How to find COVID-19 stories ‘hiding in plain sight’

The pandemic puts a new ABC initiative to the test

Like a lot of good enterprise stories, this one started with a hunch — but it finished with a bang, thanks to a promising innovation by the ABC Owned TV Stations that is changing the way they report on the coronavirus pandemic and has valuable lessons for every newsroom.

Kim Dillon and her colleagues at WABC-TV in New York noticed that as COVID-19 deaths started to rise rapidly through the city, a large percentage of the victims had something in common. “You suddenly began to realize that this was a series of black and brown faces,” says Dillon, the senior executive producer who oversees the station’s investigative team. “And it occurred to us early on: ‘What’s going on here?’”

An emergency room source confirmed that the pandemic was having a disproportionately deadly impact on poor and minority communities, but to nail down the story, Dillon’s team turned to a new colleague, John Kelly, who joined the station group in November in the newly created job of director of Data Journalism. Kelly, who previously worked with the Gannett newspapers and its TV stations (before they were spun off to form TEGNA), is directing an ambitious new initiative across the ABC Owned TV Stations to enhance coverage and community service with data journalism.

John Kelly was able to confirm the racial and economic differences in the impact of the pandemic and even created a zip-code-level interactive map that correlated COVID-related deaths with poverty levels. “I can honestly say that we were ahead of the story that broke about the racial disparity that is going on with the pandemic,” says Dillon.

Watch Dan Krauth’s WABC report on COVID-19’s impact on different neighborhoods

At WABC, Kelly and his small team have helped investigative reporters Danielle Leigh and Dan Krauth develop multiple pandemic-related stories, including an analysis of calls to New York City’s 3-1-1 complaint line; a spike in gun sales in the region; the impact on children who depend on the school lunch program; and an international flight tracker that helps show how COVID-19 got to this country. “The data keeps us ahead of the game,” says WABC news director Chad Matthews. “Not once have I seen us following anyone’s footsteps. The investment in data has paid off.”

That investment was driven by ABC Owned TV Stations president Wendy McMahon. She describes the goal as “hyperlocal content at scale,” a provocative oxymoron. “Our cities are becoming smarter and smarter with all of this incredible data,” says group VP Anna Robertson, “but nobody is really taking a holistic and systematic approach to mining that data. We believe that by bringing this kind of capability into the heart of our newsrooms, we could find stories hiding in plain sight.”

And the goal is not just better journalism. “We know the future is going to be more personalized and more hyperlocal,” says Robertson. “We felt like there could be a new business approach or new business model by really covering community news at scale through data.”

John Kelly/Anna Robertson/Kim Dillon/Chad Matthews

ABC’s plan was to embed so-called “data journalism fellows” in most if not all of its stations to work closely with news teams, but only two fellows were in place when the pandemic started to hit hard, and “we turned our attention to covering COVID all the time,” says Kelly. Now there are four fellows — in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia — with another set to start in New York this month. The idea, in Kelly’s words, is to “come into these newsrooms and provide them with the power to add a layer of precision that lets them do more great investigations and great stories that stand apart from what’s on the competition.”

Dan Krauth visualizes data that shows graffiti complaints down by 62 per cent

A key component of the project is that Kelly’s team works across the whole station group: it helped create multiple versions of the flight tracker for different stations and collaborated with ABC News on a network report. “We gather the data, we analyze the data, and we put it in the hands of the local stations to go do a uniquely local story,” Kelly says.

Another example: for an analysis of the quality of care in nursing homes, Kelly’s team built an online tool that allows users to check any facility for themselves. “Any viewer in any one of our markets could look up the record of the nursing home where their loved one stayed. And see, has that nursing home had any issues? And are they resolved?” Kelly says. “You empowered every viewer in that market with a tool that took something that’s almost impenetrable on the federal government’s website and made it extremely simple and transparent.”

Watch Danielle Leigh’s WABC report on nursing home ratings

As of April 24, ABC says the data team has contributed to more than 200 pandemic-related stories for newscasts and digital platforms on ABC’s eight stations, as well as other assets that include a stimulus calculator; a county-by-county analysis of social distancing (see Raleigh’s version here); and a study of statewide disparities in testing. In addition to interactive visualizations, the data team built online COVID-19 resource centers, customized for each station’s website.

Watch KGO San Francisco’s version of the testing backlog data analysis

“The lesson for the pandemic is that people are hungry hungry hungry for more,” says WABC’s Kim Dillon. “So we can direct them to our platforms where they can take that deeper dive into the data,” And the hope is that the soon-to-arrive New York journalism fellow will start infusing data into day-of-air stories as well, as his colleague Grace Manthey is already doing at KABC in Los Angeles.”Once he starts we’re going to keep him very busy,” says Dillon. “This should not be totally an investigative or consumer resource. It should be a resource throughout the newsroom.”

ABC’s internal name for the data initiative is “Project 1590,” for the 1590 communities its eight stations serve. When local news icon Al Primo, whom we wrote about here, brought the Eyewitness News format to New York 50 years ago, one of his goals was to capture the diverse and quirky character of the city’s many neighborhoods. Spurred by the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, ABC is using data journalism to reinforce that tradition and fulfill each station’s potential to be uniquely relevant and uniquely local.

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