Covering the 2020 Census

April 30, 2019


The 2020 Census is less than a year away. Newsrooms need to start planning for coverage, as well as reporting on the activities leading up to next year’s count, which will be groundbreaking in more ways than ever before. Poynter can help.

The debate over the citizenship question has dominated much of the early discussion. Because this is a key topic for her readers, Mary Flores, editor of the Spanish-language weekly La Prensa de Colorado, attended a Poynter Institute seminar to learn about covering the 2020 Census. Flores is based in Denver, where she has observed tremendous growth in the Latino population in the past decade. She said that La Prensa de Colorado plans to publish one or two articles about the census each month.

“I have to find a way to put in my stories a point to engage the community, for them to be able to think about the census and fill out their questionnaire,” she explains.

A Supreme Court ruling on the legality of asking about citizenship is expected later this spring. Whether or not the question ultimately ends up on questionnaires, it could present challenges in regions with certain populations.

“The citizenship question could make it more challenging to count immigrant households,” said D’Vera Cohn with the Pew Research Center, who organized the seminar. “And even if there were no citizenship question, the demographic groups least likely to fill out their census forms — such as immigrants and racial minorities — are a growing share of the total population.”

Granted, data journalists and political reporters will find many story opportunities in the census, but this decennial count and the efforts leading up to it will impact nearly every beat for national and local outlets. Dozens of news professionals have already taken part in Poynter’s trainings seminars, which have featured speakers from the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Census Bureau. They come from national and metropolitan newspapers, digital outlets, broadcast, and ethnic media reporting in Spanish, Chinese and African diaspora languages.

Alex Mahadevan is a data reporter for The Penny Hoarder, a personal finance website, and uses census data for nearly every one of his projects, so naturally he is interested in the statistics provided by the decennial count. But covering the count itself and the issues leading up to it posed an editorial dilemma. 

“We have a narrow editorial focus at The Penny Hoarder — our mission is to put more money in readers’ pockets,” explains Mahadevan. “I thought it would be a challenge to make the 2020 Census relevant to our mission.”


That mission includes writing about underserved communities and their lack of access to banking and healthy food. Mahadevan said he uses census data in almost every story he writes. His interest in learning more about how the data will be gathered and released to the public led him to the Poynter Institute’s 2020 Census training at its St. Petersburg headquarters. At the seminar, he asked questions about “microdata” and “differential privacy,” concepts that were new to many journalists in attendance.

Not every journalist will be getting into that level of detail with the census. The numbers provided by this Constitutionally mandated decennial count could simply be a starting point to illuminate issues in local communities.

“As a journalist, you don’t need to drown your audience in statistics,” explained Cohn. She suggests focusing on one or two data points in the text of a story, with more statistics incorporated into graphics. “If you are writing about poverty, for example, state the number of poor people in your community, their share of the total population, and whether those numbers are rising, falling or stable. Your graphic could include more detailed breakdowns of which groups are most likely to be poor, and compare today’s statistics with past numbers.”

In addition to the potential citizenship question, the 2020 count will have many other major changes. For the first time, the Census Bureau is relying on people to answer their questionnaires online, which may compound the challenges to getting an accurate count of some groups — including immigrants, the elderly, very young children, Native Americans and people living in rural areas.

The logistics of next year’s first-ever digital census caught the attention of Rob Chaney, a natural resources and environment reporter for The Missoulian newspaper in Montana, which ranks fourth in the nation in terms of land mass.

“Montana has many hard-to-count communities, from seven Indian reservations to intensely anti-federal government groups and many absentee landlords. The sheer logistics of finding every home will be a major challenge,” he explained. “I’m very concerned about the Census plan to collect responses by cellphone and website entries. Rural and hard-to-count communities have widely inconsistent broadband service and capacity. The plan also exposes the Census to hacking, data corruption, system failure and all sorts of other digital vulnerabilities.”

These issues will be especially relevant next year, as the population count could determine whether the Big Sky State is apportioned another seat in the House of Representatives.

Other reporters left with story ideas involving technology, education, and the economy — or simply a better understanding of the history and constitutional mandate behind the decennial enumeration. Mahadevan didn’t wait to get back to the newsroom to start researching, after he learned that the Census Bureau was partnering with Facebook to publicize the 2020 count.

“I immediately sent out a FOIA — literally as we were listening to the presentation — asking for communications between the two on the subject, although it was determined to be an overly broad request,” says Mahadevan, who plans to do more research and follow up with a more specific request to see the agency’s communications with the social media company. After all, this story will have legs for another year.

Poynter has scheduled two additional 2020 Census workshops, with optional hands-on training in how to use data. Both are tuition-free for accepted applicants:

Both programs are admitting qualified applicants on a rolling basis.