Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
Last September, I started working on a series of short films about climate change and its effects on coastal communities as part of my Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. The first story was about the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, a sliver of land surrounded precariously by water off the Louisiana coast. A combination of oil drilling, dredging of the Mississippi river, and wetter and more frequent storms has caused the island to sink each year.
Once home to more than 300 Native American families, Isle de Jean Charles now has fewer than 10. The tribes have fought for decades to stay, but seven major storms hit the area in 2020, and the next one could tear any remaining homes to the ground. All but one of these families have agreed with the local government to move inland by the end of 2021, essentially ending nearly 200 years of occupancy on the island.
Documenting this retreat from Isle de Jean Charles would have been difficult under any circumstances. But during a pandemic, the challenges were manifold.
Isle de Jean Charles is a 90-minute car ride from New Orleans. Before the pandemic, even with the crawling traffic between my Brooklyn apartment and JFK airport, I could easily get to New Orleans, door-to-door, in under six hours. But this past October, with Covid-19 rates still climbing all across the country, flying would not be an option. My production team and I would have to drive.
The trip from New York to the gulf coast takes about 22 hours, and our route brought us through New Jersey, Maryland, DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Atlanta, Alabama, and Mississippi. We divided the driving into two days with the three of us each taking shifts. Our longest previous production road trip was 14 hours, but somehow the gap between 14 and 22 hours now seemed exceptionally tedious.
In total, we stopped four times for meals, five times for gas, and one time to sleep. We were terrified that each time we left the car we would be exposed to the virus. We weren’t fearful for ourselves, although perhaps we should have been. We were scared that, at any point, one of us could catch the virus and bring it to our sources.
As we got closer and closer to Louisiana, we noticed that states in the South were much more relaxed with their Covid precautions than we were in the North. From New York down until Virginia, we saw very few people without masks. Restaurants like McDonald’s had closed their dining rooms and were only Drive-Thru. All service areas required face coverings.
But as we entered the Carolinas and Georgia, we found ourselves at gas stations with other customers who were unmasked and seemingly unaware of the pandemic. We understood the science: wear masks, keep social distance, wash our hands, and we should be okay. But being in the field makes you paranoid. Every time one of us sneezed or coughed — which was often because two of us have seasonal allergies — we became more anxious and fearful that we would be arriving in New Orleans sick.
Planning for a documentary shoot is always stressful, even before the pandemic. I always worry about our gear working, our travel arrangements, printing out interview questions, feeding my team. I have never had to worry about getting my sources sick. And this new reality had a profound effect on the mood during the drive.
As journalists, you always want to get the story right, be fair, and protect the vulnerable. You always question what the story is and how you’ll go about getting it. But during the pandemic, we now had to worry about a different kind of ethical debate: should we be doing this story now? For 22 hours, as we chatted in the car about our reporting plans, we all had the same question in the back of our minds: what if we get our sources sick? Hundreds of thousands had died of Covid-19, and at the time, there seemed to be no vaccine or slowing of the virus. Sure, we had mitigated the risks the best we thought we could. We drove, wore masks, and we isolated. But undoubtedly, there was still a threat.
Luckily, none of my crew or our sources got sick. But as the virus continues to spike, and as reports of new strains of Covid emerge, I’m still faced with these moral questions. As a documentary filmmaker, I have to report in the field. I have to meet my sources. I can’t rely on email or phone calls. But what responsibility do I have to be more critical of my choices? Do I have to do this story now? Is my work ever worth risking someone else’s life or health?
Duy Linh Tu is a journalist and documentary filmmaker, focusing on education, science, and social justice.