A University of Nebraska–Lincoln alumnus, faculty member and student are part of The New York Times’ extensive coverage of the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic.
Husker alumnus Mitch Smith graduated from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications in December 2011. He has worked for the Times’ Chicago bureau since 2014.
“The last story I did, I traveled to Omaha, where they were treating the cruise ship passengers and preparing for widespread (infection),” Smith said. “It focused on what it was like to treat the patients and what the road looked like going forward, and here we are.”
When COVID-19 began spreading across the United States, Smith and his team saw a need to provide more accurate numbers for the public.
“I’ve been doing this pretty much full time for a month. We started in late January. My editor had this idea to start a spreadsheet that kept track of COVID-19-related deaths,” Smith said. “When the toll began to climb, we realized we needed more help keeping track of the data. We couldn’t keep this going without smart journalists like Libby and Lauryn who provide us with the data we need.”
Libby Seline, a junior journalism major, and Lauryn Higgins, a lecturer in advertising and public relations, began freelancing and collecting data for the Times after Smith contacted journalism faculty member Joe Starita searching for student journalists and freelancers he thought would be a good fit for the project.
Seline and Higgins help collect every confirmed death related to the coronavirus throughout the country. There are about 20 other Times reporters, college students and freelancers who are tasked with the same job on the project. During their eight-hour shifts, they use government websites, news stations and social media to confirm numbers. Sometimes county numbers and state numbers don’t add up and that requires the data journalists to do some more digging.
During her first week on the job, Higgins learned that the best place to check on numbers is Twitter because health departments often update their numbers on social media before updating their websites. The team has also learned that just finding the statewide number is never enough.
The extra steps taken to gather data from sources at a county level are crucial in confirming cases. These steps give county health departments the opportunity to better understand their communities and see how that number compares to others.
The project has given Seline a new appreciation for the data-collection process. As an aspiring data journalist, she has taken every data journalism class offered in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications and even attended a data journalism conference earlier in the semester.
“In class, I’m just handed a stack of 1,000-column data, but now that I’m someone who puts that data together, I know how much work is being put into gathering it,” Seline said. “It’s also been fascinating to see what other reporters use this data for.”
In gathering the data, the team has run into its fair share of challenges, but they’re nimble and they do their best to stay ahead. One challenge is that they’re trying to apply consistent rules across an inconsistent field because different health departments report varying amounts of information. Another issue is that as the numbers exponentially grow, states and health departments are changing how they report their data.
“I’m lucky to work at a place with people who are skilled in areas of technology and graphic news because it helps us adjust quickly,” Smith said. “It’s been this constant state of evolution, with a growing team, but that’s what this situation has called for.”
Smith is always thinking about how the team can use the data collected as a public good. He wants to identify patterns such as which communities have avoided the worst of the virus and which have been hit the hardest. Another main goal is to provide data that informs policy makers and researchers to help them understand what happened, what is happening and what they can do to help make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“Journalism is documenting history, and we want to do everything we can to provide a record that informs really smart journalism,” Smith said.
Reporting on fellow Americans who are suffering and dying is a somber task, but the team looks forward to having good news to share in the future.
“I’m excited for the day that we can start reporting on people who have recovered,” Higgins said.