Here are reliable resources for college media and classroom assignments

As fall roars toward us, students will need reliable sources of data at all levels.

August 9, 2020

Alma Matters is a Poynter newsletter designed to provide ideas, news and insight to those in the journalism education community. Subscribe here to get Alma Matters delivered to you.

Has a clear understanding of data and science ever been so important to journalists?

For a few weeks, I’ve been snagging links that I think might be helpful to student journalists. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start when you need to point your students or student newsroom in a reliable direction.

I’ve posted this newsletter to Poynter.org where I can add more links as they come up, so if you see something I’ve left out, by all means send it my way and I’ll add it.

The big winners

You’ll hear two main names as the gold standard for coronavirus information: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The CDC is America’s national public health agency and the WHO is an international health agency run by the United Nations.

The CDC has a dedicated website for COVID-19 that houses general background, health and safety information, so it presents a good place to check facts. It has daily statistics on cases and deaths in the United States. Its jurisdiction map (scroll down just a smidge on this page) links directly to the health departments of whichever state you hover and click on, where you’ll be able to find state information and — depending on the state — localized information by county.

The WHO COVID-19 page has basic information plus international cases and death counts, while its dashboard has current figures and downloadable maps. Be sure to check out the tabs on the top right of the page, Data Table and Explore, for more information that might be pertinent to your school or area.

One last thing: You’ll hear talk of the National Institutes of Health as we move closer to a potential vaccine. The NIH is the federal health research arm of the government.

The university leader

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and its companion mapping dashboard are perhaps the most highly regarded places for COVID-19 tracking and information. The center is also a depository of resources, news links and data tooled into all kinds of interesting infographics, like Impact of opening and closing decisions by state: A look at how social distancing measures may have influenced trends in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Play around inside of that site for story ideas and localizations. (Bonus: Here are some interesting behind-the-scenes stories about how this database, the vision of a grad student, now gets literally billions of views a day.)

The media stars

I would make the argument that while many media organizations have done bang-up work over the last few months, there are some standouts.

The Atlantic

The COVID Tracking Project: “The public deserves the most complete data available about COVID-19 in the US. No official source is providing it, so we are. Every day, our volunteers compile the latest numbers on tests, cases, hospitalizations, and patient outcomes from every U.S. state and territory.” Check out the state overview.

The COVID Racial Data Tracker: “COVID-19 is affecting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color the most. The COVID Racial Data Tracker is a collaboration between the COVID Tracking Project and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Together, we’re gathering the most complete and up-to-date race and ethnicity data on COVID-19 in the United States.”

Ed Yong: OK, he’s not a story but he’s an unbelievable asset. His reporting on coronavirus is widely regarded as the best in the nation. Here are some of his pieces that are required reading, IMHO, for greater understanding of this disease.

ProPublica

ProPublica just came out with the super helpful How to Understand COVID-19 Numbers. It provides great background with tips on how to consider case counts, why daily data can be less reliable than weekly, context about death numbers, and more.

It’s main coronavirus site is regularly updated with new reporting on its investigations into the pandemic, but the real fun is its searchable databases. Among them:

The New York Times

The Anything-But-Gray Lady has been the nation’s go-to source for news and features.  The Coronavirus Outbreak page includes subcategories like Latest Updates, Maps and Cases and Vaccine Tracker, among others.

Here are some of the headlines from their biggest and most important coronavirus stories, which can help understanding and possibly inspire visualizations. Let’s face it: The New York Times is more staffed and resourced than any other American journalism entity. We can’t match them, but we can learn and aspire:

One more helpful resource

The Radio Television Digital News Association has just released Journalists’ guide to COVID data, which is easy to read and explains how positive tests are calculated, what a positivity rate is, and what many data points do and don’t tell you. I highly recommend this as a primer for understanding COVID-19 data.

A caveat

You should be aware that while numbers are helpful, they are not cast in stone. Here’s one example: Texas’ count of coronavirus deaths jumps 8% after officials change the way they tally COVID-19 fatalities. Writers at the Texas Tribune summed it up well: “Rapidly changing testing technology, inconsistent data collection processes and an evolving understanding of the virus’ effects on the human body have complicated (Texas)’s herculean task of reporting health data that researchers, policymakers, journalists and the public devour each day.”

And in California, the LA Times reports ‘Broken’ coronavirus tracking system leaves California in the dark: ‘We have no idea.’ So across the country, there are unknowns and uncertainties. The data is evolving and sometimes confusing, so be sure your word choice reflects your own knowledge gaps and reflects that there are no absolutes in mapping the deadly nature of this disease. Use universally reliable data from places like the CDC, WHO, and be vigilant about state and county health departments’ reporting of statistics. Stay on them to provide transparency about how their statistics are collected and reported.

Of note

One last thing

I’ve spent some time this week promoting the Newsroom Readiness Certificate among my friends in journalism education. It’s really gratifying for me to see interest in this course, because I built it myself with students’ needs in mind and employers “Please don’t get us sued” fears in there as well. It’s made for student newsrooms, departments that mandate internships and professional media organizations that hire students. If you’re interested, you can see a detailed outline of everything that’s in the course here, and you can check it out at NewsU here. As always, feel free to reach out with comments and questions and I’ll do my best to get back to you in a timely manner.

Barbara Allen is the director of college programming. She can be reached at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter, @barbara_allen_