Covering the 2020 Census — Georgetown

LOCATION: Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
COST: Free for selected applicants

Covering the census is the epitome of public service and accountability journalism, and the 2020 Census presents more opportunities than ever before for newsrooms.

Starting now, people across the U.S. need to be informed about the census — how they can participate, what happens with their information and how that information affects their communities, and the entire nation, for the next decade. The data collected influences the amount of money spent on roads, where hospitals are built, how many new schools open and even who represents them in government.

But 2020 marks the first time the U.S. Census Bureau is trying to collect the majority of its data online. This raises questions about access as well as data security.

And the Trump administration’s proposal to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census — spurring multiple lawsuits that likely will be decided by the Supreme Court — is another major story that needs to be closely followed.

This intensive two-day workshop presented by Poynter and Georgetown University will arm reporters and editors with the sources, background, context and data skills they need to accurately and vigorously cover how the U.S. government counts its residents. It’s also tuition-free for accepted applicants.

Our instructors are researchers, statisticians, experienced journalists and former U.S. Census Bureau directors. They will provide history and context for national reporters and offer guidance and training for local and regional reporters who’ll be localizing this massive and complex story.

$800 billion

Federal tax dollars distributed based on census data


Estimated number of states that stand to gain or lose power in the U.S. House, according to analysis from Election Data Services


Lawsuits against the Trump administration relating to the 2020 Census


Robert Groves
Provost, Georgetown University
Former Director, U.S. Census Bureau

Margo Anderson
Distinguished Professor Emerita
UW Milwaukee

D'Vera Cohn

D’Vera Cohn
Senior Writer/Editor
Pew Research Center

Al Fontenot
Associate Director
Decennial Census Programs at U.S. Census Bureau

Paul Overberg
The Wall Street Journal

Burton H. Reist
Decennial Communications & Stakeholder Relations
U.S. Census Bureau

John Thompson
Former Director
U.S. Census Bureau

Program details

An accurate, credible census is critical, and the task is daunting. The 2020 Census could be the first in which most Americans are counted over the internet.

Because of concerns about the impact of the proposed citizenship question, it may be particularly challenging to get reliable counts of immigrants, young children, the tenuously housed, and racial and ethnic minorities. Undercounts would have far-reaching consequences, from the number of electoral votes each state receives to how federal funding is allocated for Medicaid, transportation, housing and other priorities.

Census numbers are also critical to enforcing civil rights laws. Researchers rely on census data to study health, poverty and other differences among groups. Businesses use it to decide where to establish new locations.

Reporters have already begun covering the 2020 Census — its funding, its methods, and the lawsuits. With concerns growing about the accuracy and politicization of the 2020 Census, this workshop will prepare journalists, many of whom are covering the census for the first time, to contribute meaningful reporting the moment they return to their newsrooms.

What you’ll learn

  • Why is the census important and how its numbers are used
  • A step-by-step guide to census preparations, operations and data release, with local, state and national story ideas at each stage
  • The key challenges and political battles, including the citizenship question and the growing size of hard-to-count groups
  • Key sources and resources for covering the 2020 Census
  • The challenges the bureau faces in persuading people to participate


Updated Feb. 8, 2019. Schedule subject to change.

4:30 p.m. — Networking reception

5:30 p.m. — Organization and Goals of the Workshop 

  • Knowledge of key events in Census history
  • Knowledge of the stakeholder (watchdog and advocate) groups
  • Knowledge of the operational phases
  • Exposure to the recurrent issues facing the US Census and particular challenges of the 2020 census
  • Anticipating the schedule of Census stories over the months of 2019-2021
  • Exposure to navigating the website and finding census data

6 p.m. — Key Historical Developments of the US Census 

  • From constitutional origins to present
  • Dynamism and diversity of American population over time
  • Role of census in illustrating and managing it
  • Popular understandings of census taking, including popular media, cartooning, TV, radio, poetry, fiction, etc.
  • Census controversies over time
  • Census as technical innovator [machine tabulation, sampling, computerization, etc.]

6:30 p.m. — The Traditional Stakeholders of a US Census 

  • The House of Representatives vs. Senate
  • Mayors
  • Leaders of racial/ethnic communities
  • Scientific community (CNSTAT, PAA, APDU, COPAFS, COSSA)
  • Oversight groups
  • Office of Management and Budget, Science and Statistical Policy Office
  • Government Accountability Office
  • House committee on Oversight and Government Reform
  • Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs

9 a.m. — Welcome, overview of the day, logistics

9:15 a.m. — Planning and preparation  for the 2020 census

  • Census planning begins before the previous census is completed, guided by evaluation studies
  • Design feature development
  • Testing
  • Master address list development (100% review of address list, innovations for this census such as using aerial imagery, consult with localities via LUCA process)
  • Opening census offices [explain why fewer than in the past]
  • Recruiting and hiring [how it’s done, how many hired, etc.]
  • Printing forms and programming questions

10:15 a.m. — Break

10:30 a.m. — Enumeration: Self-response, special populations, NRFU

  • Mail materials across the nation so people can respond on their own
  • Different modes of response – internet, paper, phone
  • Mode differs for different address types: Door-to-door enumeration in Alaska; Update Leave and Update Enumerate for rural and remote areas
  • Which areas will get a paper questionnaire and which won’t (unless requested)
  • Online support and questionnaires in 13 languages
  • Non-I.D. response option
  • Special populations – group quarters and service-based enumeration
  • Non-response follow-up

12 p.m. — Lunch, with 30-minute speaker about partnerships, outreach and communications

1 p.m. — Finalizing and releasing the data

  • How is data captured online and from paper forms
  • Data editing – e.g. if age and birthdate don’t agree
  • Imputation
  • Disclosure avoidance, including innovations proposed for this census
  • Data release schedule

1:30 p.m. — Evaluation: How do we know that it’s a good census?

  • Operational measures
  • Coverage evaluation

2:30 p.m. — Break

2:45 p.m. — Likely issues  for the 2020 census

  • Undercount/overcount
  • Cybersecurity
  • Citizenship question
  • Prisoner counts
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Sexual orientation and gender

3:45 p.m. — Break

4:00 p.m. — Putting it all together: Stories and data

  • What are the new stories likely for this census? (Some will be the likely issues above)
  • How can journalists find a local or state angle for national-level stories?
  • Q & A about good sources and how to cover key events
  • Brief overview of the Census Bureau website
  • Short tour of how to find current census data for communities, states or the nation

5 p.m. — Closing remarks


Poynter and our teaching partner Georgetown University are collaborating on two Covering the 2020 Census workshops:

Please apply to only one workshop.


This workshop is tuition-free, thanks to support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Accepted applicants will be responsible for the cost of transportation; however, there are limited travel scholarships available for both workshops.

Who should apply

Journalists who will be covering the 2020 Census, particularly ones in the Washington press corps. Reporters and editors who cover politics, government, family/household, social change, demographics, immigration, race, population, home ownership, business or transportation will benefit from this two-day workshop.

Application process

The process to apply is straightforward and simple. No letter of recommendation or reference is required. Please be prepared to answer questions about your professional experience, areas of interests and basic demographic information.

We will receive far more applications than we can accommodate in this program. Our goal is to be as diverse as possible, including job title, market size, big cities, rural areas, ethnicity, etc. and to accept journalists who plan to cover the 2020 Census. Apply as soon as you know this learning would benefit your coverage.

Poynter is holding two workshops about covering the 2020 Census; please apply to only one. This program in D.C. is aimed at members of the Washington press corps.


We’d love to hear from you. Email us at

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