of not being able even smile, and not knowing what to do. Should you smile with your eyes, do you wave, or is that completely inappropriate because that could come off as really flippant and frivolous because people are super ill and you’re waving at them.
At times, I just stood by and avoided eye contact. Sometimes, I tried to smile with my eyes, depending on their facial expression. It was really weird.
VP: What sort of expressions did they have on their faces? How did they look at you – did they smile at all?
J: No. They just looked. They had probably all been in there for so long and were used to people walking around all the time – we were dressed like the doctors, too, in PPE, so we wouldn’t necessarily have even looked that different. That part of it was really strange, too.
“We’re just there to look”
I do remember that one time we were in an ICU and it was very, very busy – someone was being transferred out while we were there by helicopter to another hospital, and everyone else was packed in like sardines. It was very peaceful because everyone in the ICU is asleep. But there was one man who was awake – I tried to smile with my eyes but ended up feeling really obsolete and really unsure of what I was doing in that space.
VP: So, can you briefly explain exactly what your purpose in the hospital was – why were you there?
J: We were there just to film. The hospitals we had spoken to really wanted us to come in because they were so, so busy, and they wanted us to film and show the world what was going on. They were a bit wide-eyed and desperate to show us what they were doing. The main sense we got was how overwhelmed they were – the hospitals were just heaving.
VP: In a conversation prior to this interview, you mentioned frustration amongst the nurses at one of the hospitals you went to, though. Why did that happen?
J: Mostly it was fine, yeah, but there was this one hospital where it was all quite last minute – they weren’t really prepared for us to be there. I was crouching down with the microphone while we were interviewing the head nurse, and there were some nurses walking behind me. I was in the way, and I heard them talking about how disruptive it was that we were there.
I can completely understand why they were complaining. They were busy and tired, and having people traipse around, taking interviews, and filling up a space that was already very busy, wasn’t great.
There was another time, too, when we were in an ICU for a prolonged period of time. The idea was that we were just going to sit there and watch what was going on and end up with a fly on the wall look at the work going on inside.
“What we’re looking for really are the shots that show the story of what happened – it is possible to do this in a way that no one will even be able to recognise themselves”
Halfway through, a doctor came up to us to ask if we wanted to film them admitting someone from A&E. We hadn’t captured that sort of thing before, so we ran down with him. When we got there, it was just awful: we saw a door swinging open, a woman in a bed being taken in, the nurses and doctors gathering around, really upset. We saw them move her over and put a pipe into her throat, and I could hear that really specific hissing sound when someone is having oxygen put in.
It transpired that the patient was someone they knew, who had had COVID and been coping well but had called in suddenly that evening from home and had deteriorated really quickly. It became very obvious that although some of the staff wanted us to film, some of the others didn’t.
There was a bit of a discussion – it felt too close to home for some staff while others really wanted us to show the work they were doing from start to finish. In the end, they asked us to hang back and film discreetly, so that what’s we did.
Obviously, we anonymise everything – no one would have been able to recognise the patient. What we’re looking for really are the shots that show the story of what happened – it is possible to do this in a way that no one will even be able to recognise themselves.
VP: Obviously this was a situation in which some of the doctors and nurses did the opposite of what they had been trained to do in terms of showing emotion. Can you talk a little bit about showing emotion and humanity as a journalist in that sort of situation?
J: Well, the reporter is the one who does this. Our reporter for these films is a really warm person and when you are doing interviews, you really need that humanity to come through. She showed a lot of empathy when she was interviewing the doctors and nurses and asked them questions about how they were feeling and what the experience was like for them. I did get a real sense of the personal toll that the crisis had on the staff from the pieces we shot, which was really important.
And we captured a lot of amazing moments, too, when the hospital staff were allowing their emotions and humanity through into their job, too. There was one moment in an ICU involving a woman who was hypoxic (this is when your body is really ill and starved of oxygen, and you become delirious and really happy, and you start hallucinating). She kept waking up in the night and thanking everyone around her endlessly – there was always a nurse by her, who was stroking her hand all night. I could see so much love and so much care in that gesture – it was the loveliest thing I had ever seen.
VP: Thinking to the future now, do you think this experience has changed the way you think about your job as a journalist? Has it changed the way you think about how you can balance being a human with doing ‘the job’? Has it given you a new sense of drive?
J: Definitely. Initially, I felt really indulgent about it all. I had a conversation about this with my colleagues because it felt like we were filming the same thing over and over again, and to what purpose? Where was the public interest in what we were doing? I remember someone saying something about not wanting to film drama for drama’s sake. That was something I was constantly aware of whilst we were filming. There was also the immense guilt of being in a space which family members weren’t allowed into – that was something I felt really, really bad about.
But more recently, I’ve been thinking about the experience and I’ve realised that it was so unusual and that was precisely why we were there – to document it. I really believe in the importance of archives – I look back at old pieces and think about the fact that, if no one had been there filming it, we wouldn’t have anything to take forward with us. It’s like if in 50 years’ time, someone wants to make a documentary about this pandemic or if there is another pandemic and they need the footage for whatever reason, we were there, gathering it. In a cold way now, I’ve understood that I’m just there to document. That’s the way I look at it now. It doesn’t feel moral or immoral, it’s just what journalists are there to do.
VP: You define journalism is pure documentation, but it has become so politicised in this country as the example of Nick Watts being attacked by the protesters shows. What do you think the role of journalists will be like going forward from COVID?
J: I think it’s really interesting actually because the whole rhetoric which surrounds journalists, which refers to them as ‘traitors’ and ‘liars’, has been there for several years. It always really annoyed me because language does have consequences – when politicians, and especially Cabinet secretaries, are really disparaging of mainstream media and slag it off, labelling anyone who listens to it as ‘Islington, Guardian readers’, it ends up feeding into something that is really negative, even if not everyone agrees with the sentiment.
A lot of the politicians did come out and did say that what happened to Nick Watts was terrible but we’re already in this state where journalism has become really politicised. It is the exact opposite of what it should be, though – we should be apolitical, not really even there, just watching it all, in a detached way. I do feel a lot of frustration at the situation because people trust these negative messages about journalists, even people who I meet at parties will say derogatory things about the BBC…
The journalist’s position has been eroded away definitely. And it is a bit depressing when you look at the shrinking figures of people who actually watch the news. Most people now get it off the internet and it feels as if the idea of the ‘established media’ has been lost, and that people just don’t believe it anymore.
“In a cold way now, I’ve understood that I’m just there to document […] it doesn’t feel moral or immoral, it’s just what journalists are there to do”
But over the past year, I’ve actually never felt more strongly about how important what we do is, and how important it is to be able to access the news from an unbiased, neutral source. This was something that became especially apparent when we started to find out about how the government were acting at the beginning of the pandemic and about all the chaos that was going on behind the calm statements that everything is fine. Listening to people who aren’t politicians, listening to what they are saying is going on, and documenting all of it, is so important. It feels like a huge task, and there are so many voices, and it is chaotic, but I do believe it has never been more important to report fairly what is going on.
With thanks to J for their time and words.