Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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April 1, 2020, 9 a.m.

Are you a local reporter doing data-heavy coronavirus reporting? This service will check your stats for free

“When you aren’t sure the data really says what you think, or you feel anxious about making a math mistake, walking through your process with someone else can help.”

Coronavirus reporting is profoundly driven by numbers. Tests administered, cases diagnosed, deaths attributed; doubling speed, growth curves, R0; county data, state data, national data.

It’s a lot. And as efforts to collect and organize this data — released under different standards and methods from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — have shown, the numbers don’t always say what you think they say.

And some reporters not used to doing this much math might want the help of someone more experienced — someone who can provide guidance and give that spreadsheet a second look.

That’s the idea behind Peer Data Review from OpenNews. The program “connects people in local newsrooms with fellow journalists who can help them think through a data story.” And now, after a run as a pilot project last fall, it’s open specifically to reporters doing work on COVID-19.

Learning data journalism is a continual process, and as a community, we invest a lot of time and energy into sharing what we know through trainings, workshops, and writeups.

Support from a peer makes it easier to implement what you’ve learned. When you aren’t sure the data really says what you think, or you feel anxious about making a math mistake, walking through your process with someone else can help. Reporters on smaller teams don’t always have experienced colleagues to compare notes with — but that’s a gap the news-nerd community can help fill.

This isn’t for people still looking for data to crunch; it’s “for stories and projects where you already have the data and: aren’t sure it says what you think it says, don’t have a colleague to double-check your analysis, or just aren’t quite sure what to do next.”

In last fall’s pilot, one of OpenNews’ key findings was that “journalists in smaller newsrooms face a support gap, not a skills gap” — that the comfort of having an experienced data reporter to call on when your SQL’s gone squirrely encourages reporters to start data stories in the first place.

Interested? You can find out more here and sign up here. (And don’t worry: They won’t steal your brilliant story idea.)

The program is funded via a Magic Grant from the Brown Institute. (Think grant programs have to take a long time? Brown announced this cycle of $5,000 grants for COVID-19 projects on March 14; more than 300 applications were in a week later; five, including Peer Data Review, were awarded the grants on March 24. Agile!)

The other four winning projects:

Collateral damage: tracking domestic violence under lockdown in Italy, led by Ottavia Spaggiari.

Italy is approaching its third week of national lockdown. It is the country recording the highest number of coronavirus deaths and the second nation after China with the highest number of cases. The shelter-in-place order came as a decision to preserve the country’s universal health care system brought close to a breaking point by the virus and, ultimately, to protect the entire population. Staying at home, however, does not mean staying safe for everybody.

Italy has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Europe. In Italy, lockdown measures forced many shelters to close their doors to new arrivals. This grant will support a deeply reported interactive longform piece, mapping the tools developed by Italian organizations and activists to help women survive the lockdown, while monitoring the number of domestic violence victims who seek help in this crisis.

Retro Report-Twitter Thread: Disseminating breaking news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, led by Kyra Danton and Craig T. McMurray of Retro Report.

Since the outbreak of the virus, Retro Report has been dedicated to reporting that uses facts from history daily to combat coronavirus misinformation. One of the tools we use in disseminating accurate, useful information and data is Twitter, which has spawned a whole new culture of global connectivity. This micro-grant will extend Retro Report’s use of historical reporting to provide fact-based information that will work to put the coronavirus and surrounding issues in proper context.

Community Reporting in Rural Southeast Alaska, led by Becky Meiers, KCAW-FM.

KCAW-FM, is a public radio station owned and operated by the Raven Radio Foundation, Inc. of Sitka, Alaska. KCAW serves Sitka and seven other communities, from Yakutat to Port Alexander — roughly the same distance between Washington, DC, and Columbus, Ohio. However, for those communities outside of Sitka, there is no other media source, and limited and unreliable internet. Despite the remoteness of these communities, they are incredibly vulnerable to the contagion. Sitka is the hub for a regional health consortium, but many of the outlying communities do not have regular health service or facilities. The micro-grant will support reporting factual information about COVID-19 to its listening communities.

Coronavirus in the Mississippi River Basin: Dual Risks of a Pandemic and Flooding, led by Clarisa Diaz and Lydia McMullen-Laird.

Healthcare workers and emergency funds are already stretched thin from the coronavirus outbreak, but in the Midwest and the South, many towns are bracing for potentially devastating flooding. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a forecast last week that predicts moderate to severe flooding in 23 states, with the most vulnerable states along the Mississippi River basin. This story will document the struggle of communities and governments in Louisiana and possibly other communities along the Mississippi River basin (depending on where the outbreak and flooding hits hardest over the coming weeks).

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     April 1, 2020, 9 a.m.
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