Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

At 400,000 pages and growing, a database of COVID-19 documents bursts with local stories

Armed with confidential data, The Kansas City Star last month identified causes and locations of coronavirus outbreaks that state officials had kept under wraps — from the Tyson meatpacking plant near Garden City, Kan., to the keg party west of Topeka.

The document came from a trove of records that Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation has been collecting through freedom of information requests and recently launched as a shareable document repository called Documenting COVID-19.

The effort is an ideal example of journalistic cooperation and use of shared resources. It comes at a crucial time for news organizations, particularly as local newsrooms face shrinking staffs and finances.  

“Collaboration is key to survival,” said Derek Kravitz, the investigative journalist and Columbia adjunct professor heading the project. “Newsrooms don’t have the luxury of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on FOI fees (and they shouldn’t have to). We see a constructive way forward: to provide a FOI clearinghouse, with easily downloadable formats with annotated context, so that these benefit more than a single newsroom.”

We reached out to Kravitz by email to find out how the project got started, how it’s working and what it means for cooperative journalism.

When, where and how did you identify the journalistic need for this essential information?

Kravitz: In New York, as COVID-19 case and death counts exploded in mid-March, we knew that a full understanding of the pandemic was missing. Public records are a critical component of accountability-focused journalism, and we wanted to provide that resource to large and small newsrooms alike as they rushed to cover this crisis. We’ve filed more than 600 open-records requests and have posted 57 record sets comprising more than 400,000 pages. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

Can you provide some examples of how local news organizations have or can use your documents and data to tell stories that are pertinent to their audiences?

Kravitz: The New York Times used a collection of records to explain what was happening at meatpacking plants and the tension between those essential businesses and local health departments tasked with managing COVID-19 outbreaks. The Washington Post took snippets of email threads and data to report on reopening plans and dubious technology that one Atlanta-area county purchased. Local outlets, such as Colorado Public Radio, The Kansas City Star and the Omaha World-Herald, have published stories about confidential outbreak lists and evolving hotspots that weren’t documented elsewhere. And there are many more stories to tell.

Can you identify the various sources of information and how far ahead does state data run compared to federal data?

Kravitz: Nearly all of the record sets come from local or state governments, including county or regional health departments; local government commissions and boards; and elected officials. State data is spotty and varies wildly. We’re working on projects related to outbreaks at meatpacking facilities and migrant farms and we’re seeing huge undercounts and some purposeful meddling with the data. So that’s a problem, and one that’s not easily fixable. The best we can do is to explain what we’re finding and what the reporting or data gaps are.

How much work does it take to keep all that data updated on a daily basis?

Kravitz: It’s a full-time job and we have two very able researchers working on this project, which is funded by the Columbia Journalism School’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism along with FRONTLINE PBS, National Geographic and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. And, honestly, between FOI fees and building the website to host these materials, we’re stretched. But so is everyone.

How long did it take you to compile the database and what has been the hardest task? How much of the data is available on state public databases and how much have you had to request through FOI letters?

Kravitz: We’ve spent the past three months building the Documenting COVID-19 website, and all of our data and documents have come through FOI requests.

The site will be updated frequently, as we obtain records through open-records requests. But we’re also inviting newsrooms and the public to include their FOIA materials to this living archive so it can serve the larger public. If you have an idea or need help with a public-records request, email us at [email protected], follow us on Twitter or subscribe here.

Have you had to file any lawsuits to obtain data?

Kravitz: We have not filed any lawsuits, and the goal is to only pursue litigation as a last resort. Our preferred method is to negotiate and work with federal, state and local agencies to obtain public records that are critical to public understanding of the pandemic.

We have seen great examples of data sharing, including the Washington Post’s opioid database that local journalists were able to mine for stories. How do you see this type of communal journalism effort working under the challenges facing journalism today?

Kravitz: Collaboration is key to survival. Newsrooms don’t have the luxury of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on FOI fees (and they shouldn’t have to). And, far too often, once newsrooms and journalists get public records, they don’t post the underlying documents and let them die on their hard drives. That’s a problem. We see a constructive way forward: To provide a FOI clearinghouse, with easily downloadable formats with annotated context, so that these benefit more than a single newsroom.

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