Editor's note: In August 2022, we published "Black elders saved this couple's Mississippi farm. Now they're harvesting ancestral techniques—and tomatoes," a longform feature story about a Black couple, Teresa and Kevin Springs, who inherited an overgrown Mississippi farm in 2016. But there's a story within a story worth telling about how this powerful feature came to be. Erica Hensley, a white health reporter, whom we've worked with in the past, wanted to spotlight a crisis: Black farmers in Mississippi, a state marked by generations of land theft, are retiring and dying at higher rates than ever before. Neither Scalawag nor Hensley wanted to tell yet another story through the all-too-common lens of a white person butting into rural Black folks' business. Ultimately, Teresa Springs, co-owner and operator of TKO Farming, agreed to co-report with Hensley, embarking the two on an uncommon but promising approach to journalism. Here, Hensley reflects on why more white journalists should also shift away from using people like Teresa solely as sources—and democratize the byline instead. 

During the early months of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns, research and news media started to pick up on an ancillary but potentially dangerous impact of quarantines: loneliness and isolation, especially among aging folks. But, as is often the case with our media, the focus was on urban and suburban, mostly white people. 

As story after story appeared to heed warnings about loneliness and isolation, I thought a lot about my home state, Georgia, and my chosen home, Mississippi, where rurality, and thus isolation, is ubiquitous. More than half of Mississippians live in a rural area—one of the highest rates in the country. In the Blackest state in the nation, 39 percent of rural Mississippians are Black, contrasting oversimplified narratives awash in the news media that Black folks exclusively live in urban areas, and that Rural America—and often by association, the South—is mostly white. In the South, we know better, but we still struggle to understand the intersection of access to necessities, land and lineage, and connection. 

Thinking through all this, I knew I wanted to focus a story on the misunderstood connection between isolation and loneliness—mostly to disrupt the narrative that they're one in the same. Where isolation is a physical separation, loneliness is an emotional and social one. Loneliness is not chosen, but those of us in rural areas often choose to be isolated—geographically, anyway. Still, we form powerful, often spiritual, connections with not only each other, but the land itself. 

I also knew I wanted to focus on aging Black Mississippians, who are more likely to both farm and live in rural areas here than anywhere else in the country. I'd been reporting in central Mississippi for some other stories and was making good connections with folks there. But I was hyper-aware of myself and the space I, as a white woman, was taking up. I was also cognizant of historic and modern segregation, and the role white people—from policymakers to journalists—have played in both directly and indirectly harming Black folks in the South. 

Our self-righteousness can be astounding. We don't pay sources! We're the reporting experts here, they're just supposed to give us their story!

I wholeheartedly questioned if I was the reporter to tell this story: Would my whiteness block or stain the kind of access I needed to do this story? Am I the right person to tell this story, taking on land loss and theft on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, a nearly all-Black region, at the intersection of community-building amid one public health crisis after another? As a journalist and writer, I could never center Black folks the way they needed to be in this story, no matter how many people I interviewed. 

Before I even formally pitched it to her, I went to a trusted editor, Ko Bragg, to discuss the story I had been mulling over. I had met a few aging Black women farmers across the state, and was considering how to incorporate their stories into a piece about collective community power in geographically isolated places. But these were women who mostly had little interest in being the centerpiece of this kind of narrative—when you're at the center of sexism and racism in an industry dominated by white men, why would you? Much less, while trying to run a farm in the middle of a pandemic. Still, I was starting to earn trust by spending time and showing up just to visit, without a notebook.

It was Bragg who then suggested the obvious: "Why don't you co-report with a farmer?" Co-reporting with the very person featured in a story, unfortunately, is a novel concept in journalism. Our self-righteousness can be astounding. We don't pay sources! We're the reporting experts here, they're just supposed to give us their story! No matter how much time, how much expertise, how much guidance our sources provide. No matter our inability to navigate the communities we're reporting on without their relationship connections. 

