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It may be a global pandemic, but local news matters

It may be a global pandemic, but local news matters

Picture of Kelly  Puente
Members of the Fourth Samoan Congregational Christian Church of Long Beach worship on Sept. 5, 2021. The church this summer lost
Members of the Fourth Samoan Congregational Christian Church of Long Beach worship on Sept. 5, 2021. The church this summer lost three of its members to COVID-19 in two weeks.
(Photo by Kelly Puente)

“Local news matters.” It’s a rally cry that’s echoed through the many small newsrooms I’ve worked in over the years, in times when the cutbacks typical of newsrooms can leave you feeling dejected.

I’ve always believed that local news matters, but as the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through local communities last year, I knew our job at the Long Beach Post was more important than ever. 

We’ve long known that Long Beach, a diverse city, has significant disparities in lifespan and overall health depending on race, income and where someone lives. But that disparity became glaring during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people who lived in underserved communities were less likely to get vaccinated and more likely to be infected and die from the virus.  

It was an important story that needed to be told, and fortunately the fellowship gave me the time, tools and resources to delve deeper into the issue. I chose to tackle the topic as a series of three stories, each looking at a community with longstanding health disparities that have been highlighted in the pandemic. 

In some ways, the changing news in the pandemic around vaccine rates, surging cases and other issues was helpful in my reporting, as I used the latest news for timely stories that had impact.

As a reporter, it’s often a challenge to find people willing to share their stories, and this was especially true with people who were on the fence about getting the COVID-19 vaccine. For my first story, I wanted to look at disparities in vaccine rates, and fortunately I was able to use city health department events to find people willing to talk about their experience.

My story found that Long Beach has made gains in reaching underserved communities, but disparities persist, especially in the Black and Latino communities. Latinos make up the city’s largest adult population at 38%, but they account for 30% of vaccinations, according to data released in August. White residents, on the other hand, make up 32% of the adult population but account for 31% of vaccinations, while Black residents make up 13% of the population and 8% of vaccinations.

I found several Black residents at a health resources fair who were willing to talk about why they chose to not get vaccinated or why they were hesitant to get vaccinated. I was also able to find health workers who were pushing to get more people vaccinated in the Black community. For Latinos, we were able to connect with community groups to delve deeper into some of the unique reasons for lower vaccination rates. The reporting highlights the importance of reaching out to community groups and getting out in the community to find people willing to tell their stories. 

Long Beach has a large Pacific Islander community, and I knew for my second story I wanted to highlight their shockingly high COVID-19 death rates, especially in the Samoan community. In my reporting I found that Pacific Islanders in Long Beach were seven times more likely to die compared to white residents.

​​Of the Pacific Islander subgroups in California, Samoans had the highest death rate. The biggest challenge for the story was finding a Samoan family who had experienced loss. I know that churches are key in the Pacific Islander community, so I started by calling around to all of the pastors at Samoan churches in Los Angeles and Orange County. I spoke to one pastor in Compton who mentioned that he had just attended a triple funeral for 23-year-old Samoan twin brothers and their aunt. The three had all died from Covid within less than a month. 

Through that connection I was able to find the Samoan church in Long Beach that had held the triple funeral and the following Sunday I attended their regular service, which added depth and color to the story. Through my efforts in reaching out to various churches, I was able to show the loss in the Samonan community by telling the story of a family that had lost three people.

For my third story, I planned to focus on the connection between high COVID-19 rates and neighborhoods with historically bad air quality, using a recent Harvard University study. As I outlined in my story, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles began experiencing an unprecedented shipping backlog due to the pandemic.

It was obvious the mass backlog was contributing to poor air quality in the region, especially in nearby communities, but few recent news stories had focused on the concern in these communities.

In my reporting, I found that while state agencies are still monitoring this year’s overall air quality impact, a September report from the California Air Resources Board found that increased cargo movement and congestion at the ports in March resulted in 14.5 extra tons per day of smog-causing nitrogen oxides. The report also found an extra 0.27 tons of particulate matter compared to pre-pandemic base levels. The increase was equivalent to exhaust from nearly 50,000 large diesel trucks.

Through this timely news, I was able to highlight the longstanding concerns in the community regarding air quality and also show possible connections with air quality and high COVID-19 rates in these areas.

Overall, I believe my project is a great reminder of why local news matters, as these important stories impacting underserved communities would go largely uncovered otherwise.

Here are a few tips for other journalists hoping to explore similar topics:

  • Get out in the community. Too often we can feel chained to our desks, but as reporters it’s vital to get out of the newsroom and out into neighborhoods. Go to community meetings, COVID-19 health resource events, even your local parks. You would be surprised where a story can lead.

  • Call as many sources as possible. For my story on COVID-19 rates in the Pacific Islander community, I was at first feeling discouraged because I was having a hard time finding a family to highlight. I decided to reach out to as many church pastors as possible and called about six or seven churches, and one turned out to be very key for my story.

  • Use timely news for bigger stories. It’s easy to get overwhelmed on big projects, so instead of thinking too big and feeling overwhelmed, I decided to start small with timely news pegs that I could develop into bigger stories.

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