Q&A with ProPublica’s Maya Miller on COVID-19 sourcing

As we move further into the pandemic, we've heard from member newsrooms that sourcing from medical communities can be somewhat of a challenge. We spoke to ProPublica Engagement Reporting Fellow Maya Miller on what's working for them, how the engagement and reporting teams created their callout form to find sources related to COVID-19 and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

INN: How early did you all post the callout form and what's the response been like?

Maya Miller: We put this up February 28. (As of early March), we (had) about over 3,500 responses — about more than 1,000 of those are from doctors, nurses, medical providers, worried healthcare workers. In the first week or so, it was a couple of hundred responses and then, as the severity of the situation became more clear to everybody and we continued to report on it, we saw our numbers continue to increase.

From the outset, we really wanted to try to get in touch with doctors and providers at an early stage so that we could understand what's going on on the ground. I had been doing some engagement and was monitoring a couple of subreddits like r/medicine and r/nursing and tried to put the callout on there and message the moderators and see if we could (post), so we went more national in scale. But I'm sure in a local setting, there are local Facebook groups with doctors, physicians and otherwise. Sending a note to the moderator, asking them to post a form in which the news organization is collecting responses is always helpful in trying to connect with local associations that represent residents, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists is what we found to be really helpful.

We also re-ask this callout and have modified it a couple of times over the past month. Every time we publish a story, we make sure to put an inline callout with the form.

A screenshot of the inline callout from ProPublica's 4/10 story, "Rationing Protective Gear Means Checking on Coronavirus Patients Less Often. This Can Be Deadly."

We also wanted to get (responses from) doctors and healthcare providers in every state.  We did a Twitter thread in which, at the end of every day, we would see which states we had (responses from) and which (states) we were missing. We colored the (states) that we had in green and the ones that were missing were white. So we definitely strategize to be sure we're not just putting out a callout — that's one thing that anyone can do — but truly trying to think about where the doctors and nurses are residing and meeting them where they are.

INN: I noticed that there's a bunch of reporters on the byline for this callout form. How do you figure out what are the best things to ask your readers?

MM: We do a lot of pre-reporting to get to this form. A lot of our reporters, the ones who helped put the initial iteration of this together, are health reporters and so they are really well versed in what to ask.

We initially had checkboxes for "I'm a doctor," "I'm a nurse" but we didn't have one for an emergency response professional. Within the first week or so, we realized we wanted that to be a separate category because that was its own line of reporting that a couple of reporters were interested in following. The questions are based on what we've been hearing.

It's definitely a living document that has changed and will continue to change as our reporting shifts into new phases, as COVID-19 shifts into new phases and as we work with people who write into us to better hone in on the systemic issues that they're experiencing.

INN: Do you think it's helpful to have pre-filled in sections instead of text sections to share your experience?

MM: We've done this a lot before — callouts are a staple to ProPublica's work. I think it's also important to note that while this has been successful, especially in this period of remote time where you can't do a lot of face-to-face stuff, we're very aware that not everybody is who we want to get in touch with is reading ProPublica. We want to get a diverse range of opinions. We partnered with Univision, which can do a Spanish language callout. We're working in conjunction with them on a couple of stories.

We're also constantly thinking about ways to reach people who are not that average ProPublica reader because we don't want to assume just putting out the callout is enough — you really have to be cognizant of who's engaging with it and who isn't and what stories you might be missing because of that.

Then in terms designing the form, we always ask some standard questions of "Is there anything else that you want to tell us?" Then we also ask them, "Are there any public records you suggest we request?" This is something we've recently started doing and it's been really fruitful so far. I think creating a balance between asking very specific questions that our reporters who are working on stories have while also leaving room to give readers space to guide us into adding another question or pointing us to a different issue we weren't even aware of (is helpful).

INN: I know it's hard, especially now, but have you all thought about any non-digital outreach?

MM: We are really actively thinking about that, and we haven't launched concerted effort to do that right now. It's something that we're brainstorming about constantly. A lot of people don't have internet access and aren't going to be able to communicate with us so we're thinking about different ways to reach them. We were tossing around some ideas but we're still thinking them through, and that's mainly because we really don't want to risk anybody's public health by doing anything that's in person or offline.

We were thinking about sending out flyers to grocery stores with a link to the callout or maybe sending out pre-addressed and pre-stamped postcards that people could write back to us with what they're experiencing.

We're trying to be as responsible as we can, while also ensuring that we're reaching people who aren't online, and we still haven't had a firm idea of how to move that forward.

INN: Have you had a hard time getting people in the medical community to go on record with sharing their stories?

MM: Initially, people were more open and in the past week or two, we've seen that people are not as comfortable going on the record. There was some research done that a lot of hospitals are telling their staff not to talk to journalists, but I think if you can set up a space for them to come to you and try to reach them where they are, it seems like they're really willing to make that initial connection to have those preliminary conversations that can then inform how a reporter goes about choosing their story. I think I found that in the past couple weeks that doctor specifically don't want to be named, but they're willing to be quoted on background or anonymously. Everyone has to make their own editorial decisions.

INN: Do you have anything else you'd like to say about engagement or sourcing for coronavirus or about the work that y'all are doing at ProPublica?

MM: It's been a really big team effort. It's been a really big learning experience. I'm super grateful to be on this team and to have the support from everybody.