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A star journalist shares how she weaves powerful narratives from stark disparities

A star journalist shares how she weaves powerful narratives from stark disparities

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Over the past few years, Linda Villarosa has produced an enviable series of urgent and deeply moving cover stories for The New York Times Magazine. From her 2017 story on "America's Hidden HIV Epidemic” among black gay and bisexual men to her April story on striking disparities in COVID-19 death rates in New Orleans, Villarosa’s stories harness gripping narratives to make abstractions about how race shapes health intimately real for her readers.

These are stories that have a way of making people take notice of chronically neglected health crises. For instance, her 2018 cover story on disproportionately high death rates among Black mothers and babies was nominated for a National Magazine award, but more importantly, it played a crucial role in putting a long-overlooked disparity squarely on the radar of politicians and hospitals.

How does she keep pulling off these marquee stories? And how does she manage to make such weighty themes come alive as riveting human dramas rather than, say, thinly veiled issue briefs topped with an anecdote? Villarosa shared insights into her working process with fellow reporters taking part in this week’s online 2020 National Fellowship, ranging from how she finds stories to how she seeks to outflank the competition to how she maintains her emotional balance when delving into personal tragedy and loss.

Her reporting often begins with the serendipitous little moments all reporters will recognize: An offhand comment, a statistic that catches her eye, a tip about a small organization worth checking out. “But once that happens, it goes wild from there,” Villarosa said. “I just fasten my seat belt and listen to people who say, ‘You should talk to this person.’”

For her story on the disproportionate rate of Black maternal and infant deaths, it was a jaw-dropping statistic from a lawyer friend at a soccer match: “A Black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a White woman with less than an eighth-grade education,” as she would later write in the Times story. With that as her starting point, she pitched the magazine. The green light came back quickly, but she needed a narrative and she had to move fast, her editor told her. At the time, ProPublica and WNYC were working on similar projects.

She started her reporting in earnest, attending a conference of doulas where she discovered the Birthmark Doula Collective and the organization’s co-founder, Latona Giwa. At the time, the group’s doulas provided pro bono services to more than 400 clients in New Orleans a year.  It was through Giwa that Villarosa would meet Simone Landrum, a pregnant mother of two sons whose previous pregnancy had ended in the stillborn death of her daughter. The story of Giwa’s efforts to shepherd Landrum through her subsequent high-risk pregnancy would become the narrative heart of the piece.

Villarosa’s bedrock approach is to start with advocacy organizations doing work on the ground in a given community. Such groups typically reside outside the realm of established powers and institutions that seek to stymie or control access, and they can make crucial early introductions to jumpstart reporting. The Birthmark Doulas weren’t attached to any given hospital or professional group, for instance. 

Once Villarosa finds the narrative epicenter of her story, she embeds herself as deeply as she can in her subjects’ lives. 

She was at a holiday party in New York when the call came that Landrum was about to go into labor. She rushed to New Orleans the next morning and learned it was a false alarm, so she settled into an Airbnb, met everyone in Landrum’s circle and even cooked meals for her. When Landrum did finally give birth, Villarosa was there, along with her doula, to witness the entire ordeal, as her all-White care team made a series of basic mistakes, while treating her with dismissiveness and condescension.

“I would never let someone treat someone I loved like that,” she recounted. “It was shocking.” After the baby was born, Villarosa drove across town to bring Landrum’s two older sons to the hospital to meet their new brother. Finally, Villarosa dashed out under the pretense of taking a shower to write down everything she could recall from the birth. She had been so immersed in the fate of Landrum and the baby that she hadn’t taken any notes. 

Getting that close to the people you’re writing about inevitably prompts the kind of question Villarosa got from a group of investigative students at City College of New York, where she directs the journalism program: “Do you have any boundaries?”

She’s candid: “I don’t have any boundaries. I need to get some boundaries!” That kind of openness to her subjects allows her to witness scenes and gain degrees of access others couldn’t. She says she relies on her instincts about people. But her practice of patient listening also means “getting a collection of people who are still in my life who have a lot of problems still,” she said.

It’s part of a broader emphasis she places on modeling empathy and openness to the struggles of those we write about. She recalled a time earlier in her career when she insulated herself emotionally from her subjects. “Then I kind of started realizing my writing wasn’t the greatest because I was always pulling down that curtain and not feeling anything. ‘I’m a journalist and I shouldn’t be feeling…’ We do have feelings, and your feelings make your writing better.” 

Maintaining that kind of emotional investment in your work as a journalist can take a toll over time. Villarosa tries to find release by playing soccer, running, hiking, fishing and seeing a therapist.

“I do lots of those self-care kinds of things,” she said. “You have to figure out a way to hold your heart, hold your soul and your humanity. Otherwise, if you ignore it, you will either have a breakdown or you’ll just be a brick wall and you’ll sound like a brick wall in your writing and work, which is not what you want.” 

Going beyond statistics or academic concepts and writing about what health disparities actually look like on the ground, in the fabric of real people’s lives as they struggle to survive and thrive, as Villarosa has done, is tremendously challenging and essential work.

“From my experience, it’s kind of lonely,” she said. “I think it’s easier now, but it used to be hard to get people to report on this, because it’s very time-consuming, it’s difficult… It really is difficult reporting. But it’s very valuable, and it’s urgent and necessary right now.”

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