The fight for COVID-19 data, and what the press can do with it

On Sunday, Richard A. Oppel Jr., Robert Gebeloff, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Will Wright, and Mitch Smith, of the New York Times, published the most comprehensive analysis we’ve yet seen of the racial disparities shaping the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The reporters analyzed 640,000 COVID cases across nearly 1,000 counties—counties that, taken together, comprise just over half of the total population of the US—through the end of May. Their findings were horrifying: across the map, from rural towns to big cities to the suburbs, Black and Latino people have been three times as likely as white people to contract COVID-19, and nearly twice as likely to be killed by it. In some counties, especially in Arizona, Native Americans have faced a much higher likelihood of infection. Asian people, meanwhile, have been 1.3 times as likely as white people to catch COVID.

We now have these figures only because the Times sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for their release. Eventually, the CDC handed over data on 1.45 million cases, though more than half of the cases lacked adequate accompanying data on race, ethnicity, and/or location—apparently due to discrepancies in the way state and local officials first reported the data to the CDC—and so the Times left them out of its analysis. In other words, the best information we currently have about a problem of urgent national concern is incomplete, and wouldn’t be public at all were it not for a major newspaper’s legal and reportorial muscle.

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That last depressing fact reflects a longer-term problem: since the early days of the pandemic, officials across the US, often citing privacy considerations, have withheld granular data that would illuminate various facets of the virus’s spread. As with the Times, many outlets—including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer, in North Carolina; the Arizona Republic and four local TV stations, in Arizona; and the Bay Area News Group, in California—have sued local officials for data related to the pandemic, including, prominently, details of outbreaks in nursing homes and prisons. After the Miami Herald sued the state of Florida for information on COVID deaths in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, officials pressured the paper’s law firm to drop the case; eventually, the Herald, in concert with different lawyers and other news organizations, won out. Florida won early plaudits for putting detailed COVID data online, but as the Herald’s Ana Claudia Chacin and Mary Ellen Klas wrote last month, the state’s reporting has been incomplete and inconsistent. In May, Rebekah Jones, a state official responsible for maintaining the online data, alleged that she was fired for refusing to manipulate it; Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, accused Jones of “insubordination,” and said that she faces “cyber stalking” charges. In Georgia, officials wrongly reported declining case rates three times in as many weeks. Various states and the CDC were accused of massaging testing data to make themselves look more aware of viral spread than they actually were. The list goes on.

In the absence of consistent, reliable official statistics, journalists and researchers have worked tirelessly to try and fill the gap; writers at The Atlantic, for example, founded the COVID Tracking Project to build a more unified national picture of viral spread and surveillance. (In March, Emily Sohn profiled the project for CJR.) Others have gotten creative. Last week, NPR, working with academics at Harvard and elsewhere, calculated how many COVID tests the US, and each individual state, would need to run in order to mitigate current outbreaks, and how many they’d need to run to start suppressing viral transmission altogether—a more ambitious aim under which life could start return to “some semblance of normalcy.” According to their figures, the country as a whole would need to run 1 million daily tests to achieve mitigation, and 4.3 million daily tests to achieve suppression. (Yesterday, 518,000 tests were run nationally.) Texas, to pick a state at random, would need to run 117,000 daily tests for mitigation and 431,000 for suppression. As of last week, it was falling far short of both metrics.

Even the data we can access is messy, and there are legitimate scientific disagreements about how best to interpret it—for instance, Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, questioned the usefulness of NPR and Harvard’s calculations, and advocated a greater focus on the percentage of people testing positive, instead. But there are relatively simple ways in which the media can use the available data to keep our scrutiny as sharp as possible. One of those, as Nuzzo suggests, would be to focus more consistently on the percent-positive rate, which cuts through administration bluster about rising test counts. Another would be to take the figures from the NPR database and ask federal and state leaders—repeatedly, if needed—what concrete steps they’re taking to hit at least the daily rate that would be needed for mitigation; the scientific-usefulness debate aside, more testing definitely leads to more data, which should enable more informed news coverage. As I’ve written before, we would do well to conceive of testing as a freedom of information issue, as well as a scientific one. And we would do well to make officials answer to specific performance benchmarks, rather than generalized outrage. If those in charge say that more testing isn’t the best approach, we should at least try and make them explain why; if they say that more testing would help, we should hold them to hard targets.

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And, as the Times and many other outlets have done already, we should keep pressuring the federal government and its state counterparts—be it legally or through the moral authority of our coverage—to release key COVID data, around racial disparities and so much more, that they are collecting but keeping private. As Andre M. Perry, of the Brookings Institution, told the Times for its recent data analysis story, “You need all this information so that public health officials can make adequate decisions. If they’re not getting this information, then municipalities and neighborhoods and families are essentially operating in the dark.” The same goes for the press.

