When it is finally safe to celebrate what was scheduled as the 2020 Salute to Excellence in Healthcare with our community, it would be proper to dedicate the event in memory of Judy Wilson-Griffin. An African-American nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, she was the first person in the St. Louis metropolitan area to succumb to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, it is in the interest of social distancing to slow and ultimately halt the spread of the novel coronavirus that we postponed this year’s health salute, as countless community events are being canceled.
We mourn this healthcare worker and pray for the healing of her family. While other news media reported Judy’s name before we did (she was not named in the initial public announcement of the region’s first official death from COVID-19), we believe we may have been the first to post her photograph. We make this point not as some gruesome point-keeping about journalistic firsts regarding the tragic loss of a human life, but rather to discuss the way the community is responding to this crisis. The fact of Judy’s death before we knew her name or shared her photograph was passed over in relative silence by the readers of our website. Once her photograph was included, everyone could see that the crisis’ first victim was an African-American woman – someone who looks like any of us and our friends, sisters, wives, mothers, grandmothers. Only then did the story become something a great many people wanted to share. More than 1 million people have now read her story on stlamerican.com.
This is very important. Last week in our print edition, we reported a story with arguably more widespread and long-term impact than the region’s first tragic death from the pandemic. We reported the first evidence of community spread of the virus. Community spread means the infection could not be traced to someone traveling to another region or coming into contact with someone else known to be infected, but rather could have come from anyone or anywhere in the local community. It’s community spread that makes a pandemic, and from the first evidence of community spread we should know that we are in for the fight of our lives that had been predicted.
Our community spread story pointed out that the local man coping with the disease who received it from some unknown local source is African-American. We knew his name and had a photograph of him and his wife because they had provided them to us as a trusted media source. We had every right and permission to publish their names and photograph. However, before we did so we had a conversation with them pointing out that using their names and photograph would have tremendous personal impact. It would credit them for righteously pushing for a better public response to the pandemic. However, they should also expect responses that would be potentially damaging to their family – including ostracism from neighbors and broadcast news teams camped at their doorstep. They decided to withdraw permission to use their names and photograph.
As we expected, that story had less impact in the community than it deserved because there was no name or face to the story. It was being able to use Judy’s photograph and her name – after all, she is now far beyond and above any harassment or suffering here on Earth – that showed our community in very obvious ways that this is a disease that can sicken and kill someone who looks just like us. As the family in our community spread story described themselves, they are ordinary working people who live unremarkable local lives. Tragically, the first COVID-19 death in the City of St. Louis, Jazmond “Jazz” Dixon, only 31 years old, was another African American who contracted the disease locally.
In the interest of community impact and, ultimately, community health, we did identify the couple dealing with community spread as African-American. One thoughtful reader wrote to us asking why we specified their race. He said, in essence, don’t we have enough reasons to be feared and discriminated against without specifying black people as carriers of this terrible disease? We explained to him our intention of driving home to everyone that this disease can happen to anyone, and it is absolutely essential for the health of all of us that we all follow the simple (yet challenging) directions for limiting community spread. After discussing this matter with his friends on social media, where most of us are living even more of our lives now while we observe social distancing, this reader wrote back that he understood our decision and supported it.
This is a tremendously difficult time to practice community journalism, and this is not the last time we will be called upon to balance the negative impact on individual people versus the proactive, positive impact on our community as a whole. We only ask that our community continue to read our work and respond to our coverage and help to guide us in the responsible practice of community journalism. The only reason we do this difficult work is to empower and protect our community; we desperately want to help you survive and thrive.