In August 2021, NewsQ’s KNoW Science, MuckRock, and SciLine organized the COVID-19 Community Convening, an online meeting that connected local newsrooms with science and health experts in order to discuss key issues identified by newsrooms serving Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities around the country during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The meeting, attended by 23 journalists, science communicators, and members from Vaccine Safety Net, was held in a closed-door format to encourage open dialog. Discussions focused on ways journalists and vaccine experts can collaborate to help the public understand information about vaccines.
The COVID-19 Community Convening was also an opportunity to share perspectives about information gaps and underreported stories, and explore ways of filling out those gaps. Science communicators and vaccine specialists wanted to learn about the challenges that newrooms are facing when reporting on COVID-19 and in particular about vaccines, and what newsrooms would like to report more on but lack the resources or specific expertise to do so, while establishing contacts with journalists well.
“The group started out the session by discussing ways journalists and vaccine experts can collaborate to help the public — particularly in communities underserved by major media outlets — understand information about vaccines,” said Andrea Brás, of KNoW Science. “Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities need to have better access to health-related information about the pandemic, including vaccines and vaccine safety.”
“Several journalists explained that a challenge during the pandemic has been trying to dispel myths in their respective communities about vaccination,” said Brás. “For example, during the pandemic, historical distrust of the medical profession has sometimes resulted in vaccine hesitancy.”
Vaccine specialists and science communicators who attended the August convening, such as those from Vaccine Safety Net, a global network established by the World Health Organization that provides reliable information on vaccine safety, were able discuss ideas for enhancing reporting on vaccines and vaccinations.
Participants also discussed how the pandemic affects minority communities, beyond vaccines and health impacts of COVID-19. For example, many communities across the country would like more accurate information about the state of education during the pandemic.
“Some journalists discussed how the pandemic in general has uncovered educational disparities in Indigenous communities,” said Brás. “Journalists know these stories are out there, but smaller newsrooms often lack the time to track down and interpret data. The science health experts who attended the August community convening can help contribute capacity for more robust reporting.”
In another example, attendees discussed the challenge of finding data to cover a largely underreported ongoing eviction crisis. As the pandemic shut down or transformed entire economic sectors, many people across the United States were furloughed or lost their jobs, and often were unable to pay rent.
While there were government programs that specifically targeted housing precarity during the pandemic, journalists attending the August convening explained there is no easy way to determine how many people had applied for and received rental assistance, a particularly relevant story as eviction moratoriums are scheduled to end in coming months.
Resources do exist to help local newsrooms track down data and more easily follow stories. For example, as a non-profit, collaborative news site, MuckRock brings together journalists, researchers, activists, and regular citizens to request, analyze, and share government documents.
“MuckRock can help local newsrooms find data about evictions, and also analyze it,” said Brás. “Local newsrooms can then interview experts about a specific issue that affects their local communities. The experts, in turn, can provide research-informed facts for more impactful stories.”
SciLine, which also helped organize the COVID-19 convening in August, introduced journalists to its free services designed to help them get more scientific evidence into their news stories. Among other offerings, SciLine connects reporters to scientists who can comment on the latest research and help reporters find stories hidden in datasets.
Collaborations between local newsrooms and organizations like SciLine and MuckRock help bring the tools of data journalism to local outlets, and provide them with the capacity to deliver more impactful reporting on their communities.
Ideas coming out of the COVID-19 Community Convening in August included creating an online “COVID clearing house” of articles, projects, and story topics related to the pandemic to share with local newsrooms all over the country that serve vulnerable communities.
“Smaller newsrooms obviously don’t have the resources of a major national outlet,” said Brás. “The COVID-19 Community Convening KNoW Science, MuckRock, and SciLine organized in August identified ways smaller newsrooms can access ways to connect newsrooms with science stakeholders and accurate sources of information to better follow and report on stories, and serve their communities.”
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