Below, more on transparency and the pandemic:

  • PPP $$$: Yesterday, the federal government published data—that it originally said would remain confidential—naming businesses that benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program it initiated in the wake of the coronavirus. CNN’s Kerry Flynn tallied the media companies that showed up in the data: they include Forbes, Crain, the Daily Caller, Fortune, Washingtonian, Media Matters for America, Newsmax, Digiday, Newsweek, Entrepreneur, TV Guide, Los Angeles Magazine, New England Newspapers, TheSkimm, The Information, and Salon. The New York Observer, which used to be run by Jared Kushner and is still linked to his family, got a loan, as did businesses owned by members of Congress, and the Ayn Rand Institute. (The irony of that one was not lost on Twitter.)
  • Uncertainty for foreign students: Also yesterday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement published new guidelines stipulating that foreign college students may have to leave the US should their school move classes entirely online in the fall. (Other options include transferring to a school that’s still offering in-person tuition; NPR has more details.) The impact on journalism students, who typically do a lot of reporting work outside of the classroom, could be especially pronounced—and that’s before one factors in time differences and internet connectivity (H/t: Miriam Abaya).
  • A cover-up?: For the last five weeks, the British government has failed to release daily data on the number of individuals receiving COVID tests, having previously made that figure public. Yesterday, officials confirmed that they will not resume publishing that data. The government will still publish daily information on total tests administered, which officials say is a more accurate metric given that some people—hospital and nursing home staff, for example—get tested regularly. Opposition figures nonetheless accused the government of a cover-up. The Guardian has more.
  • Bad business news: Also in the UK, Reach, a publisher of national and local newspapers, intends to cut 550 jobs, or 12 percent of its workforce, The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports. The company says that it has lost 27 percent of its revenue due to the pandemic. (As ever, for more on the pandemic’s impact on the news business in the US, check out CJR and the Tow Center’s Journalism Crisis Project, and subscribe to its weekly newsletter, written by Lauren Harris.)
  • Erm… good business news: Since the pandemic began, online sex-toy sales have spiked, and publishers that run advertisements for them are increasingly steering traffic to third-party sellers, Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber reports. BuzzFeed, which is one such publisher, “is even considering leaning further into this area by launching a new sex and love vertical to create a solidified destination for its audience to find sex toy product recommendations all in one place,” Barber writes.


Other notable stories:

  • In an introductory note to CJR’s new magazine on election coverage, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, writes that the context of the pandemic and the nationwide reckoning with racism grants reporters “an opportunity, unprecedented in the middle of a contested campaign, to reset how we work”; to “set aside superficial trivia and focus on systemic and institutional failures.” Also for the magazine, Stephania Taladrid profiles Univision. Daniel Morcate, the network’s chief newsroom editor, told Taladrid that balancing the pandemic and the election is likely to prove “our biggest challenge.”
  • Last week, Ken Doctor wrote, for Nieman Lab, that an unnamed nonprofit group might make a bid for McClatchy, the newspaper chain that filed for bankruptcy in February. (I explored the prospect here.) Yesterday, Doctor reported that the nonprofit was the Knight Foundation, and that it ultimately did not bid. Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund that is McClatchy’s biggest investor, is favorite to take over, though another hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, is also in contention. McClatchy is set to name a winner tomorrow.
  • Adam Rawnsley, of the Daily Beast, uncovered a network of fake “experts” on the Middle East who have collectively planted nearly 100 opinion pieces in nearly 50 outlets, including Newsmax, RealClear Markets, and the Washington Examiner. “The articles heaped praise on the United Arab Emirates and advocated for a tougher approach to Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and its proxy groups in Iraq and Lebanon,” Rawnsley writes.
  • On Sunday, Fox News used an image of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, the Epstein associate who was arrested last week, from which Trump had been cropped out. (Melania Knauss, Trump’s then-future wife, was left in the frame.) Yesterday, Fox called that an “error,” and apologized. In other Fox News news, the network will now capitalize the adjectives “Black,” “White,” and “Brown” as they pertain to race and ethnicity.
  • Stuff, the largest newspaper group in New Zealand, is joining the global boycott of Facebook that has seen major advertisers pull away from the platform in protest of its lax record on hate speech. Stuff—which already stopped advertising on the platform following the Christchurch mosque shooting last year—will now “experiment” with ending all activity on Facebook and Instagram. The Guardian’s Eleanor Ainge Roy has more.
  • In 2018, Svetlana Prokopyeva, a freelance journalist in Russia, attributed blame to the state after an anarchist blew himself up on secret-police property. (No one else was killed.) Yesterday, a military court convicted Prokopyeva of “justifying terrorism,” and ordered a fine and the confiscation of her computer and phone. The Times has more.
  • And Dana Canedy, a former Times reporter who currently administers the Pulitzer Prizes, has been appointed publisher of Simon & Schuster’s namesake imprint. Canedy told Elizabeth A. Harris, of the Times, that the company first approached her in 2018. “I wouldn’t be taking this job if I thought [they] just wanted a Black publisher,” she said.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.