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Jeanette Beebe ’14 on COVID-19 journalism, poetry, and “how to be terrible”

Jeanette Beebe.JPG
Jeanette Beebe ’14.
Courtesy of Jeanette Beebe

Jeanette Beebe 14 is a journalist focused on healthcare and technology. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has served as a reporter and editor for The Atlantic’s COVID-19 Tracking Project. She also writes a daily newsletter for NJ News Commons about COVID-19 related stories in New Jersey. She spoke to the Daily Princetonian about her time at Princeton, her career in health journalism, and her process for covering COVID-19 in a local context.

The Daily Princetonian: When you first entered Princeton, what was your dream job? And why did your four years push you towards journalism?


Jeanette Beebe: When I was a freshman, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do after Princeton. I just knew what I enjoyed and what kind of gave meaning to my life. And those were literary things, especially with a focus on gender. And so for example, my first year, I was the director of The Vagina Monologues, which was really fun and rewarding. We raised money for a local women's shelter in Trenton, and that was fulfilling. I did join the paper as a writer for The Street my first year, but I didn't know what I wanted to do exactly after.

DP: How did you eventually decide on journalism? Was that a decision that you made after college or in your senior year?

JB: My junior year, I took an audio journalism course. And that was really transformational for me. Because before that, I had done written and video. But when I started doing radio, it just all clicked for me and realized that this medium was something that I was really fascinated by. Then after graduation, I got an internship with the local NPR station, WHYY. And that was, wow. Off to the races.

DP: You said that literary things gave meaning to your life. What were some important literary works, whether that be books or poems, that shaped you while you were a college student?

JB: Oh, I love that question. No one asks me about poetry. One of my favorite poets is Sharon Olds. I also really fell in love with spoken word poetry and slam poetry when I was in high school in Iowa — that performance mode of poetry, where there's a connection between you and the audience, and you can see it in people's eyes when you're reading a poem. Now that I think of it, there's probably a throughline there of me wanting to connect with audiences on stage as a poet and me wanting as a writer, or as someone on the radio, to connect with listeners, you know?

DP: How has the pandemic influenced which poems you're writing? Do you write about different topics, now that the world around us is so different?


JB: Yes. My poetry took a turn about a year ago towards journalism, basically looking at questions of truth and lies and trust. The big idea topics like the ethics of reportage. And obviously, a poem can say something that journalism cannot. I can do different things with the voice in my poems.

DP: It makes sense that you've jumped into journalism, too, because that profession seems like a clear way to connect with people. Going back to Princeton for a second: What was the most surprising lesson you learned about the craft of writing?

JB: I learned how to be terrible. I learned how to be the writer who I don't want to be now — to let myself be messy and even embarrassing so I could evolve into the type of writer that I know I have potential to be.

Everyone is incredible at Princeton, and being among so many talented people was inspiring to me. At the same time, I also enjoyed feeling anonymous. I didn't necessarily want to be the best; I wanted to be among the best, because that's how you grow. You don't grow from being a tall mountain among little hills, right? You grow by being in a range of high peaks. I felt grateful to have that experience at Princeton.

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DP: I'm really interested in what you have to say about this. I think it's important for Princeton students, because many of them were the best writers at their small high schools, but then they come here unprepared to fail. There's an article in Princeton Alumni Weekly about this exact phenomenon. Have you seen that?

JB: Oh, cool. No, I haven’t.

DP: It was good. It was about students who got rejected from the more exclusive clubs on campus and then learned how to rebound.

JB: For journalism specifically, I think it’s vital to be inclusive. As a field, as journalists, we have a responsibility to do the right thing for our readers. If we don't look or come from the same backgrounds as our audiences, then we're not going to engender the same trust as the legacy way of doing journalism.

DP: A lot of people, myself included, tend to follow the coronavirus on a national level. We see the tallies every night on TV of how many hundreds of thousands of people have died. But why is it important, in your view, to study the coronavirus on a state and local level?

JB: I think it's important because no one has a greater stake in your community, whether it's state or county or local, than you do if you're in it. If you live in a part of the community that you report on, then you will more easily be held accountable for what you're doing. If you compare that to what's kind of known as parachuting in  — where a national outlet sends a reporter to cover a big story in a community that they're not familiar with at all — then that reporting often feels false, because they're not doing the hard, long difficult work of being in that community.

The coronavirus is a really intimate story. It's about families that are being pulled apart. It's about illness that spreads from close contact. It's about people who are dying alone behind barriers. It's both a big story and a small story. And I've found that the most tender, important reporting is work that's done carefully and often slowly with a close investment in the people around you.

DP: You’re from Iowa originally. How have you done the hard work necessary to cover communities in New Jersey?

JB: Writing a newsletter every day, day in and day out, and then outlets across the state send me stories to feature in the newsletter every day. I love that, because that allows me to kind of beam into what's going on in their community.

DP: Which corona-related stories in New Jersey have encouraged you recently? And on the flip side, which stories have discouraged you?

JB: One of the outlets that inspires me the most is NJ Spotlight. Their coverage is typically quite deep, and they do it on a daily basis. It’s not just the healthcare reporter that's writing coronavirus stories; it’s the budget financial reporter as well.

I haven't come across anything that has disappointed me. I've seen a lot of careful, dogged reporting both investigative and daily. I've also seen a lot of attention to the numbers, and being really transparent about what the numbers mean.

DP: Are there any other editorial choices you’ve made to your newsletter that you’ve found helpful?

JB: I started a section called “not everything’s terrible.” It’s just a line and then a few links under it, and that’s been really popular. And in fact, when I took it out for a few days people complained. It’s just like less terrible links — something positive at the end, and readers seem to like that.

DP: What's an example of a story that isn't terrible that you've put in there?

JB: A giraffe at the zoo had a baby, or something like that. That's an example. They tend to be animal stories or “local person does good” stories. I think with old-school journalism, there's a temptation to not do those stories that are uplifting, even modestly uplifting. But I try to seek those out, because I think it's important to end on a good note every day.

DP: How has your background in health reporting — you've written a lot about the American healthcare system, insurance, unfilled prescriptions, health data — formed you and helped you cover the pandemic right now?

JB: The subject matter background is vital, and it’s helpful to understand how hospitals and the health care system works. But I think what's more important is knowing how to talk to people. Something that I love doing as a healthcare reporter is talking with patients and trying to understand how they are interacting with the healthcare system, as well as how the decisions that are made at a big level are affecting their daily lives. During the pandemic, person-to-person empathy skills are really necessary. I think that's kind of lost sometimes — not in reporters’ coverage, but in the conversation about journalism.

I think there are two types of empathy. As a journalist, you should first know how to have empathy for the people in this story while also being able to do your job. And the second type of empathy is what you said: it's understanding how readers and audiences think. If you can't connect with your audience, what are you doing? Journalism is for the audience.

DP: How much is empathy an innate trait? Is it something that can be taught and learned?

JB: Empathy can totally be taught, and that's a beautiful thing. If it couldn't, then it would limit who can be an artist and who can be a journalist, or who can be anyone who's trying to connect with someone else. It can definitely be taught; it just takes patience and humility, because it's not an easy thing to admit that you're not so good at feeling empathy. It takes bravery.

When you're having an interview with someone, and you're quoting them, especially if they're not a person in the public eye, that person is trusting you. They’re being really vulnerable. I think journalists should have empathy for that act. It's a beautiful thing that our sources do, and journalism should reflect that.