Tips and source recommendations from my AHCJ panel

Introductory slide from the session.

This weekend, I spoke on a panel at the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) annual conference, held in person in Austin, Texas. (Yes, the irony of my first air travel post-end of the mask mandate being a trip to a health journalism conference is not lost on me.)

My session focused on COVID-19 data, particularly the data gaps left by the federal government—which, longtime readers know, is a topic I’ve reported on extensively. We provided attendees with a tipsheet, sharing some source suggestions and tips for reporting on this topic.

Derek Kravitz, my editor and project lead of the Documenting COVID-19 project, moderated the session; Nsikan Akman, health and science editor at Gothamist/WNYC, was another panelist. Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, author of the incredible Your Local Epidemiologist newsletter, was scheduled to be a panelist as well, but unfortunately couldn’t make it to the conference last minute. (Her contributions are still reflected in our slides and tipsheet, though.)

During the session, we discussed a range of COVID-19 data topics, including:

  • The lack of standardization for COVID-19 data collection and reporting in the U.S., exacerbated by our decentralized healthcare and public health systems;
  • Discrepancies between New York State and New York City data, as an example of this lack of standardization (a specialty for Nsikan);
  • Challenges around (and some recommendations for) communicating COVID-19 data to audiences;
  • Wastewater surveillance—its utility as an early warning tool, its current spottiness and interpretation challenges, and where to find the data;
  • Lack of rapid testing data, and how this contributes to our current lack of visibility on current COVID-19 transmission in the U.S.;
  • Lack of data on Long COVID, and how this contributes to challenges in researching the condition;
  • The difficulty of interpreting and acting on the CDC’s Community Levels;
  • And how engagement journalism can keep readers interested in COVID-19 coverage.

You can read more about the discussion on the AHCJ blog, in this article by Tara Haelle (the association’s medical studies core topic leader, and also a COVID-focused journalist). She writes:

One of the most challenging aspects of reporting on the pandemic has been accessing reliable, accurate data about COVID-19 and its impact on Americans. The need for trustworthy, real-time data has caused a few journalism and nonprofit groups to create repositories to pull together data from varying sources.

A Thursday session at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin, “The quest for COVID-19 data: Where “official sources” fell short and journalism stepped in,” focused on these efforts and provided journalists with a wealth of resources for up-to-date data related to the pandemic.

Most high-income countries have national health care systems, so data collection and collation is far more straightforward than in the federalized U.S. health care system, where a mix of private and public payers are governed by national and differing state laws. Without a national registry or centralized healthcare system, it’s been harder to track statistics on COVID cases, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccinations, and other relevant numbers.

The tipsheet from this session includes links and blurbs to a few of the panel’s favorite COVID-19 data sources, including:

  • CDC mortality data, cleaned and sorted by Documenting COVID-19
  • HHS Community Profile Reports
  • MCH Strategic Data’s COVID-19 in schools dashboard
  • COVIDPoops19 dashboard
  • Historical wastewater data from CDC NWSS
  • Long COVID Source List
  • Health Equity Tracker
  • Open Government Data

And the tipsheet also includes a few tips for communicating COVID-19 data, supplemented with stories that provide useful examples. Here are the tips:

  • Explain where data come from and how they’re collected – using as little jargon as possible.
  • Be clear about uncertainties and caveats; what can’t the data tell you?
  • Share how data points, trends or study results can be translated into actionable information for readers.
  • Use questions from readers to guide reporting.
  • Look for differences in how state and municipalities track their COVID-19 data. 
  • Look for ways that data collection methods (or the lack of clear methods) may hide health inequities.
  • Use visuals/multimedia to communicate the pandemic’s immense tolls.
  • Provide larger context about the reasons why COVID-19 data in the U.S. are often fractured and difficult to interpret.

You can also check out our introductory slides here. Thank you to everyone who attended the session! We had a great discussion.

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