2020 Took Toll on Local Reporters

The physical and mental cost of covering the dual crises tested Twin Cities journalists’ commitment to their mission.

by Marcos Odegard and Thuy-Sa Truong

Libor Jany interviews a witness at a crime scene in the middle of the night. His late nights in the field helped him win 2021 Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists. (Photo by Mike Shum)
Libor Jany reports in the field. (Photo courtesy Mike Shum)

Libor Jany said he felt conflicted when he accepted the award for Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists. Jany won the award in 2021 for his work at the Minneapolis Star Tribune covering the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd. But the accolade didn’t sit right with him.

“(The death of Floyd) was the source of so much pain and trauma for so many people,” the now Los Angeles Times crime reporter said. “So, it doesn’t seem right for me to be on a stage somewhere smiling and accepting some award based off that. It just doesn’t feel right.”

When the murder of Floyd collided with the COVID-19 pandemic in Minneapolis and St. Paul during the summer of 2020, tenacious local journalists dove into coverage. From cities-wide protests to the conviction of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and continuing efforts to overhaul the culture of policing in America, these stories earned journalists professional esteem, but also saddled them with lasting emotional trauma.

Jany, who grew up in St. Paul, was the lead crime reporter at the Star Tribune at the time. He was no stranger to late-night crime scenes and public unrest, but nothing compared to the news he got on Memorial Day 2020. He was working the holiday shift when he caught wind of a man who had died in police custody. The Minneapolis Police Department’s initial statement claimed Floyd had died following a “medical incident,” but Jany had gotten a tip that it wasn’t true. He spent all night at the crime scene – now George Floyd Square at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue – trying to capture the full story, which he published shortly after 9 a.m. the following day.

Star Tribune crime reporter Liz Sawyer praised Jany’s commitment to uncovering the truth in the Floyd case despite conflicting information from authorities. While the rest of the public safety team worked already lengthy shifts from 9 a.m. to past midnight, Jany would strive for more, Sawyer said. She recalled that when he was finally ordered to go home, Jany would only pretend to comply, choosing to stay in the field.

Traversing a city full of pain, anger and violence was not an easy job, Sawyer said. Having painful conversations with Floyd’s family took a toll on the whole team, Jany included. Members of the public could choose not to watch the graphic footage of Floyd’s death, but journalists didn’t have that luxury.

“When you watch those videos and you spend all this time in the field, sometimes witnessing violence and unrest, you bring it home with you. You dream about it, and it can become really emotional,” Sawyer said. “It’s hard to forget scenes like that.”

As national and local news descended on Minneapolis to cover the city’s response to the death of Floyd, an army of freelance journalists joined the fray.

Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Minneapolis-based Deena Winter, a longtime reporter caught in between staff jobs at the height of COVID-19, took a freelance assignment from the Wall Street Journal to cover the protracted protests.

In order to do so, she first had to take a Wall Street Journal hazard training course for reporters working in conflict zones. Then she received a box in the mail with protective gear, including a gas mask, helmet and a chemical solution to nullify pepper spray, worth $1,000. It dawned on her how risky of an assignment it was, Winter said.

“Obviously (the Journal) knew it was a liability,” Winter said. “They had these people who were in war zones all over the world training us.”

Walking alongside protesters through burned-out streets, she saw ordinary people bearing enormous guns on their shoulders.

“And you’re just like, ‘What? Is this even legal? That’s like a machine gun, right?’” Winter recalled, fearing the situation could turn at any time.

While most of the demonstrators were peaceful, she kept an eye out for provocateurs who wanted things to turn violent.

Looking back, Winter said she relied on her thick skin to insulate her from the emotional intensity of that time. Afterward, Deena continued to work in Minneapolis while many of other journalists left the field. She landed a job at the Minnesota Reformer, where she continued to follow up on stories about the Minneapolis Police Department that contributed to her Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists’ 2022 Journalist of the Year Award.

Winter says her thick skin served her well in her career, but sometimes she wondered if it were too thick. Her desensitization caused friction in her personal relationships, occasionally driving a wedge between her and family members.

More than two years after the civil unrest that roiled Minneapolis, local journalists are still covering stories stemming from that time while dealing with residual emotional scars. Andy Mannix, one of the Star Tribune’s two police reporters, said the newspaper continues to cover the criminal cases of people who were charged with rioting, excessive force lawsuits against police, and the status of policing reforms.

The stress of the job is often compounded by the thanklessness of it, Mannix said. The social media crucible following Floyd’s death included attacks on local journalists. News outlets including the Star Tribune were reamed on Twitter and elsewhere for publishing uncensored photos of violent unrest. Mannix says he was doxed in retaliation, his home address and private phone number posted online, his family subjected to death threats.

He threw himself into his work to cope, Mannix said. His staff of reporters, photographers, videographers and editors won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting. Mannix, Jany and Sawyet were on the front lines of that coverage, and they still try to make sense of it, but at the time, they knew what they had to do.

“When Minneapolis was suddenly at the center for national news, and there was a lot of stuff going on – protests, riots … all these questions about ‘How could this happen?’ and ‘Is there something wrong with the police department, with our criminal justice system? … [It] felt really important for us as the local paper to cover the story really well,” Mannix said. “That’s where my head was at for most of that. I felt like my mission was clearer and more important than ever.”

This story is part of a series produced at ThreeSixty’s 2023 Winter News Team, spotlighting local journalists. Read more stories here.