Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Lessons from Detroit: Reporting on COVID-19 racial and class disparities

Felecia D. Henderson (Image courtesy of the Maynard Institute)

COVID-19 is shining a harsh light on socio-economic divides across the country. At first glance, the virus appears to be a “great equalizer.” Dig a little deeper, and glaring issues of class and race emerge.

“It is imperative for news organizations to dive into city, county and state statistics to report candidly on the impact of COVID-19 across the Fault Line of class,” writes Felecia D. Henderson, Table Stakes Coordinator at the Maynard Institute

Fault Lines” — as Maynard defines them — describe the societal tectonic plates that lie beneath what we see on the surface, such as race, class, generation, geography, gender and sexual orientation. Learning to report with this framework in mind helps journalists improve the quality and inclusiveness of coverage.

As part of Maynard’s “Best Practices” webinar series, Henderson joined Louis Aguilar, senior reporter for Bridge Detroit, to discuss the intersection of Detroit’s class inequalities and COVID-19 coverage.

Here are four trends from Aguilar’s reporting that journalists can use to inform their coverage.

Louis Aguilar, (Image courtesy of the Maynard Institute)
  • Newsrooms must have “an ongoing discussion on what kind of conclusions we can make from raw data.” For example, Detroit recently released ZIP code information to show areas hardest hit by COVID-19. But, Aguilar cautions, there are too many unknowns with this type of data release. Some areas with a larger number of confirmed cases might have better access to test kits or have a higher density of nursing homes. Experts can put into context what the numbers are not showing.  
  • Racial disparities must be addressed, delicately. “The African-American community is being hit much harder,” Aguilar said. “Detroit is one of the poorest cities in the U.S., and the density of the African-American community is a lot higher, and there is a lot of segregation.” This trend is not unique to Michigan. Reporters have an obligation to dive into the issues that affect infection rate, such as urban density, underlying health conditions, access to health care and delayed messaging in cities. But, it’s also a balancing act. Aguilar points out that communities in New York City and Massachusetts also are having large outbreaks, but “you’re not seeing reporters descend on them the same way.” 
  • Tough and sensitive conversations are unavoidable, in the newsroom and in the field, and can be crucial to candid coverage. “There is no magical formula except to stay with the facts,” Aguilar said. “It’s always a delicate conversation. But other than truth and experience, there is no other way to go about it.”
  • It is harder to remain impartial as the coronavirus death toll mounts. In one article, Aguilar mentions a comment from state leaders that it is “difficult to find a Detroiter who doesn’t know someone who is infected with the virus.” He also describes how challenging it was to interview a source who lost 10 people to COVID-19. “It’s hard not to get emotionally involved in tough conversations,” he said. 

Click here to learn about additional Maynard programs and to watch a recording of their conversation.