The conversations local newsrooms should be having about COVID-19 coverage

Journalists are fighting confusion, isolation, and exhaustion—in our communities and where we work

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Local journalists carry a heavy burden in 2020, reporting on a relentless beat to help their communities understand COVID-19. They can tell you about the many stories our newsrooms are missing, too, because the data doesn’t exist, because there are only 24 hours in a day, or because we’re prioritizing other things. And they’re tired. So, so tired.

We spent August and September in conversation with local journalists across the country, in research made possible by a grant from the Brown Institute for a project with Big Local News to help newsrooms use data to cover the pandemic. Today we want to share some of what we heard: about stories local journalists wish they could tell, people we’re undercovering, ways we can be supporting each other better as colleagues. Many themes that were very much reflected in a report released just this week by the Tow Center and ICFJ, looking into the ways reduced resources and increased stress are affecting the people reporting on COVID-19.

Our research will guide data projects over the coming months, but these peer insights can be shaping local coverage right now. (Where survey responses are quoted, we have permission to share.)

Conversations newsrooms should be having

Throughout our needsfinding process, journalists shared thoughts on far more than the stories they want to cover. Some suggest simple resources to add or priorities to set; others raise really hard questions that newsrooms can’t ignore.

  • Are we harming our readers? Local journalists are deeply concerned about the effect our work has on the readers we’re working for—how do we center their needs and make sure we aren’t creating harm, even accidentally. COVID-19 is inherently a scary story, and it takes thoughtful framing to cover it in a way that doesn’t simply create more stress for everyone. Or worse, misleads them with incomplete or wrong context.

  • Do we make data look too credible? When we show numbers inside a beautiful chart, does that make the data look more trustworthy than it really is? “Just because we have the data doesn’t mean we need to publish it, and if we don’t have time to thoroughly vet the data or to ask the questions we need to be asking, maybe we shouldn’t publish it at all.”

  • Everyone’s a project manager. So many journalists are thinking about workflows—in our survey, about 30% of people called themselves an editor or a project manager, but 60% of people said project management is something they do all the time. That’s a big opportunity to talk with our teams about strategies and coordination, or to schedule some training that could have a widespread effect on the way work gets done in our newsrooms.

  • No one has enough time. We heard from journalists covering multiple jobs because of layoffs or furloughs. We heard from people who recognize that daily data updates draw a lot of traffic … and also create a brand new task, every single day. “This is the biggest news event in our lifetimes and we are all short on staff and sleep. We don’t need more training; we need hands willing to help in the resource gathering and reporting.”

  • People feel isolated. Journalists aren’t just covering the pandemic, they’re also experiencing it as human beings. The way many of us are used to working has been completely upended by 2020, and it can be really hard to feel connected. “Being able to walk over and ask someone for a quick brainstorm, being able to go for a mid-day walk in the sun would be magical. The supports needed are not professional but domestic: childcare and teaching.”

  • People are excited to collaborate! Maybe in part because we’re all missing those in-person connections, a lot of local journalists told us they’re more excited than ever about collaborative work. There are great examples to model after already: California organizations coming together to share the load of updating COVID-19 data, public-media developers building a custom reporting dashboard, two newsrooms teaming up to report on the challenges immigrant families face with distance learning. Collaborations like these are opportunities for newsrooms to amplify the work they’re doing and share the workload at the same time.

  • It’s not a skills gap, it’s a support gap. The big takeaway here is that there are many, many local journalists out there who have the skills and the training to do meaningful data reporting on COVID-19, and what they need most is support.

Peers in this community are here for each other, informally, through online events, and in community Slack spaces. Parts of this Magic Grant project emerged from experiments like data review and story recipes, designed to make those support networks more visible and easy to contribute to. Tools and resources we’ll develop over the next year will build on work Big Local News is already doing with data collection and projects like the COVID case mapper.

Meeting our communities’ information needs

Our survey asked journalists what they’re hearing from their communities—what do people want us to cover most? As you’re reviewing your COVID-19 coverage plan, here are some of the top information needs people told us about:

  • Reliable numbers, in context. The biggest request is for basic facts—how many cases, how many hospitalizations, how many deaths—but also for help understanding what the data really means. Are the numbers good or bad? Can I trust them? Helping people understand the basics goes far beyond publishing a line chart and calling it good.

  • A central place to find guidance and policies. People want to know what activities are safe as they move through daily life. “The biggest overall question is whether the pandemic is worsening or getting better, which is sometimes difficult to tease out since testing regimes have varied and continue to vary. People are also wondering what activities are safe or not, whether mask wearing and/or social distancing is working, and if people are actually doing those things.”

  • Help finding information on unemployment, food assistance, and other kinds of economic relief. This is the kind of information that’s often scattered across different websites, in systems that are hard to navigate (sometimes intentionally) when you need it most.

  • COVID-19’s effects on communities we undercover. They also want to know how the pandemic is affecting people in prison, people experiencing homelessness, farmworkers, and other groups we don’t talk with enough as newsrooms.

  • Information in the languages they speak best. “They’re missing news in Spanish. Undocumented immigrants don’t know they can’t be evicted [where I live] because there’s no Spanish news source.” This is critical information! It’s our job as journalists to provide it! Figuring out a translation plan, or partnering with another local media organization, are straightforward steps we can take right away.

Stories where reporters need more support

Our project goal is to help publish COVID-19 stories that newsrooms otherwise couldn’t, so we also asked what local journalists wish they could be covering better. Housing and education came up again and again—more than 80% of people named each as a subject area where they want data for more reporting. That’s super clear guidance for our project, and Big Local News is already focusing on data about evictions, real estate and rentals, and school reopening policies.

Beyond data, the journalists we talked to also identified stories that need to have a higher profile in our daily coverage.

  • COVID-19’s effects on communities of color. Hannah Recht of Kaiser Health News wrote a story recipe earlier this year, showing data that can help people report on the effects of structural racism in their community’s health-care outcomes. Newsrooms aren’t doing their jobs if they’re not telling that story, and local journalists raised it again and again in our research. Acknowledging the way this pandemic has disparate effects on communities of color is something to reflect in every part of our COVID-19 coverage.

  • What’s happening inside health-care facilities. “We—all of us—need greater access to what COVID looks like inside hospitals and inside [nursing] homes. This is a HIPAA challenge, I know, but so much of the mis- and disinformation spreads because we aren’t able to show what’s really happening.”

  • The public’s response to the pandemic. How many people where you live are following guidelines? Communities want to know (see above), and clearly so do journalists. The data desk at the LA Times published a story in August after spending a week in three places, personally counting people who were wearing masks and people who weren’t. That’s a story every newsroom can do.

If you’d like to know more about the COVID Local News Collaboration, this recorded presentation for ONA 2020 gets into what our research process looked like and our immediate goals for the next few months.



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