Covering COVID-19: Nonprofit newsrooms zig when others zag

For the first time since GivingTuesday started to drive donations to nonprofits in 2012, the organization is featuring a community campaign in support of nonprofit news: specifically, they are calling for people to donate to members of the INN network. Why is #GivingTuesdayNow focusing on journalism? Because the current public health crisis has revealed just how essential news reporting is, whether it’s tracking cases in a small town, aggregating data across a state or analyzing the federal government’s handling of the situation.

We’ve spent some time looking into the “story behind the story” to understand how journalists at INN’s member newsrooms have responded to the public’s essential need for fact-based reporting — and also how these organizations have found non-traditional ways to get that reporting into the hands of people who need it most. To mark this global day of giving and unity, we’d like to share a handful of these member stories while recognizing that the list goes on and on and on.

If you’d like to find an INN member to support today or any day, please visit

Data collection reveals a counter-intuitive trend in gun violence

On April 29, The Trace published a startling discovery: In March and April 2020, during a period when many cities were largely shut down, firearm deaths were higher than the same period in the past three years. While crime overall has declined, reporters at The Trace — the nation’s only periodical dedicated to covering gun violence — used a mix of beat reporting and state-of-the-art data collection to reveal this counter-intuitive trend.

Editorial Director James Burnett explained that The Trace started with an analysis of data collected by Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings in close to real-time, to see that there were more gun deaths in the United States between March 1 and April 19 compared with recent years. To understand how stay-at-home orders are influencing gun violence at the local level, The Trace reviewed crime data published by police departments in the 50 largest cities in the United States and pulled numbers from nine departments that offer reliable, up-to-date records of shootings or the weapons used in crimes.

While The Trace refrained from drawing conclusions about the reasons for this persistent violence, their reporters have pointed out that the work of “violence interrupters” — individuals who mediate conflicts to cut the cycle of retaliation — has itself been interrupted by social distancing, even as less police presence and fewer people on the street allows greater opportunities for violence to take place.

Health expertise contextualizes a hyped drug

Shortly after U.S. President Trump touted the promise of hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19 infections in mid-March 2019, a reporter at North Carolina Health News got a tip that a patient at an in-state hospital was being treated with an unnamed anti-malarial drug. At the time, international news coverage was raising the possibility that antimalarial drugs like chloroquines might be effective against coronavirus. But NC Health News Founder and Editor Rose Hoban, who is a registered nurse and holds a master’s in public health, had a different idea. She wanted to emphasize that treatment decisions should be based on proven science. As the weeks passed, not only would clinical results show chloroquine drugs to be ineffective in treating coronavirus, they may be dangerous or even fatal to those who self-administer them. The early story putting chloroquines in context was an example of why Hoban and her staff have earned a reputation among health care providers and public health officials across North Carolina as trustworthy tellers of complex health stories.

Text-based information service expands to cover health and safety

The original, simple mobile data app — SMS texting on cell phones — has been Outlier Media’s vehicle for informing low-income residents of Detroit since its founding in 2016. Then, as now, Outlier provided vital information about housing and public utilities. As Detroit suffered one of America’s deadliest Covid-19 outbreaks, Outlier expanded coverage to provide critical information about health and navigating the healthcare system, safety, and childcare. Candice Fortman, chief of engagement and operations, said that some 10,000 texts were going out every day at the height of the crisis, with about daily 200 conversations with users who ask reporters for follow-up. Texts answer pressing questions such as the location of a user’s closest school food pickup, how to get advice and access the state unemployment portal by text and the latest guidelines on Personal Protection Equipment to guard against infection and stop its spread.

Outlier’s coverage has seeded articles in mainstream metro newspapers such as Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, which published stories on whether the area food pantry supply chain could meet surging demand and how a state moratorium on evictions misses those living in hotels and Airbnb rentals.

Investigation reveals source of a city’s early coronavirus infections

El Paso Matters’ Founder and Editor Robert Moore learned from the University of Texas at El Paso that three employees had tested positive for the virus after returning from travel. From the few details UTEP provided, Moore deduced that the three had been at the Conference-USA basketball tournament near Dallas. UTEP men’s and women’s teams participated in the event, along with hundreds of fans and teams and their followers from across the South, before it was abruptly shut down because of concerns about the pandemic.

Initially, UTP, Conference-USA, health officials in the tournament’s area, and the Dallas Cowboys organization, which owns the tournament site, refused to answer Moore’s questions — but he persisted. Eventually Moore confirmed the truth at a press conference with an El Paso health official and ran a story that was picked up by local media. The story was also picked by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, VA, home of Old Dominion University, which also had teams at Conference-USA. Because his focus was on serving local residents, not just following the latest press briefing, Moore saw connections between dots that could have been missed.

Startup pivots to create newsroom on Facebook

The Beacon was preparing to launch the publication of a news website for Kansas City, MO when the coronavirus and resulting lockdowns made the need for trustworthy news and constructive, civil conversation even more urgent. The startup met the need with a pop-up news source via Facebook’s private group feature. Overnight, Kansas City Coronavirus Updates pulled in more than 1,500 new group members; membership has grown to more than 5,300.

The group serves as a newsrooms’ newsroom for established Missouri and Kansas news outlets and support organizations. Partners convene in weekly calls to discuss journalism and the economic impacts of the pandemic on local news organizations. They also collaborate on such shared needs as coverage of the regular business of local government and accessing records remotely so that shrinking staffs, stretched to the limit, can still do government accountability coverage. Group members pass on tips and stories to reporters, ask questions and engage in deeper discussion face-to-face in video-based community circles, where they’re free to talk through sensitive issues such as how disadvantaged communities can be supported. Volunteer monitors, vetted by The Beacon, keep discourse civil and the flow of information responsible and fact-based. The Facebook group ultimately meets what Audience Development Manager Jennifer Hack Wolf notes was a need reporters did not anticipate: a hunger for good news about how local people in Missouri and Kansas step up to help each other.