When Tiffany Wong was writing the story for the Los Angeles Times of how the COVID-19 pandemic had devastated the Kim family, she had to address the bleak facts. Hannah and Joseph Kim, age 22 and 17 respectively, had lost their father and grandmother to the virus, and their mother was clinging to life, in need of a double lung transplant. The siblings were living alone in their family’s Koreatown apartment.
“At the beginning, it was really frightening,” Hannah was quoted in Wong’s June 23 article in the Times. “Not because we were scared of anything, but we were so lonely, and it was really quiet.”
Wong, a rising senior majoring in journalism at USC Annenberg and East Asian languages and cultures at USC Dornsife, made sure her story not only recounted how Hannah’s father and grandmother had died, but also celebrated their lives. How her grandmother, Soon Sun, had taken her grandchildren to pick gingko nuts in a local park where they grew up in Washington state, and how her father, Timothy, used his sense of humor to defuse any tension in the family.
“Hannah was so open about her family’s situation,” Wong said. “It was crazy to think that someone just a few years older than me had to go through something so horrible, yet here she was still sounding so determined to bring her mom back home.”
Wong earned one of six USC Annenberg internships that assigns students and recent graduates to the paper’s series “The Pandemic’s Toll: Lives Lost in California.” The Times launched the series in early May to identify and profile all of the people who have died from COVID-19 across the entire state of California.
The interns who started in May are Wong, Chace Beech (MA, journalism, ’20), Megan Botel (specialized journalism, graduates in December 2020), Tomás Mier (BA, journalism, ’20), Isaiah Murtaugh (MA, specialized journalism, ’20) and Hayley Smith (MA, journalism, ’20). Botel and Murtaugh left the program in late June, as both of them earned one-year Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowships to work with the GroundTruth Project. They were replaced by Astrid Kayembe, a rising senior journalism major, and Xinlu Liang (MA, specialized journalism, ’20).
The paper knew that it had a responsibility to document the lives that been claimed in the pandemic, says Mitchell Landsberg, a senior editor at the Times. “We felt that it was important to remind readers that these are not just numbers, these are people who have died,” he said.
Because of the scope of the task, Landsberg said, “It quickly became clear that we could use as much help as we could get.” Looking to recruit talented young journalists from USC Annenberg as interns, Landsberg reached out to Diane Winston, associate professor and Knight Center Chair in Media and Religion, asking for help with the project — while also noting that the Times wasn’t in a position to pay the salaries of new interns.
Winston quickly connected with her colleagues to identify funding sources for the internships, and also create a process for students to apply. Mark Schoofs, visiting professor, worked to secure funding for the internships — at a time when he was also preparing to return to BuzzFeed News as editor-in-chief.
“This project is incredibly important,” Schoofs said. “This is one of the most important historical events in the life of the country, and it’s a newspaper’s job to record and memorialize the lives that we lost, and bear witness to that loss.”
Ultimately, the Pulitzer Center, USC Annenberg alumna Shelly Atkinson, an anonymous donor, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and the USC Annenberg Knight Program in Media and Religion donated the funds to support six internships, which run from May 18 to Aug. 11.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for our students to memorialize the stories of people who might otherwise be forgotten,” Winston said. “It’s hard to make that first call to someone who’s lost a loved one and intrude upon their grief. However, it becomes almost a gift to the journalist to be let into a circle of intimacy, and to come to know the person who died.”
Associate Professor of Professional Practice Alan Mittelstaedt, who is coordinating the program, said the faculty review committee received 67 applications for the internships. “What all of these applicants had in common was a desire to help tell one of the biggest stories of their lifetimes,” he said.
The diverse backgrounds, talents and life experiences the interns have brought to the project have helped them tell these stories of loss. With COVID-19 hitting communities of color particularly hard, Mier says that a strong sense of mission drives him in his work.
“Half the cases of coronavirus in the state of California are Latinos,” Mier said. “As a Latinx person myself, I felt that the L.A. Times would need more Latinos to interview the families of the deceased, who might not speak English. Seeing my own community disproportionately affected by this virus really motivated me to try to cover my community effectively and share their stories.”
For Beech, whose work during her master’s program focused on writing about how families and communities come to terms with death and dying, her time in the program has been both rewarding and challenging.
“One of the most devastating things, what scared me the most, was that these people are dying alone,” Beech said. “They can’t be with their families who love them. As someone who has been studying and writing about end-of-life issues, about how those times can be an opportunity to bring people together and share in love with one another, the isolation of the COVID-19 cases is just difficult to hear about.”
“It feels like an honor to be allowed into these people’s lives,” Beech added. “I hope that my writing about people they loved and cared for is helpful to them.”
Landsberg is effusive in his praise of the interns, who had written more than 50 profiles for the project by the first week of July. “Every one of them has done excellent work,” he said, noting that Murtaugh’s story on day laborer Gaspár Gómez was chosen for the prestigious Column One spot on the front page of the Times. “They’ve been highly productive and have been writing very moving stories about the lives that have been lost. It’s obviously difficult work, but I think they've all found it enriching.
“These interns have been the backbone of the project,” Landsberg added. “I don't know that we could have done this without them.”