A Writer Searches for the Tension Points in America

From an Inside the Times story by Megan DiTrolio headlined “With Empathy, a Writer Searches for the Tension Points in America”:

The menu at Old Station Subs in Phoenix is simple and, for its cast of regulars, satisfying: hot pastrami. Turkey and cheese. Tuna salad.

But the situation outside the restaurant is very much the opposite. Joe and Debbie Faillace, who have owned the shop since 1986, have watched for three years as one of the largest homeless encampments in the United States has grown around their front door. As many as 1,100 people sleep outdoors in the area, many of whom suffer from mental illness or substance abuse.

Eli Saslow, who joined The New York Times as a writer at large in February, wanted to learn how the epidemic of unsheltered homelessness in the city affected small businesses there. But he also wanted to capture a community canvassed in suffering, the entangled lives of people, from all walks of life, who are just trying to get by. So he decided to write about Old Station Subs.

To report the article, in February he traveled to Phoenix twice; during his visits, he spent nearly all day, every day, with business owners and those in the homeless encampment. He estimates he reported for 100 hours — half of them in the neighborhood — and spoke with upward of 50 people. And of course, he ate at Old Station Subs, opting for Reubens and chicken salad.

In Mr. Saslow’s article, which was published in The Times on Sunday, there are no winners or losers, heroes or villains. There are just people, struggling with their circumstances. In an interview, Mr. Saslow shared more about his reporting: how he landed on the idea; the ethical considerations he weighed; and why he thinks it’s crucial to approach journalism with a deep sense of empathy. Read the interview below, which has been edited and condensed.

How did you get the idea for this story and why did you select it as your first Times byline?

I’ve spent a lot of time reporting not only about homelessness in the country, but also on all of the ways in which systems aren’t working, particularly in terms of inequality, and how that gap in our country is getting alarmingly larger. What I’m looking to do in my reporting is ask, What are the big tension points in America? Rather than just writing about them as issues, how can I find the people who are actually living out these major tension points?

I’ve seen the ways in which homelessness issues have become a tinderbox in cities. You have a lot of people sleeping unsheltered around the country, and you have these small businesses who’ve been through a really rough stretch because of the pandemic, trying to survive. They feel abandoned, as if this problem at their doorstep is theirs to solve. I wanted to figure out how I could tell that story.

Something you built out so well in the piece was this dual-framed narrative: There are the shop owners, Joe and Debbie, and then the people in the homeless encampment. There’s tension, but you don’t pit them against each other. Empathy can sometimes be a charged word in reporting; it can be interpreted as “siding with,” which journalists are taught to shy away from. Your article seeps with empathy, but never takes sides. How did you balance that?

I’m never rooting for an outcome or arriving in someone’s life as an advocate — I’m there as an observer. But it’s also not true to say that I don’t care. If I don’t care about the people that I’m meeting or the things that I’m seeing, how can I ever hope to write a story that’s going to make other people care? I have to care and feel invested, not in a way that I’m favoring one person over another or rooting for a certain outcome, but I have to tap into my own empathy and humanity. When I’m going into the encampment or spending time with Joe and Debbie, I’m not there to judge them for their decisions or their actions. I’m there to try to understand them and their circumstances.

While I’m reporting, I’m doing whatever I can to make people feel comfortable in my presence. It’s a lot to ask of people, like, hey, can I be there when your business is falling apart, or can I sit out here on the street with you tonight while you’re smoking methamphetamine and trying to stay awake so you don’t get assaulted? Mostly I’m trying to be thoughtful and easy to be around.

How do you build trust and host conversations that elicit honest responses?

The best way to build trust is by spending time with people, in person, and being present in their lives. It’s listening. It’s observing. The first time you have a conversation with somebody, their answer is going to be less complete or honest than when they know you and trust you. Traditionally, when people think of a journalist and what a journalist does, the first thing that comes to mind is interviewing. Of course I interview — I’m in conversation with the people that I’m writing about all the time — but I’m also observing a lot.

It’s allowing myself to sit in the space with people. That’s also what can be really challenging in these kinds of stories; it’s not very natural for people to have a journalist there and to not pay attention to the journalist. All the things in the story are informed by interviewing, but its dialogue — people talking to one another — and scenes that makes a story really narrative.

One of the women that you interviewed said she experienced delusions. It’s a key to maintain trust, but as a reporter,you also have to ensure factual accuracy. How do you do that?

The ethics of journalism are always really interesting and complicated. With Shina, who in the story goes by Espy because that’s what she thinks her name is, and that’s what everybody calls her, it’s challenging to write about that kind of mental illness where you’re honoring both her reality and the actual reality. She told me what her real name was; I could look it up and check the facts of her life. But it would be demeaning for me to dismiss her day-to-day experience. That’s what’s relevant to the story. That was complicated.

Does this type of reporting take a toll on you? How do you keep perspective?

I would say it’s three levels: The first thing is, yes, doing work where you’re in proximity to trauma or pain, which is the kind of journalism that I’ve done for 15 years, can be taxing. Fortunately, I have such a happy, privileged life with kids and a good marriage. It’s true that sometimes it’s important to recuperate and breathe.

The much bigger truth is that whatever I’m experiencing is so infinitesimal compared to the people that I’m writing about, it almost feels embarrassing to talk about. For all the great privileges of being a journalist, the greatest one of all is that for me, the stories end. I move on to the next one. Shina is still, as far as I know, suffering severe mental illness and trying not to get stabbed or shot on the corner across from Old Station Subs. Joe and Debbie are still trying to figure out how to unwind this business that’s been the epicenter of their lives. None of these people have the option of walking away from the hard parts of their own stories. I’m always trying to center their experience of that to keep perspective.

The final thing — and this is the most true answer — is that for whatever this work takes out of me, it gives me so much more. I get to do work that feels human.


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