Launched in April 2020 by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, the Documenting COVID-19 project has filed thousands of public records requests and partnered with newsrooms around the country to report out critical accountability stories of the pandemic.
Now the effort is expanding even further with MuckRock. It will continue to be led by Derek Kravitz, the project’s creator who is now MuckRock’s investigations and data editor.
Thanks to an inaugural “Impact Grant” from the Brown Institute, the Documenting COVID-19 project is hiring part-time journalists and computer science students to work with partnering newsrooms on obtaining public records across the country, and to work on accompanying investigative stories.
To help with this public service mission, we are looking for public-records projects surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and criminal justice issues and are interested in hearing from newsrooms, researchers and community organizations. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Compiling hundreds of original document sets based on internal emails, memoranda and health metrics from local and state governments — specifically health departments, school districts and governor’s offices — the team of Columbia students and postgraduates collaborated with 40 newsrooms across the country to help publish more than 88 investigative pieces since its launch.
Three of the project’s stories — detailing classified outbreak and epidemiological data from Illinois, Kansas and North Carolina — have resulted in statewide policy changes regarding the disclosure of outbreak locations. In other cases, collaborative projects have resulted in smaller, but no less meaningful, change: back pay for sickened meatpacking plant workers in Michigan; a new housing initiative in California for infected migrant farmworkers, after the first governor-backed program fell short of its lofty goals; for the first time, case and death counts at food-processing plants in rural North Carolina and Colorado.
It has won four national awards for its efforts, from the First Amendment Coalition, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Sunshine Award and the Charles Rappleye Investigative Journalism Award from the Los Angeles Press Club.
The effort has closely collaborated with MuckRock since its inception, using its FOI service to file and track requests; DocumentCloud to host and analyze documents; and building on COVID Public Info’s efforts to bring more transparency to medical examiner data and the use of artificial intelligence in shaping the pandemic response.