March 30, 2022

How do you get your mind around $1.9 trillion in federal funding? And the $350 billion that’s going to state and local governments? Where do you even start?

Yesterday, we offered some answers with our first of three free trainings on covering the American Rescue Plan Act. We started with ARPA and public health. (Thanks, again, to the Joyce Foundation for making this training free, and for our data partner, IRE, for the hands-on work.)

What you’ll find here has been paraphrased or comes directly from the work of MLive’s Taylor DesOrmeau and The Associated Press’ Kat Stafford.

If you forgot, or didn’t make it, or couldn’t make it, no worries. Here are some highlights of what we learned:

How to find numbers:

DesOrmeau has been covering ARPA and its distribution in Michigan for a few months now. Here are the tips he shared on how to find the numbers.

  • The U.S. Treasury has amounts for states, counties and metro cities, which includes details on the methodology used for allocation.

  • Check with your state’s treasury for details on non-entitlement units of government (NEUs)

How to illustrate the data:

  • Compare amounts by the community you cover

  • Compare amounts vs. that community’s annual budget

  • Compare amounts on a per-resident basis

  • Some places are declining the money — check with your treasury

  • Datawrapper is an easy way to illustrate data, and its graphics can be embedded into the HTML of your story

Examples of how ARPA money could be used in public health:

  • Vaccine programs/incentives/sites

  • COVID-19 testing programs/equipment/sites

  • Contact tracing

  • Ventilation system installation/improvement

  • Reimburse people for COVID-19-related medical costs

How can you find how the money is being spent?

  • Some cities keep track of ARPA spending on their website

  • Make use of FOIA

  • Communities must report spending to U.S. Treasury by April 30

A few more things to know from DesOrmeau:

  • The next batch of money arrives soon. The first half was in spring 2021, the second half in spring 2022, and the funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

We were also joined by the AP’s Stafford, who shared how to get beyond the data, how to cover health disparities and how to report for equity.

“It doesn’t matter what your beat is,” Stafford told us. “Challenge yourself to fold a lens of equity and race within your reporting.”

Here’s what she shared about how to get beyond the data:

  • Interview the data.

  • Fact-check the data — don’t blindly trust it.

  • Pay attention to any footnotes. Find the original source of data. Sometimes it leads to more stories.

  • Consider creating a “data diary.” It’s helpful when trying to break out race and other demographics.

  • Are there any holes?

  • Sometimes the lack of data is a story.

How to cover health disparities:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definition: “Health disparities are preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.”

  • The COVID-19 pandemic, national unrest and reckoning over structural racism laid bare how disparities and race have shaped American life, policies, industries and systems in many ways — including within public health.

How does this relate to ARPA funding?

  • It’s a chance for accountability reporting: Can you identify potential funding disparities or attempts to address systemic disparities? Dig into the why and how we got here.

Story ideas:

  • Take a step back: What are the major issues facing your community?

  • Are there longstanding issues worth being looked at through the lens of ARPA funding? What was left out?

  • Keep your ear to the ground: What are community leaders and advocates raising concerns about?

  • History and context, coupled with data, can help you build a powerful package.

  • Equitable coverage amplifies underserved, marginalized voices.

    • It reflects a deep community understanding.

    • These are stories that are written for the community. Not simply about the community. There is a difference.

    • Writing about disparities means you are not just using voices from underserved as impacted individuals. They are also expert voices and sources.

    • Meet potential sources where they are.

      • What are the popular community spots?

      • Identify neighborhood/community leaders and those with influence

      • Be willing to meet without the sole objective of a story.

      • Challenge who you consider to be an expert.

Finally, here’s a tip sheet, with a video on exploring the data on your own, from IRE.

This kind of training is exactly what I hoped to be doing when I joined Poynter’s faculty — it’s free, virtual and hopefully helps local reports level up and better serve their communities. Our next ARPA training is in two weeks. We’ll be looking at ARPA and public safety with Samah Assad from CBS Chicago and Weihua Li and Anastasia Valeeva from The Marshall Project.

If you’ve already signed up, great, we’ll see you then. If not, we’ve closed signups because of the high demand, but I’ll keep sharing lessons here.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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