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Simple digital tools helped broadcast reporter track conflicting COVID-19 statistics Date: 05/27/21

Alex Smith

Alex Smith, a reporter for National Public Radio in Kansas City, Mo., is the 2020 second place winner of the Excellence in Health Journalism awards for beat reporting. Through dogged reporting and analysis of public health data, Smith highlighted the discrepancies in data reported by state and local public health departments in Kansas and Missouri and what actually was going in communities in both states. Many times, after his stories were published, state officials corrected their data. In this interview with Bara Vaida, AHCJ’s infectious diseases core topic leader, he talks about his work and gives advice to journalists interested in reporting on similar stories in their communities.

Q: How did the pandemic change you as a journalist? 

A: My style of journalism is in the (National Public Radio) mold of telling individual stories, (but) because of the pandemic and social distancing, I was able to do very little of that. So, I turned into this data journalist, which was an eye-opening experience. I enjoyed it more than I expected. I got a new appreciation for data journalism.

Q: You won second place in AHCJ’s 2020 Excellence in Health Care Journalism awards for beat reporting. Your stories focused on how public health officials undercounted COVID-19 cases and other missing data. Your advice to fellow journalists in the awards application was to save all data and documents from public health departments. Can you elaborate on more of what you meant? 

A: I realized in Kansas and Missouri, their ways of collecting and reporting (COVID-19) data were changing a lot. Like every other week. One week they did it one way and then they did it another way a week later. When the state put out document, I didn’t know if it would be there in two weeks. So I ended up downloading and saving everything the states put out. Then when there were changes in reporting happening a couple weeks later, I was able to check out what they were doing, their new approach and compare it with what they were doing previously. Often there were a lot of surprises in the differences. You could see things that they hadn’t been reporting before and were reporting now or what they were deemphasizing. The federal data can be hit or miss too. There were times when I had the state data and compared it with the federal data, and they did not align. So that could lead to a story.

Q: Has the quality of the public health data gotten any better? 

A: Yeah, I think so. The quality of the data, for the things I am covering, from the federal government and the states has improved a lot. I will say, in a lot of these cases where there was missing data or omissions, I didn’t necessarily find an intent to mislead. There can be a tendency to want to point the finger and place blame, but that can distract from what the data show. Sometimes you don’t have to point the finger at anyone or prove the state or city or health department or public officials were trying to mislead. It was just that there was missing data.

Q: Were you able to find out why the data was missing? 

A: I haven’t had a lot of questions answered from state officials. There are still a lot of unknowns about what happened. I plan to go back when there is more comprehensive data on mortality rates. None of us actually know how many were infected or died due to the virus. 

Q: Do you think it was lack of public health funding that led to these gaps in data? 

A: Yes. I have seen a lot of non-health reporters trying to cover the virus without understanding the lack of funding and organization in public health. I have been a health care reporter for seven years, and having that context really helped a lot. I look at all these (gaps) in data, and I say: ‘Well, that kind of makes sense.’ 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.

Q: Has the funding issue gotten any better? Congress has passed bills sending billions to public health departments. Have you seen any of that come to the health departments you cover?  

A: The state was really slow to get it to counties, and then the counties themselves were slow to get it to the public health departments. 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.’ I think there were a lot of counties that were hoping (COVID-19) would go away. 

A: Wow. Why would public health people not want to collect data? 

Q: Well, the national leadership (at the time) said, if we don’t do testing then we won’t have these cases. There was this idea that testing was creating the false myth of an emergency. A lot of local city councils felt the same way, (that) if we offered testing to our residents then it will have the appearance of an emergency, when there are these asymptomatic cases. We don’t want this case surge to put us in a position of having to shut businesses and require mask mandates, and generally, public health officials only have as much agency as their local city council will allow them to have.

Q: Are public health officials in Missouri and Kansas now doing more to mitigate the virus than they did a year ago when they felt like they couldn’t? 

A: In Missouri, our cases are very low. I think we lucked out on avoiding a surge due to (virus) variants, and so the public health departments are just trying to put the word out there to get vaccinated. Now they are more willing to talk to reporters because they do have these basic public health messages about the importance of vaccinations.

Q: In your awards application, your advice to colleagues was to take the long view when covering public health. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? 

A: The botched, the garbled data story. That is probably the biggest example of that. That was really the culmination of a lot of daily reporting and blow-by-blow reporting I had done over the previous six months until that story published. I did tons of spot news and that (data story) was a way to pull all of that together. I was honestly surprised by the big reaction to that story, because, to me I am just a wonky health nerd person. I thought, ‘Isn’t it obvious? Doesn’t everyone know how messed up this data is? because I covered it every day. But to take that reporting and lay it out into one long-form story that had a lot a big impact in a way I wasn’t expecting. 

Q: What tools do you use for collecting data? 

A: I wish that I had more data reporting tools in my toolkit. Other than basic spreadsheets, I didn’t use any complicated tools. I just kept track of the numbers with Excel spreadsheets. That is, I would just look to see if the numbers added up to what the numbers are supposed to.