How one investigative reporter took a local approach to covering COVID-19

Jerry Mitchell

Many journalists are searching for new ways to report on the impact of COVID-19. One approach is to mine public data showing health problems that existed in a community prior to the pandemic. Then, tell the stories about how those who were in poor health before March 2020 have been affected over the past 18 months.

One reporter who successfully followed the above approach is investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell, founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Journalism. He co-authored a series of stories looking at the connection between diabetes and COVID deaths. The series put a spotlight on how those in poverty, and especially those with diabetes, were among those at risk of dying from COVID. Mitchell hopes the series will wake Americans up to the danger of diabetes, not just in terms of the risk it poses for mortality from COVID, but also in terms of vulnerability to health threats in the future.

Mitchell recently shared with AHCJ what he learned while reporting on the series, how his organization approached the pandemic and offered advice to journalists on how to bone up on data reporting. (The following conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.)

The pandemic is both a national and a local story. Can you talk about how you’ve been covering this from a local angle for the past 18 months?

We’re trying to look at it from an investigative reporting standpoint. We did a project called Poverty in the Pandemic. We were interested in looking at how COVID affected people that are already struggling. It turned out that they’ve just been harder hit. In Holmes County, [Miss.], which is probably the poorest county in the nation… COVID went right through the nursing homes and killed a bunch of people. We looked at data on nursing homes and there were two or three times as many cases compared to others in the South. We also looked at the Choctaw tribe [in Mississippi] and they had a higher rate of COVID cases and deaths per capita than New York City.

What else have you focused on other reporters haven’t covered?

Mississippi is one of only 12 states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid [under the Affordable Care Act]. Obviously, it’s had an effect on health care for folks [in the state]. More recently, we reported about the link between diabetes and COVID deaths. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been reporting on it, because [there has been] this huge increase in diabetes. It’s a contributing factor in so many of these COVID cases. A lot of people that are dying of COVID have diabetes, and that’s what caught my attention.

Can I bring you back to the start of March 2020? It sounds like your first instinct was: How do we cover this? This is obviously going to affect those living in poverty.

We were thinking, they’re the ones who are unfortunately, not able to access a health care system unless they show up to the ER. So right off the bat, we heard about what was happening in [the state’s poorest area,] Holmes County [and its nursing homes]. We really wanted to take a deep dive and look at it. We got some funding from the Pulitzer Center and so we did that series on poverty.

What did you learn from working on the diabetes and COVID series?

It’s kind of been the silent scourge that’s been going on for years. COVID has made it clear why we need to do something about [diabetes] because if you already have diabetes and something like COVID comes along, or some other kind of health issue, your health is already compromised. So that’s all the more reason for why we need to address diabetes. The average in America is about one in 10 people have diabetes. If we keep going down the same path, it’s not going to be long from now that almost half of the adult population in America is either pre-diabetic or has diabetes. The people who often have diabetes are more impoverished and the least likely to get care for their condition. A great percentage of people who have diabetes have to ration insulin. This is the worst thing imaginable.

In Mississippi, just over 40% of the population is fully vaccinated. What is it about Mississippi that makes people so vaccine hesitant?

I think essentially… Mississippi has a long history of doing the opposite of what the federal government wants them to do. Historically, Mississippi has led the nation in rebellion against the federal government. Whatever the federal government wanted, we felt like generally [was] a bad idea.

In terms of advice, it sounds like you are advising reporters to look at the health issues in their communities that were problematic before the pandemic and drill in from there?

Yeah, exactly. I think it’s: What can be done to address diabetes or other health issues like this? In this sense, COVID is exposing a lot of the problems that are already there and inequities in the health system that were sort of opaque to us in many ways, and why having such a terribly fragmented health system is a problem.

What are some of your favorite resources from the diabetes and poverty series?

With the grant from the Pulitzer Center, we hired some database journalists. We had a couple of interns who worked with us, one spoke fluent Spanish. He did a story on Hispanic workers at chicken plants… and the other intern was good with numbers, so he was helpful for tracking down data from the Mississippi Department of Health.

Did you have to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get the data you needed?

Yes, we requested data with regards to nursing homes because the health department inspects nursing homes. I think these days, you just really can’t do projects without data.

What advice would you give to journalists looking to build their investigative data skills?

I would send journalists to the boot camps the Investigative Reporters and Editors run. If you’re interested in learning more about data gathering, that would be a place to learn.

What is your next investigative focus?

Mississippi is leading the nation and even much of the world in terms of per capita cases, so we want to continue to cover it in a deeper way. Instead of just doing the daily [COVID], oh here’s the latest numbers … let’s look at one of the biggest reasons why we had so many deaths. If we had a healthier population [before the pandemic], if we were treating diabetes like we should be treating diabetes, we would have been able to handle this better. We kind of think of cigarette smoking as being the worst…. but diabetes is more [prevalent].

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