By Elly Boes
For Politico’s White House reporter Tina Sfondeles, a career in writing began with a single note.
“I remember [one teacher] sending a note home to my mom that said, ‘you know she’s a great writer when she wants to be,’ which was a great thing for a teacher to say, because it’s showing that you might have some sort of natural talent for something, but you actually have to work really hard,” Sfondeles said. “I’ve had to do that my entire career.”
Sfondeles began her journalism career working for her high school and college newspapers before landing gigs with WBBM-AM Radio, The Chicago Sun-Times, Business Insider and now Politico.
Throughout the process, Sfondeles is most proud of her ability to build community with fellow reporters, editors and other colleagues.
“My competitors were my friends,” she said of her work in Chicago. “We would like piggyback off of each other.”
Sfondeles has reported on a wide range of topics from campaign funding, to President Joe Biden’s favorite cuss words, many of which require what she calls her “reporting brain.”
“I have this reporter brain from being a reporter since my 20s … I feel like it’s kind of more of a natural inclination for me to not show bias.”
When it comes to political reporting, Sfondeles says her community is her lifeline to producing more fair and accurate journalism.
“Journalists see life and death a little bit differently than normal people with normal jobs,” she said. “[Working as a general assignment reporter] was a good experience even though it was very dark.”
And — when it comes to controversy — Sfondeles doesn’t shy away from leveraging her professional support system.
“There have been a lot of safeguards for [me while reporting],” she said. “You’re not totally alone, you can do the best you can do but you also have backup to remind you of that.”
Amidst a global pandemic, recent research demonstrates that a sense of community plays a “significant role in collaborative knowledge creation.”
For reporters, like many employees, COVID-19 has severely impacted their ability to connect with others, often due to remote work environments that happen outside of a collective newsroom.
“I am kind of antsy. I don’t want to be home anymore,” Sfondeles said. “I miss the world of in-person communication.”
As a young journalist Sfondeles took advantage of her newsroom experience at the Sun-Times to chat with columnists and investigative teams alike. “You learn so much being in a newsroom,” she said.
Reporters now are still grappling to find community amidst a constantly evolving public health crisis.
One study published last year found 59 percent of journalists surveyed believed social isolation to be the most difficult aspect of covering the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Sfondeles, this became apparent in the wake of the January 6, 2021 capital insurrection.
After moving to Washington D.C six months beforehand, she was just blocks away from the mob that stormed the Capital building. Initially, she said didn’t think anything of it because of the many Trump rallies in the area after the 2020 presidential election.
“I heard a boom, like, I heard lots of noises. That was scary—that made me feel unsafe in my new home.”
Since then, Sfondeles has utilized her social media accounts like Twitter and an email chain created by White House reporters to restore a sense of mutual support.
“There were really poignant emails about ‘I was there, and it was terrible,” she said of the January 6 responses. “So you did feel a sense of community around people who are impacted by that.”
Over Twitter, Sfondeles remains cautious about mixing her personal and emotional reflections with her “reporting brain.”
“If this is your job, and you have to be on social media for work,” she said, “You have to be careful forever. Like there’s no slipping up.”
In the aftermath of January 6, Sfondeles drew on lessons from the Sun-Times to remain fair in her reporting.
“I think that it’s just important to show multiple sides to things and that was kind of difficult in some cases in doing these stories where someone did something terrible and … you have an obligation to reach out to them and get their explanation.”
Still, her dedication to even the most controversial stories never swayed from her emphasis on community support.
“You have to know that you’re a normal human and you make mistakes, and that you might even need some help,” she said.
For Sfondeles, such support is crucial to her professional life even thousands of miles away from her home in Illinois.
“I mean, those are my family. I still talk to everybody [from the Sun-Times], seriously,” she said. “I feel like sometimes it’s my second beat because I know everything that goes on.”
For aspiring reporters, Sfondeles encourages them to do the same.
“I have collected a community my whole life thankfully. I’m just like a collector of humans, of good humans that are amazing people,” she said offering this advice: “Be yourself and collect people.”