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Keep these tips in mind when writing about COVID-19’s unequal toll

Keep these tips in mind when writing about COVID-19’s unequal toll

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
Getty Images
(Getty Images)

While COVID-19 is affecting everyone, its impacts are more severe among the country’s most vulnerable groups, such as low-wage workers and people of color.

Telling their stories is a key part of tackling health inequities, said Dr. Lisa A. Cooper, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health in a Center for Health Journalism Covering Coronavirus webinar this week. Cooper joined USA TODAY investigative data journalist Jayme Fraser to explore how the pandemic is magnifying the already widening health divide, and how journalists can dig deeper to serve their audiences and change the narrative.

“If we help people to focus on individual stories and identify some commonality with individuals, we’re more likely to build public empathy on this issue,” Cooper said.

Protecting the vulnerable  

Vulnerable populations — including people of color, low-income people, immigrants, women, children, older adults, homeless and people with chronic conditions — tend to be overrepresented in essential workers, Cooper said.  

They are caregivers for the elderly, they clean health facilities, they drive busses and they ride public transportation to get to these jobs. Many lack access to health care services during regular times. Some  might not have broadband internet, and they might feel a mistrust of institutions and authority due to historical mistreatment.

These groups can’t just “use zoom and stay home,” Cooper said. That’s why she created and published a game plan in Politico, with Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein. In the webinar, Cooper updated and expanded on some of her policy suggestions:

  • Track data on COVID-19 cases by race, ethnicity and geography:  It’s important to collect accurate information on who is getting sick, who is getting treatment and who is dying. Look at who is at risk, and what factors are contributing to the infections, she said. For example, it’s not enough to simply say that African Americans are being disproportionately infected. Instead, go deeper and look at where the cases are clustered. Are they in crowded housing areas? Are there multigenerational families living in close quarters? This information can be used to guide decisions on where to set up testing centers, or where hospitals need more personal protective equipment.
  • Communicate and build trust with communities of color: Cooper stressed the importance of leaders building trust and communicating frequently and authentically with communities of color, with messages that resonate. One way to connect is to work with organizations that already have strong inroads in a given community, such as the American Heart Association’s connections with leaders in the African American and Latino communities, she said. These connections can be used to disseminate urgent health information.
  • Enhance access to testing and health care: Vulnerable groups might not have access to cars for drive-through testing. Instead, they might benefit from mobile units or testing locations closer to their homes. Similarly, people who are uninsured might be experiencing other barriers to care. For example, are they being left out of trials for new therapies? There is also the problem of implicit bias in care. Are minorities being told to go back home at the hospital and then dying as a result?
  • Protecting essential and low wage workers: It’s important to be mindful that people — often underpaid—are out there, risking their lives, she said. This underscores the need for access to adequate testing, protective supplies and equipment in their work environs, and policies that protect them, such as paid sick leave.
  • Provide social services to keep vulnerable groups safe: Polices can help people who cannot stay home and engage in social distancing. That might include housing in hotels for people who don’t have safe places to go, moratoriums on rent and mortgages and moratoriums on utility shut offs.  It might also mean helping families connect to the internet so that children can continue their education.

Many people still think of health as being determined strictly by an individual’s choice and behaviors.

“We really need to change that narrative,” Cooper said.

Creating a bridge

There’s a difference between covering vulnerable communities and serving them, said USA Today’s Fraser, who covers health and its intersections with inequality.

 Now, more than ever, think of your work as a public service, creating a bridge to these communities.

“Go beyond thinking about just getting those voices in your work and really think about whether the stories you’re writing day to day provide people in those community with the information they need,” she said.

Consider whether your information is reaching people without internet access, or non-subscribers, or those who speak another language. If you’re sharing advice on how to stay safe, do those strategies make sense for everyone? When working on “solutions” stories, be critical about how policy decisions are impacting different pockets of the community.

For example, early in the pandemic, journalists largely focused on hospitals. Fraser was thinking instead about the large number of lower-income people who rely on safety-net health clinics for their care. She called around and found some were closing their doors, others weren’t receiving adequate personal protective equipment and still others struggling to reach patients who don’t have the phone, internet or stable housing.

“If everyone’s zigging, sometimes you zag,” she said. “Think about what part of this story is not being told.”

When reaching out to vulnerable communities, offer sources information about who you are and how you do your job. At the end of every interview, Fraser asks: “What questions do you have for me?” She finds that works better than simply asking if they have any questions.

She suggested a number of storylines for reporters to track. Investigate the finances of local hospitals and clinics. How people are accessing care? What happens to those who don’t have a regular doctor? Who is getting rent assistance? And what communities are or aren’t receiving public health messages?

Other story ideas: consider who is impacted with group living, going beyond nursing homes and looking into jails, halfway houses and foster homes. What are the challenges of social distancing when you share living quarters with so many people?

Consider forming an advisory panel with community leaders or host Facebook Live meetings. Keep asking: What stories are we missing?


What the full presentation here:


The nation’s overdose epidemic has entered a devastating new phase. Drugs laced with fentanyl and even more poisonous synthetics have flooded the streets, as the crisis spreads well beyond the rural, largely white communities that initially drew attention. The death rate is escalating twice as fast among Black people than among white people. This webinar will give journalists deep insights, fresh story ideas and practical tips for covering an epidemic that killed more than 107,000 people in the U.S. last year. Sign-up here!


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