FAC Honors the Brown Institute’s ‘Documenting COVID-19’ Project as 2020 Award Winner


The First Amendment Coalition today named the Brown Institute for Media Innovation its 2020 Free Speech & Open Government Award recipient for its “Documenting COVID-19” project, which created a massive clearinghouse of public records and produced accountability journalism in partnership with 30 newsrooms.

The project set out to examine the decision-making of state and local officials in response to the coronavirus pandemic — decisions that had life-changing consequences for communities around the country. The team behind the project assembled 220 document sets across 44 states and collaborated with newsrooms on more than 40 different investigative stories, some resulting in policy changes.

Designed to be a living tool — frequently updated and available to all newsrooms and the general public — the online repository consists of records obtained through thousands of public records requests, with a focus on health departments, school districts and governors’ offices.

“This project is a shining example of the tremendous good that can come when journalists collaborate — with one another, with computer scientists and with open-records experts,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “Together, this team did far more than any single publication or organization could have accomplished alone, and as a result the public has a better understanding of how their governments responded to the public-health crisis.” 

“Documenting COVID-19” is a grant-funded project of the Brown Institute, a collaboration between Columbia University’s Journalism School and Stanford University’s School of Engineering. The project is led by investigative journalist Derek Kravitz, who is joined by Georgia Gee, Kyra Senese, Caitlin Antonios, Siddhant Shandilya, Qiaoge Zhu, Arusha Kelkar, Kanak Manhip Singh, Ivan Ugalde and Tim Robertson. (Read more about the team.)

In selecting “Documenting COVID-19” among dozens of other competitive entries, FAC’s Award Committee noted the project’s sophisticated use of technology and public-records laws; impressive scale and ambition; broad real-world impact; collaboration across many local newsrooms; and the fact the data sets and subsequent reporting shone a light on communities often in the shadows: meatpackers, migrant farmworkers, inmates and others.

The team overcame numerous obstacles to obtaining such a large quantity and broad range of public records from so many different jurisdictions. Agencies often cited lack of available staff time to process requests, quoted a high cost to produce responsive records, or showed a lack of understanding in public records laws. 

The project is also notable for making the datasets searchable and available to all, and for working not only with the country’s largest news organizations but also with local publications, which are often unable to do intensive public-records work. “The COVID-19 pandemic necessitates this type of collaborative model,” Kravitz said in support of the project’s nomination.

Reporting highlights from the project’s first 10 months include: 

  • an investigation with CalMatters and the Salinas Californian showing how a housing program started by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to isolate infected farmworkers and improve their disproportionately high mortality rates failed to house the thousands in need and stem coronavirus surges in the hard-hit Central Valley; 
  • stories detailing classified outbreak and epidemiological data from Illinois, Kansas and North Carolina that resulted in statewide policy changes regarding the disclosure of outbreak locations and other information;
  • the revelation in Michigan of undisclosed COVID-19 outbreaks in food processing plants and migrant camps, along with evidence that several counties had concerns about outbreaks in farms long before the state mandated testing; and
  • Governors in Georgia and Colorado chose to push ahead with reopening plans, despite warnings from their own public health experts about widespread shortages of testing kits and protective equipment for first responders.

Visit the Documenting COVID-19 project to read more about what the team uncovered and to explore the searchable database. 

The FAC award comes with a $1,000 prize. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, no awards ceremony will be held. To learn more about FAC and its programs advancing government transparency, free speech and a free press, become a member (it’s free).

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