As a health reporter, I try to abide by the same principles that our doctors swear to—first, do no harm. If I'm in the way of a story, taking up too much space, or frankly, missing the small and large nuance and reality of being Black in America and Mississippi, then I haven't done my job well—worse, I've contributed harm. Bragg reminded me to trust my public health reporter gut, and, though she put it more eloquently, that it's not nothing to notice the trends that I was naming; my insight into the health ramifications were important. But she also reinforced that we, as an industry and in that moment as editorial decision-makers, had to do more to center more Black people. 

For many of our sources, time is money, and we have to address the imbalance of reporters getting paid to tell stories on behalf of people without whom none of this work is possible.

When I took the idea of co-reporting to farmer Teresa Springs, who ultimately agreed, she asked: "Why haven't other journalists offered this to me?" I told her, as far as I could tell, that the answer was an outdated sense of ethics of objectivity, and an unwillingness to share credit, cash, and frankly, power. Springs had interacted with reporters before. But other than some local coverage of TKO's work, a few pieces by university news agencies, and a Scalawag newsletter, most of her experiences were uninspiring at best, and at worst, extractive. Reporters would either just want a quote without diving deep into the work, which Teresa was ready to do, or those who did want to go deep would ask far too much of her unpaid time and still produced something that still left her yearning for more. For her, learning the process of reporting and narrating her own story has not only reinforced that her story is important and worth sharing, but after going through the reporting, writing and editing experience, she also feels like she now has the tools to tell the farm's story more broadly. 

Things weren't all easy. Working together meant that this story took us much longer to write than usual. We went through Teresa's life and work together, as would any decent journalist, but we also went through the narrative process together: transcribing, writing, editing, and the painstaking process of revising some paragraphs over and over again. Truth be told, it's just harder to do that with two people—especially one reporter and the person whom she's writing "about." Unshockingly, you do this better when you're accountable daily to whom you're reporting for—and we were accountable to each other as equal partners, with different but equal stakes. 

The reward for harder reporting is a richer, truer story. And now, Teresa is already working on her book. 

Read the story:

In Mississippi, most news outlets—from alternative sources to the widely-circulated daily statewide paper—are almost exclusively run by white people, with very few exceptions. Of the top 30 outlets in the state, only three are Black run. This imbalance marks a failure to center the voices of our nearly half-Black population, let alone encourage the agency to tell their own stories. You see national journalists parachute in during times of crisis—when we didn't have clean drinking water for a month, when the state's last abortion clinic (which has been on its own for a decade) became the center of a legal case that determined the fate of Roe v. Wade, and for the quarter of each year during hurricane season when meteorologists quite literally call us "the land mass between New Orleans and Mobile"—and then leave again. 

But what journalists have missed, either by ignorance or sheer stranglehold on a dying model, is that through our narrowly formed ideals of "objectivity," we've exploited communities—particularly communities of color—by extrapolating what serves our needs, and then leaving. We've never bothered to use our reporting as a tool to share how our industry works with the people we report on, or to train others to tell their own stories (because then we might be out of a job). 

All of this extraction happens in areas that are often news deserts, food deserts, and basic-resource deserts, where locals rely on one another for information and access to goods—places I would learn from the Springs family to call Apartheids, not deserts. In other words, as journalists, we often contribute to the power dynamics we're reporting on by separating ourselves, or elevating ourselves, from our sources. For many of our sources, time is money, and we have to address the imbalance of reporters getting paid to tell stories on behalf of people without whom none of this work is possible.

Lastly, to my fellow white journalists who try every day to be anti-racist but know we fail, I'll add this: We are beholden to name our place, privilege and the space we take up. This means more than acknowledgment. It means sometimes, we step down—or at least aside.

Read More co-reported stories:

Erica Hensley covers health in the Deep South, where she focuses on women’s health and regional disparities. She’s the recipient of Atlanta Press Club’s investigative reporting Award of Excellence for reporting on lead exposure, which spawned the state environmental agency to change how it regulates lead testing.