How the pandemic turned a local reporter into an award-winning data journalist

Photo: Petra Wessman ia Flickr

Before the pandemic, National Public Radio reporter Alex Smith conducted most of his interviews in person.

But as the pandemic limited his access to people, he turned to other sources for story ideas and research – public health data and social media.

“I turned into this data journalist, which was an eye-opening experience,” said Smith, who was the second-place winner for beat reporting in the 2020 Excellence in Health Journalism Awards. “I enjoyed it more than I expected. I got a new appreciation for data journalism.”

Smith, a health reporter at NPR’s flagship station, KCUR, in Kansas City, Mo., tracked what public health officials were posting about infection and mortality rates due to COVID-19 in Kansas and Missouri.

He found that both states were continuously changing the way they were reporting their data or weren’t even reporting data at all. Kansas, for example, wasn’t reporting on asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, which fed the perception that there was little community spread of the disease.

In Missouri, the state would report that there were plenty of hospital beds available when the hospitals themselves said that there weren’t.

Smith was able to find such discrepancies by downloading documents and data posted by Kansas and Missouri state and local public health departments. He plugged the numbers in Excel sheets to track the data, and filed FOIA requests to obtain federal public health recommendations and mitigation measures for both states. The information he got back was sometimes at odds with what state officials were saying publicly.

Further, he stayed in close contact with sources in local hospitals and local public health officials, who spoke to him off the record about what was happening in reality versus what the data was saying. He also kept copies of social media posts of public health officials so that he could compare statements with data.

“I have talked to a lot of people who worked in public health and (they said to me), ‘We don’t want to have to implement these mask orders and these business shutdowns, so we aren’t necessarily going to put out data the way big cities are doing,” Smith said in a “How I Did It” interview for AHCJ. “I think there were a lot of counties that were hoping (COVID-19) would go away.”

Now, almost midway through 2021, Smith says that public health officials have become better about talking to the media and providing information because they want to promote use of the  COVID-19 vaccines. However, he still hasn’t gotten answers about why the public health departments had so much trouble reporting data. He suspects that part of the issue was the chronic lack of public health funding that left departments unable to rise to the unprecedented challenge COVID-19 posed.

“In a lot of these cases where there was missing data or omissions, I didn’t necessarily find an intent to mislead,” Smith said. “You have these rural counties running on a shoestring for decades … of course, it will be really hard for them to just all of a sudden be thrust into this new unprecedented situation and be able to serve the community in the way that was needed.”

Smith’s stories prodded state and local public health departments to make some needed changes. Often changes and improvements in public health data came after Smith’s stories were published.

To learn more about Smith’s work and his advice for journalists who want to pursue similar stories, read our HIDI interview with him and his contest entry for the AHCJ award.

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