The best journalism of 2020: Covering the pandemic

A year has passed since the novel coronavirus first emerged. Even with mass inoculation efforts underway, it continues to rage on, with little sign of abating. 

Throughout this year, we’ve relied on journalism to make sense of it all—especially as the virus’s spread frequently outpaced our abilities to comprehend and respond to it. Below, CJR has compiled some of the year’s most illuminating, hard-hitting, and enduring coverage of the pandemic.

 

Looking ahead

The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead 

By Donald G. McNeil, Jr.

From the early days of the outbreak, McNeil Jr.’s prescient stories for The New York Times demystified and narrativized a virus that, to this day, continues to evade grasp. In a time of frenetic news cycles, such clear and careful writing served as a much-needed antidote to protracted uncertainty. (McNeil, Jr.’s recent story, about the toll covid-19 may yet take even as vaccinations and an administration change draw near, is another sobering account of what lies ahead of us.)

 

How the Pandemic Defeated America 

By Ed Yong

Another marquee reporter on the science beat, Yong, of The Atlantic, wrote prodigiously about the pandemic. Among his anthology of indispensable works, this unsparing account of America’s abject failure to meet the coronavirus when it arrived at its shores stands out. One sentence—comprising 212 words, punctuated by 7 semicolons, and beginning with “No one should be shocked…”—must be the most incisive of the year. 

 

Putting hospitals on view

Two Women Fell Sick From the Coronavirus. One Survived. 

By Sui-Lee Wee and Vivian Wang

This New York Times piece from March about two young medical professionals in Wuhan provided one of the first intimations of what the coronavirus would impose on our lives. It’s a devastating story of heartbreak and loss, a testament to the bravery of frontline healthcare workers, and a humbling account of the unpredictable, unrelenting nature of the virus.

 

Inside the Fight to Save Houston’s Most Vulnerable 

By Sheri Fink, Emily Rhyne and Erin Schaff

These New York Times journalists willfully entered a place most Americans were hell-bent on avoiding. The result is a harrowing visual and textual package—profiles of five patients and the healthcare workers caring for them—that gave us an unvarnished look at the reality inside Houston’s largest hospital, then a virus epicenter.

 

Scrutinizing policies and leaders

Weeks Before Virus Panic, Intelligence Chairman Privately Raised Alarm, Sold Stocks 

By Tim Mak

Senator Dumped Up to $1.7 Million of Stock After Reassuring Public About Coronavirus Preparedness 

By Robert Faturechi and Derek Willis 

Sen. Kelly Loeffler Dumped Millions in Stock After Coronavirus Briefing 

By Lachlan Markay, William Bredderman, Sam Brodey

Some of the most striking investigations published this year—including those linked above, from NPR, ProPublica, and The Daily Beast, respectively—revealed how members of Congress dumped millions in stocks following briefings on the coronavirus the public was not privy to. Even worse, they continued to withhold critical information about the pandemic from constituents who bore the brunt of the covid recession.

 

State policies may send people with disabilities to the back of the line for ventilators 

By Liz Essley Whyte

Public service journalism at its finest, Whyte’s deeply reported story for the Center for Public Integrity analyzed every state’s ventilator-rationing policies to uncover 25 that harmed and discriminated against people with disabilities. In effect, these policies deprioritized access to life-saving treatment for some of the most vulnerable during a pandemic.

 

Paying attention to disparities

Laid off and now evicted amid covid-19, a Houston father contemplates homelessness in a pandemic 

By Kyung Lah and Rob Kuznia

In this CNN segment, Lah and Kuznia laid bare to their audience the crushing effect of the covid economy on Houston residents who were being evicted. The clip is fleeting, at just four minutes; for the audience, however, the agony of those whose lives were upended by the virus-induced economic atrophy is indelible. “We’ve got no help,” one resident says.  

 

Texas’ unemployment system is confusing and frustrating. Here’s how to navigate it

By Sally Beauvais and Mitchell Ferman

This piece, from the Texas Tribune and ProPublica, is just one example of the invaluable service journalism performed by nonprofit, independent, and local newsrooms to meet readers’ needs during a time of crisis. 

 

Quarantined and on their own  

By Mary Annette Pember

In this story, from Indian Country Today, Pember documents the suffering of Native Americans on reservations in states where covid-related restrictions were not enacted, and where a pandemic intersects with underlying crises in poverty, housing, and health. “Native Americans on remote reservations in the Dakotas are effectively on their own,” Pember writes.

 

They depended on their parents for everything. Then the virus took both 

By John Woodrow Cox and photojournalist Salwan Georges

A heartrending and troubling feature from the Washington Post about covid-19’s impact on three immigrant children whose parents were hospitalized with the virus and then died just 20 days apart. The Ismael siblings had to figure out how to pay the bills and keep their family whole while dealing with grief.  

 

Looking at the toll

The Storm Inside 

By Sarah Kaplan

This Washington Post story about 59-year-old Keith Redding, an early victim of the coronavirus, is unforgettable. With stunning granularity, Kaplan details how the virus ravaged his body, to devastating result. (Her story on the interrelated crises of the novel coronavirus and climate change is also worth a read.) 

 

On Witness and Respair: a personal tragedy followed by pandemic 

By Jesmyn Ward

Notes on Grief 

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This year, Ward lost her husband, and Adichie lost her father. Even in the throes of their grief, these writers penned raw and intimate essays (for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, respectively) about their losses, rendering ineffable pain into something lyrical, powerful, and profound.  

Update: this post was updated to reflect the fact that the Texas Tribune‘s guide to navigating unemployment was produced with ProPublica. 

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Shinhee Kang is a CJR fellow.