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Crowded hospitals. Empty classrooms. Persistent unemployment. Shifting public safety rules.
The New York Times is full of stories about the coronavirus pandemic and the nation’s erratic progress toward containing it. But traditional news articles don’t quite capture the surreal way many Americans are experiencing everyday life in 2020: a paradoxical mix of severe social isolation and the feeling of overcrowding that comes of too much time cooped up with our dearest relatives. Even those lucky enough to have avoided serious illness and job loss have seen their daily lives altered in ways they couldn’t have imagined as recently as February. In some parts of the country, the stress of avoiding illness has been compounded by a long season of wildfires or hurricanes.
The Times’s National desk has been looking for ways to capture this new abnormal. One answer is this: “Family, Interrupted,” a new weekly series of conversations with families from across the country about the myriad irritations, sorrows, panics and even small joys they have lived with.
Correspondents around the country are contributing to the project, which Clinton Cargill and I, editors on the National desk, are shepherding. “All the stress and challenges people are facing come without our normal support networks and the release valves we get from social life,” Mr. Cargill said. “It’s increasingly clear that we’ll be living this way for quite a while. We wanted to find a way to reflect that experience.”
The short stories are told in the subjects’ own words and give readers a glimpse into the challenging lives we’re leading behind closed doors.
“Short” is perhaps misleading. For while the interviews are distilled into tightly condensed pieces, National desk correspondents have spent considerable time getting to know their subjects through multiple lengthy conversations — not just about their current upside-down existence but also about their pre-pandemic lives.
The correspondent Audra D. S. Burch, whose story about Carl and Jesse Crawford and their six children in Sterling, N.Y., kicked off the series, conducted four interviews in all. Her conversations, especially with Ms. Crawford, were long by design. “I was particularly interested in the emotion behind each decision,” she said. “What felt freeing? (Walks while listening to birds chirp.) What kept you up at night? (The thought of Mr. Crawford contracting the virus and spreading it to the children.) I thought it was important to explore human connectors, the emotions that we have all grappled with to some degree: fear of the known and unknown, wariness, anxiety, but also bursts of joy and light.”
The portraiture that accompanies the “Family, Interrupted” stories is also designed to be distinct from that in our daily coverage. Heather Casey, a photo editor on the National desk, commissioned Mohamed Sadek to create photographs and arresting video portraits with a slow zoom that encourages you to pause and really contemplate the images, creating a sense of intimacy with our subjects.
Our latest story involves four New Jersey siblings who were orphaned in a matter of months, losing one parent and then the other. In coming weeks, we’ll talk with grandparents raising grandchildren outside Philadelphia — helping young boys with remote education and simultaneously fretting about their own health. We’ll introduce readers to a couple in the Pacific Northwest who lost their jobs to the pandemic and their home to a wildfire. And we’ll interview an older couple in Las Vegas who have been kept apart from children and grandchildren for months.
“There is not a person in America who has not found life interrupted by the coronavirus,” said Marc Lacey, The Times’s National editor and the driving force behind this series. “We hope readers will relate to these stories and share their own.”
Among the eternal privileges of journalism is the willingness of ordinary people to chat with reporters, opening up a bit of their lives to the public, even in moments of hardship or stress. What, I often wonder, makes them brave enough to share a piece of themselves with us and, thus, with you?
Amy Harmon, the correspondent whose story about two grandparents, Mort and Marla Zwick, will appear in a few weeks, has one theory. “I think maybe the Zwicks, like so many people who are literally isolated from friends and family during this pandemic, felt that sharing their story could be a way of connecting to others.”