At the end of 2019, reflecting on that year’s most popular pieces, I made a vague forward-looking statement that turned out to be a bit of an understatement. “We’re looking forward to working with, informing and supporting you,” I wrote. “We have a hunch 2020 is going to be a big news year.”
As it turns out, 2020 has been an enormous news year — extraordinarily overwhelming, relentless and historic.
The coronavirus pandemic quickly became and continues to be an international, national, regional, local and hyper-local news story spanning almost every beat. The May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the uprisings that followed dominated international headlines for several weeks. In terms of page views, June 5, 2020 was the biggest day in JR’s history, due in large part to our roundup of research on deaths in police custody. And of course there were the ongoing stories of the decennial census and the unusual presidential election.
Throughout 2020, Journalist’s Resource produced 139 research roundups, articles, explainers, tip sheets, data visualizations, columns and comics. Here are our 10 most popular posts of 2020, which supported journalists as they reported some of the decade’s biggest news stories. (The list includes articles and research roundups we published — or significantly expanded and republished — in the past 12 months.)
Denise-Marie Ordway significantly updated and expanded this research roundup from 2016, which considers deaths in police custody from multiple angles, including restraint methods and police force demographics. In addition to summarizing new research, she highlighted and explained the federal Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013. That law went into effect in 2014 but has yet to be fully implemented — and so the official number of deaths remains unknown.
Ordway highlighted a study in the journal Criminology, which shows how voicing support for police can be a “dog whistle” politicians use to appeal to voters threatened by challenges to America’s racial status quo. “Donald Trump’s expressions of support for police, researchers find, served as coded language that mobilized voters who were anxious about the social and economic status of white Americans in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election,” she writes.
In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, the JR team combed through the Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms and reported what the research says about their policy proposals. We wanted to encourage deep coverage of these proposals — and do our part to help deter “horse race” journalism, which research suggests can lead to inaccurate reporting and an uninformed electorate. Clark Merrefield looked at research on the efficacy of gun buyback programs, which allow gun owners to trade their firearms for vouchers that can be redeemed for cash or other items of value.
Early on in the pandemic, school districts were grappling with how and whether to move instruction from physical classrooms to students’ homes via the internet. In response, Ordway significantly updated this research roundup, which looks at how children historically have performed in online schools, including online charter schools.
5. Working from home: What the research says about setting boundaries, staying productive and reshaping cities
The coronavirus pandemic forced millions of employees to begin working from home back in March, the JR staff included. Merrefield looked at what the research says about employee productivity and boundary-setting while working at home, whether teleworking affects career growth, and what will happen to cities if office workers don’t come back. “Work-from-home arrangements will likely expand beyond the tech world — and beyond the pandemic, he writes. “Executives at about 1,750 firms from a variety of industries across the country expect 10% of full-time employees to telework every workday after the pandemic ends, according to the May monthly panel survey by economists at the Atlanta Fed, Stanford University and the University of Chicago.”
The week before Election Day in the U.S., we published this explainer on the ins and outs of how The Associated Press and major television networks decide when to declare a winner in any given race. The main takeaway for news audiences: “With varying rules and processes for how states conduct elections and tens of millions of advance ballots expected to be cast due to the COVID-19 pandemic, major news companies like ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC and The Associated Press are telling their audiences not to expect clear-cut results on election night,” Merrefield writes. Indeed.
In the interest of helping journalists improve their coronavirus coverage in the early days of the pandemic, Ordway reached out to Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who has served as a trusted media source throughout 2020. Ordway compiled five of Hanage’s best tips for covering the outbreak. Tip #1: “Choose experts carefully. Receiving a Nobel Prize for one scientific subject doesn’t make someone an authority on all science topics. Nor does having a PhD or teaching at a prestigious medical school.”
As policymakers, elected officials and presidential candidates debated the best way to compensate educators, Ordway turned to what the research says. Overall, she writes, studies show “raising teacher pay is associated with improved teacher retention, gains in student performance, a larger percentage of high-achieving college students taking courses in education, and an increased likelihood of hiring teachers who earned top scores on their educator certification exams.”
Americans have never voted directly for president. The U.S. Constitution specifies that state electors — not everyday citizens registered to vote — elect the president and vice president. Amid an extraordinary election year, Merrefield guided readers through the history and intricacies of the Electoral College and compiled a list of individual electors in several swing states.
Merrefield highlighted multidisciplinary research published in the prestigious journal Science, which delves into political sectarianism in America. “The authors argue that American political sects are bonded by faith that their side is morally superior to the other — echoing the ties that sometimes bind the religiously faithful,” Merrefield writes. “The effect is that politicians have little incentive to represent all their constituents in policy and lawmaking, since political sectarians rarely cross the aisle to vote for candidates outside their party.”
Want to know which of our pieces meant the most to the JR staff this year? Check out our 2020 team picks.