When we think of “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, we think of medical personnel, first responders, and supermarket employees—the folks visible in our personal lives and on the news. But the food we eat every day—from broccoli picked in California’s Salinas Valley to meat packed in midwestern states—still has to be grown and prepared by people. Migrants, many of whom are undocumented, make up a sizable proportion of agricultural workers, and their line of work and immigration status leave them especially vulnerable to the disease.
A PBS FRONTLINE investigation into the impact COVID-19 has had on this often-invisible workforce premieres July 21. The film was produced and reported by a host of Berkeley Journalism alumni, both instructors and recent graduates.
“This is exactly the kind of opportunity that our school aims to provide, which is for our students to have the opportunity to work together with their instructors on truly meaningful work that is widely published,” said Prof. Geeta Anand, Berkeley Journalism’s interim dean. “This particular documentary reflects our commitment to give voice to the struggles of disenfranchised people and bring those stories to the attention of the widest possible audience.”
“COVID’s Hidden Toll” was written, directed, and produced by 2004 grads Daffodil Altan, a Berkeley Journalism lecturer and FRONTLINE producer and correspondent, and documentary filmmaker and Professor Andrés Cediel. It was co-produced by documentary filmmaker María José Calderón (’09). A bevy of 2020 grads joined them: Brandon Yadegari, Lulu Orozco, Nick Roberts, Rosa Tuirán, Jess Alvarenga, and Pedro Cota were associate producers, with Molly Forster contributing additional research. Zachary Stauffer (’08), a lecturer and Investigative Reporting Program producer and cinematographer, contributed additional camera work.
The Class of 2020’s involvement grew out of Berkeley Journalism’s “Chronicling COVID-19” project, which started in the spring and turned the School into a newsroom for covering the coronavirus for a variety of publications, including The New York Times. Even while reporting for the Times, some of Prof. Cediel’s students began researching for the documentary, and FRONTLINE hired a group of them as associate producers.
“This story was a natural evolution of a previous piece, ‘Rape in the Fields,’ which was developed by students and produced out of the IRP,” Cediel said, referring to Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program. So they went back to their sources working in the fields to find out how growers were being impacted by the burgeoning pandemic.
“Because our curriculum had switched over towards real-world reporting, it was the perfect opportunity to engage students, most of whom were bilingual and had previous reporting experience in these communities,” Cediel added.
The journalists went to several growers and meat-packing plants and spoke to agricultural workers who described a lack of protection from their employers as the virus spread across the U.S., and the resulting brutal choice between their health and their livelihoods. Latinx people make up not only a disproportionate number of agricultural workers, but a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.
“Getting in touch with farmworkers who were affected by all of it was a huge challenge—managers and business owners didn’t want to give any names, the health department couldn’t release anything, and undocumented workers are often very hesitant to reveal their identities,” Molly Forster said. “Now, the region is really in a lot of trouble and their hospitals are all overrun. This piece couldn’t be coming out at a more crucial time.”
Balancing the need for intimate, visceral material and psychologically navigating reporting in the field during a pandemic was “pretty stressful,” Daffodil Altan said. “We had to deal with a lot of unknowns early on and establish protocols, and really out of nothing because it’s unprecedented—we’ve never had a situation like this.” Those hurdles, along with the time crunch and already knowing students’ training and work ethic, led the correspondent to advocate even more for students’ inclusion.
“It was relentless for three months, doing work at all hours of the day, and very frightening at times with the pandemic going on, especially going into the field,” Nick Roberts said. “But we were able to get it done, and no one got sick, which is an amazing accomplishment. I’m extremely proud of the piece of work we produced. It’s a vital document for this time.”
“With COVID-19, we had to adapt,” Pedro Cota said. “We found innovative ways to perform tasks that are normally done in person. For instance, some of the location scouting was done using Google Maps. I think this experience prepared us for the ‘new normal’ of producing a documentary during a pandemic.”
The APs did everything from pre-interviews to writing memos, sanitizing gear to running food, transcription to translation to digging through archives. “Everyone really showed up and did an extraordinary job,” Altan said of their “six-headed associate producer.”
“Working as an associate producer was an incredible opportunity to look at all the moving parts of how a film is made and how every role is essential and the amount of time and dedication it takes to produce something of this nature,” Rosa Tuirán said. “I learned that every bit of attention to detail matters, even as you are about to cross the finish line.”
“Although we were remote the majority of the time, it was still a very hands-on experience,” Jess Alvarenga said. “I learned so much in a short amount of time.”
The team also reflected overdue changes in the industry. “I think it’s become more important for FRONTLINE to diversify its producing and on-camera talent pool, and I think this is another good example of that happening and continuing to happen,” Altan said.
“It was also important for us to give continuity to the students who were graduating and looking for the kind of experience that we were looking for when we graduated,” she added, as well as to build a production team that is both culturally sensitive and reflective of the communities reported on.
Normally, an hour-long program takes a year or two to produce; this one was pulled together in several months, Altan said, because “everyone understood and felt very committed to this story.”
“COVID’s Hidden Toll” is the latest in a line of FRONTLINE investigations, led by Cediel, Altan, and other Berkeley journalists, into the exploitation of agricultural, undocumented, or low-wage workers and migrants.
“Daffodil and Andrés spent months digging into this story, and it’s a truly vital and urgent look at the hidden realities facing the people who keep food on our tables throughout this pandemic,” said FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath. “We’re proud to share this story with our California viewers and the rest of the American public, as it’s a story that impacts each one of us.”
The film is also the second PBS segment led or worked on by students to broadcast nationwide in a week. On July 15, Alyson Stamos (’20) and Meiying Wu (’20)’s reporting on how planning and early action helped San Francisco’s Chinatown control the coronavirus aired on the PBS NewsHour. The segment was also part of Berkeley Journalism’s “Chronicling COVID-19” project.