Emails obtained by Brown Institute fellow Derek Kravitz and the team behind his 2019-20 Magic Grant Trump Town have been credited now in a total of four stories. Three of the four stories appeared this week, in both The Washington Post and The New York Times. The 2,200 pages of emails were obtained through public records requests and contain back-and-forths between local officials as they deliberated what safety measures to take in the face of COVID-19.
The first three articles had to do with New Orleans and discussions about whether the city should move forward with Mardi Gras, despite the growing threat of the coronavirus in early February. The first was Kravitz’ and New York Times’ correspondent Richard Fausset’s New York Times piece “Why New Orleans Pushed Ahead With Mardi Gras, Even as It Planned for Coronavirus”, which we covered earlier this month.
After publishing the original piece, Kravitz shared the New Orleans emails with journalists at outlets including The Washington Post, recognizing the emails’ unique insight into the early days of local governments’ coronavirus response. From the article, which appeared as “U.S. deaths soared in early weeks of pandemic, far exceeding number attributed to covid-19”:
But some officials in that state say the coronavirus death toll will end up higher than is currently known, according to emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation that were shared with The Post.
In an April 4 email, New Orleans Health Director Jennifer Avegno noted a spike in paramedics’ reports of deaths on scene and of cardiac arrests requiring advanced life support, including CPR. The number of such reports in March was 24 percent higher than it had been in March 2019.
“Thus I would probably add about 15% or so to the known death toll,” she wrote to two city officials. “However — no city or state will be factoring this in or reporting it, so I don’t think we should either. We should just assume that the deaths are about 15% more than we can count, but not include them in official modeling, because we will never really know.”
The Times Magazine then used the emails to hook into a tragically gripping tale of racial disparities in Covid-19 fatalities in Louisiana, where 70% of the dead as of April 6th were African-Americans, despite making up only one third of the population. From the story:
As Mardi Gras festivities began, bringing over a million visitors from around the world streaming into the warm, welcoming city to celebrate face to face and elbow to elbow with local residents in a progression of street parties and parades, dozens of coronavirus cases had already been documented in China, which reported its first death on Jan. 11. On Jan. 20, the first known case was confirmed in the United States: a Washington State resident who had recently returned from Wuhan, China. Behind the scenes, Louisiana health administrators had begun discussing the growing situation, seeing it as low-risk, according to emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
Finally, the most recent New York Times piece focuses on the stories behind the shocking imagery of packed beaches in some coastal states. In “Frustrated by Crowds, Coastal States Weigh What to Do About Beaches“, the email cache from Kravitz highlighted decisions made by officials in St. John’s County to eventually close their beaches after significant public outcry.
Kravitz’ work for these four stories involved targeted records requests that the team made to local authorities in nearly every state, a large majority of which have yet to receive responses. As the aim of the project continues to evolve, the team demonstrates that expertise in crafting public records requests can have an outsized impact on coverage of phenomena like the coronavirus. This kind of reporting is best described as “the first draft of history.”
The emails continue to be used to tell a variety of stories at outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Poltico. Here is a running list of additional reporting involving the documents:
Florida county’s medical examiner begged officials to close beaches, internal emails reveal – The New York Times, April 30, 2020
Frustrated by Crowds, Coastal States Weigh What to Do About Beaches – Washington Post, May 3, 2020
Priorities USA targets Florida elections with lawsuit – Politico, May 5, 2020
Thermal scanner technology may not detect covid-19 infections – Washington Post, May 11, 2020