Reporting Advice from Joe Mozingo: Winner of the 2022 Dart Award

Dart Award winner, Joe Mozingo, offers advice on covering trauma.

Exemplary reporting on traumatic events requires skills that can take years of experience to master.

Joe Mozingo, winner of this year's Dart Award, displayed his expertise in "Disease, Inequity and Resilience in South L.A.", a series he worked on for The Los Angeles Times alongside colleagues Francine Orr, Hector Becerra and Robert St. John. The series portrays the ravages of the pandemic in South Los Angeles, a hotspot of COVID-19 deaths during the Delta surge. 

Below, Mozingo provides insights for other journalists on the complexities of covering trauma. On December 1st, his work will be honored at the annual Dart Awards at Columbia University. The ceremony is free of charge and open to the public. Find out further details, and register for the event here.

What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered while reporting this series, and how did you overcome them?
There were many. One was that we'd be following a patient for weeks, and knew the doctors and nurses on their floor. But then they would have an emergency and be transferred to a different department, where the doctor declined to give us access at a critical moment. So we missed some, which was extremely frustrating. But the hospital administrators knew our journalism and were behind the project and eventually smoothed those wrinkles out.
I must say biggest challenge was finding the story. By January 2021, tens of thousands of stories had been written about COVID. But as hospitals were overflowing in California, I never got the sense of what it was like to be a patient (or staff member) in one of those hospitals. So we got permission to visit the covid ward of the hardest hit hospital in the state, Martin Luther King Community Hospital in South LA. We arrived at 6 am the first morning. At a glance, it wasn't the horror-show, triage situation I was expecting. The floors were quiet. Nothing much was happening. We were a bit at a loss of what to do. I interviewed nurses, and their stories were harrowing, but I had read those stories before. Then there was a code blue on a different floor. A nurse took us up there and we saw Gilbert Torres, 30, making his last phone call before he was intubated. He was shaking and crying. Nurses were tearing up. I'd never seen someone look so terrified. It struck me this was the horrible crossroads of the disease. That day, I figured out my strategy: we would go through the floors and poll the nurses to find the severe cases that were at risk of being intubated. We would introduce ourselves to those patients and make our pitch. I think we ultimately followed 6 or 7 people. Our goal was to get their life stories and follow them as they either improved or deteriorated to the point of intubation. One patient died within an hour of our interview. Others were transferred to other hospitals where we lost acess. We ultimately wrote about the three patients in the first two stories, Torres, Zuñiga and Richard Perry.
How did you approach building trust with your subjects?
I told them straight ahead what we were trying to accomplish: that the general public did not seem to have an understanding of how terrifying severe covid is, and we wanted to show them. But to do so, we would be documenting them at their worst moments, when they looked and felt terrible, and that their family would need to participate to help us flesh their loved-one out. There was no pressure, because we didn't want to make someone more miserable than they were, or spend weeks with someone who has second thoughts at the end. After that, we just visited them every day and talked, informally, just got to know them as best we could, document their struggle even just to breathe. Many of them told us it was nice to have the company, as their experience alone in a hospital room was abjectly lonely and scary.
Unique ethical and moral questions typically arise when reporting on illness and in hospitals. Can you outline some of the questions that came up, and how you navigated them?
The main moral question was making sure that the patient fully understood what we were doing and did not feel coerced by us or the medical staff into participating. We also wanted to ensure that the standard of care didn't change the moment we were following a patient, so we were very atuned to that -- and saw no evidence that "our people" were getting special treatment. The ethics are fraught in that issue, because special treatment could of course be a good thing for those patients, but for our objective as journalists, it would be presenting an altered reality.
What was your process when working with photographer Francine Orr?
Francine and I worked together at every step. She shot images while I interviewed. We had enough time with the patients that we never had conflicting interests. I think it helped me, too, that many patients found her demeanor very comforting. We've worked before on intimate projects — notably on one about a group of children living in a drug-infested motel in San Bernardino — and we have a similar low-key straight-forward approach to getting people in sensitive situations to talk and to trust us.
What steps did you take during interviews to give your sources agency?
Nothing special. These were their stories, and I wanted them to tell me them from their standpoint. Because they couldn't talk for too long, due to the disease, we just kept coming back to hear bits and bits. And we visited their families to learn more. The whole point of the stories was to give a stark, granular account of the disease from the suffering person's point of view, so the public, particularly the COVID skeptics, could see the terror as close to first-hand as possible.
Reporting pieces like these can take a toll on journalists. Do you have any tips on how to care for yourself while covering trauma that might be helpful to share with aspiring journalists?
I've covered a lot of trauma — the Haiti earthquake for instance. I let the emotion hit me in the moment. I don't want to be some robot going around. You want to go in raw to let the little telling details strike a chord with you, make you choke up. Then you use those details to build the most powerful story you can, which can be cathartic. The story building helps you process the trauma you saw. And when you're done, try to let go. Go get some exercise, watch a movie. You'll never forget what you saw. It will always be with you. And certainly how much an event haunts you can have so much to do with where you are in life. (When I had to rewrite on the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, my son was in the third grade and I could barely bear to think about those kids dying). If you can't stop dwelling on a story that's really affecting you negatively, seek professional help.