Columbia University’s Documenting COVID-19 project, MuckRock and the Missouri Independent won two first-place prizes for its COVID-19 pandemic and health coverage in the 2022 Missouri Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest.
The Independent and the Documenting COVID-19 project won first place for Best COVID-19 coverage by a daily publication. The stories were reported by MuckRock’s Betsy Ladyzhets, Derek Kravitz and Smarth Gupta and the Independent’s Rudi Keller and Tessa Weinberg, and edited by Kravitz and the Independent’s Jason Hancock.
The collaboration’s reporting found that Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office requested an internal study looking at the effectiveness of mask mandates. That study found mandates saved lives and prevented COVID-19 infections in Missouri’s biggest cities during the worst part of the delta variant wave.
The study compared infection and death rates in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City and Jackson County with the rest of the state. The state’s former health director wrote that the study’s findings showed the effectiveness of mask mandates and forwarded it to Parson’s office.
But those findings were never made public and were only obtained following an open-records Sunshine Law request to the department.
In response, the governor lashed out at one of the reporters in a series of tweets and Missouri’s attorney general called into question the study’s findings.
A St. Louis County bill to reinstate a mask mandate, citing The Independent and Documenting COVID-19 project’s story, failed to get to a vote after a procedural issue, and the county later abandoned its efforts to maintain one. The city of St. Louis did pass a new mandate in December, in response to a wintertime surge in cases.
Our ensuing coverage looked at the science behind mask mandates and why they had become politically toxic in Missouri.
Other stories produced as part of the collaboration looked at low participation rates of a $11 million state gift card program for vaccinations, which resulted in just 20 of 115 eligible local health departments taking part, and the relatively few number of healthcare workers hired by Missouri hospitals as part of a no-bid $30 million state contract with a Texas construction company.
The Columbia Missourian and The Kansas City Star came in second and third and the Southeast Missourian earned an honorable mention. The Documenting COVID-19 project also contributed to both the Missourian’s and Star’s submitted coverage of the pandemic.
The Documenting COVID-19 project and the Independent also won first place for Best Health Story by a daily publication in classes 2 and 3 for its project looking at the political infighting and miscommunication that resulted in a severe hospital bed shortage in southwest Missouri.
The story, “‘Soooo frustrating:’ Infighting, bad predictions hindered Missouri response to Delta,” revealed the lack of coherent coordination in the early days of the Delta variant’s surge persisted throughout the summer, frustrating local officials who struggled to mount a defense against the virus while state aid was too slow to help.
The judges noted that “in a highly competitive category, this story shone above the rest for its behind-the-scenes look at a hospital system’s breakdown at the very worst time.”