MuckRock and its reporting partners, including the USA TODAY network and the Documenting COVID-19 project, a pandemic-era journalism project funded by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, won the 2022 Community Champion Award for large newsrooms as part of the Institute for Nonprofit News INNY Awards.
The ongoing investigation — “Uncounted: The hidden death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic” — has found that death certificates, long prone to error, have gotten worse during the pandemic, resulting in thousands of uncounted COVID-19 deaths.
The project found that short-staffed, undertrained and overworked coroners and medical examiners took families at their word when they called to report the death of a relative at home. Coroners and medical examiners didn’t review medical histories or order tests to look for COVID-19. They, and even some physicians, attributed deaths to inaccurate and nonspecific causes that are meaningless to pathologists. In some cases, stringent rules for attributing a death to COVID-19 created obstacles for relatives of the deceased and contradicted CDC guidance.
In April 2022, the Documenting COVID-19 project and MuckRock, in collaboration with demographic researchers at Boston University, released a county-level data repository through a data-use agreement the partners signed with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data shows, in part, that between 158,000 and 165,000 more Americans died of natural causes, such as diabetes and hypertensive heart disease, over the past two years than historical norms would lead researchers to expect.
In its award announcement, INN noted that “this collaboration among five newsrooms revealed stark disparities in the way medical examiners reported cause of death during the pandemic and introduced a new method of analyzing mortality data. Publicly sharing the data led to new stories about COVID death tolls by newsrooms across the country, and the Centers for Disease Control said the resulting rich data could help the CDC improve its data.”
In the same category, Block Club Chicago and Centro de Periodismo Investigativo were named honorable mentions. Three other newsrooms won Community Champion Awards for 2022, based on their size: The Marshall Project, Enlace Latino NC and Prison Journalism Project.
Reporters on the project include Dillon Bergin, Betsy Ladyzhets, Jake Kincaid and Derek Kravitz of the Documenting COVID-19 project; Sarah Haselhorst, The Clarion-Ledger; Ashley White and Andrew Capps, The Daily Advertiser; Rudi Keller, The Missouri Independent; and Nada Hassanein, USA TODAY. Editors include Steve Myers of USA TODAY and Derek Kravitz of MuckRock.
This is one of several national and local journalism prizes award for “Uncounted.” The project won first place in the 2022 National Headliners Awards for online pandemic coverage or project and has been shortlisted as one of the best data projects by the international competition Sigma Awards.