The 2020 news cycle has been relentless. With severely limited resources, America’s journalists scrambled to cover giant, ongoing stories including the COVID-19 pandemic, the presidential election, the decennial census, the killing of George Floyd and the civil uprising that followed. The Journalist’s Resource team was there, too, scrambling to help. We produced 139 research roundups, articles, explainers, tip sheets, data visualizations, columns and comics — all to support newsrooms tasked with covering some of the biggest stories of a lifetime. As 2020 thankfully nears its end, we’re taking a few moments to reflect on some of the pieces that meant the most to us this year. Here are the 2020 Journalist’s Resource team picks.
Nancy Gibbs, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy:
Of all the damage done during this year of suffering, the harm caused by disinformation is perhaps the most insidious. We quickly learned that we were all at risk against the novel coronavirus; it turns out we were also vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation as well, and communities of color were particularly hard hit by false claims about the risk they faced. Even as Black people began dying at vastly higher rates, rumors spread that they were immune and did not need to take the same precautions as other populations.
So Josh Neufeld’s bold, creative approach to spreading the truth is especially valuable: In “A Tale of Two Pandemics: Historical Insights on Persistent Racial Disparities,” Neufeld draws on research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine to put the current pandemic in the larger context of profound suspicion. Throughout American history, communities of color have suffered disproportionately both from inferior medical care and dangerously infectious misinformation. This comics journalism captures the drama, the characters and the narrative of two pandemics, a century apart but with all too many tragedies in common.
Clark Merrefield, senior editor, economics:
Following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May and subsequent uprisings in cities across the country, I reached out to more than a dozen academics — psychologists, media scholars, police researchers and economists — for their thoughts on the moment. I was grateful that nearly all got back to me. Research can take years to complete, but this felt like a time for academics to offer a visceral reaction. By and large, they tied the uprisings to deep-seated racial and economic inequality in America.
The oral history I put together, based on their responses, clocks in at nearly 5,000 words, so it’s a piece you have to spend some time with. If you haven’t read it yet, take a look. If you have read it, give it a fresh read. It’s a time capsule, but what these scholars had to say still rings true — and I suspect will for years. As University of California, Berkeley economist Ellora Derenoncourt told me, “There has never been ‘quiet’ progress to racial economic equality in U.S. history.” Plus, the scholars offer 10 tips to improve news coverage of police violence.
Scientists sprang into action when COVID-19 overtook the U.S., producing a spate of non-peer-reviewed papers called preprints. That means there was research on the coronavirus coming out a breakneck pace that hadn’t been independently analyzed and critiqued. Denise-Marie Ordway saw this happening and sprang into action herself, producing this extremely valuable tip sheet in April on what journalists need to be aware of when covering preprints. Preprints give scientists a way to get credible information to the public fast, but journalists need to use caution.
John Inglis, co-founder of two of the biggest preprint servers, told Denise that “to avoid being drawn into reporting bad information, a journalist should have a group of experts she can go to for advice, while remembering that even experts aren’t experts in everything: an epidemiologist and a molecular biologist may study the same virus but not be able to professionally evaluate each other’s work.”
Smart advice then, today and tomorrow.
Carmen Nobel, program director:
From July 14 to Nov. 10, Thomas E. Patterson wrote a weekly series of research-based columns examining election-related topics and how journalists cover them. He pulled no punches digging into topics including how news outlets become “misinformation superspreaders,” the stubborn tendency for many journalists to build election narratives around poll results, and how journalists influence the public’s response to presidential debates.
Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School, as well as the author of Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, which you should read because it does a great job explaining why Journalist’s Resource matters.
Anticipating that journalists would need help covering one of the more hopeful stories of the year, freelance health writer Kerry Dooley Young enlisted insights from several people with expertise studying or reporting on vaccines: Howard Bauchner, editor in chief of the medical journal JAMA; Helen Branswell, senior infectious diseases and global health reporter for the online news outlet STAT; Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Zachary Brennan, a reporter with POLITICO Prowith years of experience covering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; and longtime health reporter Gary Schwitzer.
Among the tips: Let audiences know they might experience mild side effects from these vaccines. “If these vaccines are going to make recipients feel crappy — at least for a short time after vaccination — people should be prepared for that,” Branswell told Dooley Young. “Getting that information out in advance can effectively inoculate against the inevitable social media discussion that will come later, when people complain about how lousy they felt after getting vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Denise-Marie Ordway, managing editor:
It’s tough to fully grasp how a nationwide economic slump is impacting lower-income families, Black and Hispanic neighborhoods and the rural U.S. without also understanding how a loose network of “alternative” financial services — payday lenders, car title lenders and money transmitters, for example — help many people make ends meet. As U.S. unemployment rates hit historic highs earlier this year, Clark Merrefield took a close look at the alternative financial services he believed Americans might start using more often to get cash for food, housing and other basic expenses. The resulting piece does a terrific job explaining the benefits and consequences of alternative financial services and spotlighting relevant research to help journalists report on the economic downturn and recovery efforts.
Scientists have created mathematical models and computer simulations to study the transmission of the new coronavirus and make predictions about how it might affect people in the future. This tip sheet is one of my all-time favorites because it focuses on an important element of research that often is overlooked or ignored and makes journalists’ work easier by outlining seven essential questions journalists should ask when interviewing researchers about epidemiological models. Another great thing about this tip sheet is that it incorporates insights from four different kinds of expert on this topic: an epidemiologist, a senior science writer, an infectious disease mathematical modeler and a doctoral student studying mathematical biology.