Grantees’ COVID-19 Database Shapes Media Coverage Nationwide

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, state and local government responses varied significantly – and often were shielded from public scrutiny.

A team at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation issued open-record requests to government agencies in all 50 states and set out to create an online repository of the material, available to journalists nationwide. With an emergency grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and support from several other funders, the “Documenting COVID-19” team has compiled more than 500,000 pages of records from 29 states.

The team has produced original coverage using the documents to break new ground with several important COVID-19 stories, including how New Orleans officials ignored concerns and pushed ahead with Mardi Gras during the pandemic and how government agencies pressed meatpacking plants to keep people working despite unsafe conditions.

Journalists around the country are also using the database for stories that bring transparency and accountability at the state and local levels. The new website allows users to search for relevant document sets and records by state or thematic tags.

“These types of documents, which are often months old, can inform current understandings,” said Derek Kravitz, one of the leaders of the Brown Institute team. “An email from March can help us piece together what is happening today.”