Magic Grant ‘Documenting COVID-19’ Receives 2021 Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists

The Brown Institute is pleased to announce our Magic Grant project ‘Documenting COVID-19‘ has received the 2021 Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. This is the project’s fourth major prize, following similar awards from The First Amendment Coalition, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, and the Los Angeles Press Club’s Charles Rappleye Investigative Journalism Award. We are incredibly proud of the Documenting COVID-19 team and the impact they are having. Congratulations again to project lead Derek Kravitz, who is joined by Georgia Gee, Kyra Senese, Caitlin Antonios, Siddhant Shandilya, Qiaoge Zhu, Arusha Kelkar, Kanak Manhip Singh, Ivan Ugalde and Tim Robertson. Stories that rely on data collected by Documenting COVID-19 can be found on the Brown Institute site, as well as the project site.


Through thousands of public records requests, the Documenting COVID-19 project compiled more than 275 document sets across 48 states and territories, including internal emails, memoranda and health metrics from local and state governments — specifically health departments, school districts and governors’ offices.

The project, led by journalist Derek Kravitz and funded through a grant by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and other news and academic groups, collaborated with more than 50 newsrooms on 85 different investigative stories in 2020 and 2021, focusing on six different subject areas: the impact of the virus on food-processing and meatpacking plants and migrant farms; the virus’ spread in schools and colleges; data collected by states and shared with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the vaccine rollout; the use of predictive algorithms and tools in combating the virus; and county and state medical examiner data, exploring the disproportionate impacts of the virus on different communities across the United States.

The project used specific settings — often informed by examining current hot spots of the virus across the U.S. — and made targeted public records requests to the relevant city, county and state authorities to uncover how decisions were made.

Three stories resulted in statewide policy changes regarding the disclosure of outbreak locations. Others provided changes including back pay for sickened meatpacking plant workers in Michigan and a new housing initiative in California for infected migrant farmworkers.

Multiple stories shed light on dangerous outcomes. The project uncovered authorities’ decisions on reopening Florida beaches in late April, the brushing off of a concern about Mardi Gras becoming a so-called “super spreader” event in New Orleans and more.

A months-long investigation with CalMatters and the Salinas Californian showed how a housing program started by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to isolate infected farmworkers and improve their disproportionately high mortality rates was a failure. Newsom’s office pledged to re-evaluate the program in response to the project’s story.