In April, FLORIDA TODAY reporters Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon and Jim Waymer obtained Florida Medical Examiners’ database of COVID-19 deaths, which held facts about the pandemic and the state’s early response. As political considerations got factored into that response during an election year, the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis sought to control public information as Florida re-opened. Officials first blocked release of the full database. Then they redacted key fields, rendering it useless. Using the original unredacted data, FLORIDA TODAY produced a story about the state’s first 601 coronavirus fatalities, unveiling systemic failures of the state’s contact tracing and testing regimes.
The ME database and stories FLORIDA TODAY published allowed the public to see detailed narratives of the first fatal cases of COVID-19, revealing the humanity and tragedy of the pandemic’s toll. And they brought to light missed opportunities by health officials to trace how the disease was spreading. Their impact ramped up pressure on the DeSantis Administration for greater transparency of COVID data. They stirred a statewide debate over censorship of public records that garnered national headlines. The project was a boost to researchers, public records advocates and even medical examiners themselves, who argued that shutting down data access during a public health crisis cut people off from important information about the impact and scope of the pandemic.Newspapers and television across Florida added to the conversation with their own analyses of the data made available, thanks to Alessandro and Jim. A leading public health policy expert, Jay Wolfson, Senior Associate Dean at University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, hailed FLORIDA TODAY’s coverage, saying the ME’s data needed to be cracked open as it’s part of a fabric of information needed by leaders and policymakers need to plan and ensure the state’s health. “My colleagues have been continuously frustrated by ther inability to gain access to data” he said, describing FLORIDA TODAY’s main story as a “detailed article that makes excellent use of case examples as w Our stories underscored the vital role medical examiners play in public health by highlighting the detective work they do to explain why people die, connecting the coronavirus and other medical conditions in ways that only be understood from autopsies. The stories eventually led to the State caving into a threatened lawsuit by a consortium of news organizations. Because of FLORIDA TODAY, the information the state was looking to restrict was already out
We used relatively simple tools: Excel, Google Sheets and Google Flourish to visualize the data with some analysis. Extracting certain data required reporters to manually read each entry. For example, the number of days a decedent was hospitalized was not recorded by medical examiners, but could be extracted from the narratives medical examiners wrote because they routinely included key dates such as when a COVID-19 test was performed or when a person was hospitalized and, of course, the date of death. Reading through the narratives and doing keyword searches also helped identify cases of interest, as well as identifying trends. The number of times “diabetes” or “cruise” was mentioned in a column helped establish patterns and extract valuable information from the data.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The sheer size of the database, the inconsistency and messiness of the data presented challenges to organizing and making sense of the information. It also turned writing a clear, digestible story into an extremely sensitive exercise in prioritization. We needed to make sure the data and cases we highlighted were representative, not sensational, and appropriately respectful to surviving friends and families involved.
To adapt a metaphor credited to Michelangelo, we had to see the story inside the block of data and know which superfluous bits to chip away. It was quite ambitious for a small county newsroom to take on a state-wide story in such a very short period of time.
Making it even more challenging was the fact that the story landed when the newsroom was hobbled by furloughs, meaning that on any given day, staff was down by 25%. Producing this project in just a week, was difficult given the staff shortages and demands of a daily newspaper.
Then there were the dilemmas over privacy – legal and ethical – with which the newsroom needed to contend. Privacy was one of the reasons given by the state as a justification for withholding the data in the first place.
But understanding that data was vital to public interest and public health policy at the critical time that Gov. Ron DeSantis was pushing to reopen the state against the advice of many experts, we decided to “publish and be damned.” The first responsibility of watchdog journalism is to expose realities the powerful don’t want the public to see, and that’s what we did.
What can others learn from this project?
The success of this project showed that small newsrooms, with a little training, but lots of ambition and perseverance, can in a pragmatic, low-cost way do data journalism on the fly, punching way above their weight. It shows that it pays to spend time developing sources and staying up to date with the free tools available to make sense of information.
FLORIDA TODAY reporter Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon had been in touch with the Chairman of the Medical Examiners Commission, Dr. Stephen J. Nelson, since well before the pandemic because of the oversize role medical examiners exert in wide variety of fields, from criminal justice to public health. He was among the few reporters to know the medical examiners kept a database and requested it routinely before it became a politically controversial issue.
Reporter Jim Waymer, on the other hand, was regularly in touch with Google to understand how their tools could be used by journalists to organize, prioritize and illustrate data, meaning he was able to exploit the database Alessandro had. This enabled them to quickly peel back the layers of data and speak not just about the numbers of dead, but to get to the stories that those who died had to tell.