“Civic journalism” is the concept that sometimes reporters and photographers may find themselves in a situation in which they might have to step out from behind the camera or put down the recorder and provide aid to a subject.
These circumstances usually occur as a journalist is covering a natural disaster or an emergency event like a fire and find themselves a first responder ahead of agency personnel.
In covering an event like a pandemic, the most important function a journalist can have is providing accurate information to help people make decisions that keep them safe and able to help others.
But sometimes that isn’t enough.
That was the case PinalCentral journalist Katie Sawyer found herself in recently. The Maricopa reporter was doing a story of a local woman with COVID-19 symptoms. The woman has five children between the ages of 10 and 19 and a husband living with her in her Maricopa home. She has rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and an inoperable brain tumor and receives chemotherapy. She’s a Navy veteran and a grocery store employee. Her symptoms began March 4.
Katie saw a comment the woman made on Facebook about her symptoms and reached out to her. They talked about her situation over the phone and the fact that she couldn’t seem to get tested.
“After we hung up, full disclosure, I bawled,” Katie told me. “This woman was coughing while on the phone with me, and I could hear the worry in her voice when she talked about her kids. The doctor had told her to self-quarantine, but in a house with six people and children that need her, how is she supposed to do that?”
Katie then called different U.S. Veterans Affairs centers and got a lot of conflicting information. One receptionist said they did have testing but weren’t sure where, while an emergency room representative told her they had no tests across the board. She called other hospitals and urgent care centers to find out about testing opportunities.
She discovered that unless a patient was exhibiting all the symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, and had traveled recently, and had come into contact with a proven positive, they could not be tested. This was before Banner Health rolled out its “car testing.”
That was information Katie included in her initial story. But what began as a journalist doing her job of gathering information for a complete story turned into a personal quest for Katie to help this woman get tested.
Katie got a call from the woman while she was in the car coming home from Phoenix with her 12-year-old daughter and husband, who were both now sick with the same symptoms. She told Katie she had heard about the car testing Banner was doing and had called twice to make an appointment, but the hospital had canceled both because it was so busy.
“I understand there’s a lot of people waiting for testing who are sick right now. A lot of people are asking why bother if you know what you have, but the unknown is the scariest part — there are whole TV shows dedicated to unknown illness,” Katie said. “This poor woman was told she had bronchitis, came home and her whole family started getting sick. It could spread throughout her home, and if it’s not COVID-19, then it’s treatable. She just wants answers, and as a veteran, a mother and a cancer patient, I think she deserved to know what’s happening to her family.
Katie then posted to Facebook with a plea for any information people had on where and when testing was available in Arizona. People were very helpful and kind, and she received a lot of responses. She was able to find out that Valley Urgent Care was conducting drive-thru testing.
“I called, and a woman answered. I practically begged this lady on the phone. I told her I had a family that needed testing. That she was a veteran with brain cancer and whatever the illness was, it was spreading to her family,” Katie said. “The woman on the phone listened to me, took down their information and said ‘OK, I’ve got three test kits reserved for them.’”
The receptionist said test results would take three to five days. Katie texted the woman the information and later she texted back to confirm the family had an appointment scheduled.
The results that came back Friday were negative, which was a relief for the family, and yes, Katie.
Journalists can be bystanders to the world around them, often witnessing people in great distress. But sometimes journalists must actively contribute to community life rather than serve as detached spectators.
Katie went above and beyond her job duties. And thanks to her, a family can rest a little easier tonight.