The U.S. and Ivy League schools were late to respond to COVID-19. Data shows international universities did better.

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Spectator Publishing Company

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 13 Apr 2020

Credit: Kelly Pu, Jun Yi Zhang, Stephanie Lai, Raeedah Wahid, Hong Sen Du, Jason Kao

Project description:

In mid-March 2020, universities in the United States shut down in light of Covid-19. Spectator graphics reporters compiled and analyzed Covid-19 case data against university-related announcements and mandates from Ivy League administrators, U.S. public health officials, and foreign governments to conclude the U.S.’ delayed response to the pandemic and the ripple effect across the Ivies.

Impact reached:

The project held Columbia University and the broader Ivy League administration accountable for their response to Covid-19. By doing basic but essential collection of data and information, we put quantifiable numbers to the delay and lack of unification in responses by Ivy League universities. These inadequacies—reflecting nation-wide under-preparedness for the pandemic—resulted in inconsistent messaging to students about university plans, the persistence of misinformation and biases, and general disregard for preventative measures. As colleges across the nation looked to the Ivies to determine their courses of action, the poor response by the U.S. government extended to Ivy League universities in exacerbating Covid-19 transmission and death tolls. In comparison, countries like South Korea, Italy, and China saw timely, coordinated, and resolute responses from schools and universities. Following this story’s publication, Columbia students saw greater transparency from the university regarding Covid-19 plans and a greater commitment toward protecting the health of students, faculty, university affiliates, and the surrounding community.

Techniques/technologies used:

While we used R and RStudio IDE to sketch the global number of coronavirus cases (compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins) and national coronavirus data (compiled by the New York Times for their Covid Tracker database), the brunt of the data reporting was more qualitative and required a simple tool: manual reporting. 

We looked through several United States, Chinese, Spain, Italy, and South Korea’s government websites to timeline university announcements, and later compare this data to the coronavirus case/death quantitative data. The same reporting was done at a more granular level across the Ivy Leagues and state cases. We originally attempted to compare against county data, but later decided not to as state-level comparisons were more significant and well-reported.

The data is only as good and the story only as compelling as it is presented. For this story, the interactive visualizations and frontend technologies were a large part of its effective reporting. We spent an additional two weeks developing the interactive lede visuals in d3.js and Scrollama (React.js), a scrollytelling library. The in-body graphics were developed using Adobe Illustrator to generate SVGs and HTML that we could manipulate with Javascript in order to continue the scrollytelling effect. The article lives on a web page template different from our standard articles, which runs on Node.js and other backend, server-side technologies.

What was the hardest part of this project?

As student journalists and specifically graphics reporters, we don’t usually pursue stories with the extent of reporting this one required. This project also challenged the conventions for standard data reporting and how such reporting works in tandem with editorial judgement and story shaping by traditional graphics reporters.

The hardest part of this project was determining the framing and scope of the story. As this was relatively early in the pandemic and there was little previous reporting about university responses, we had to determine the key points of the university response and what Covid-19 case metrics to compare them to.

We originally wanted to compare Ivy League University response rates to each other, but determined the response rate was near identical across the majority of universities. Though, at this point, we could have dropped the story, we pushed the needle a little further by expanding the scope of the story to international universities and grouping Ivy League university shutdowns in response to the pandemic as a collective national response. This required weeks of extensive manual reporting that our graphics reporters did not have experience with in prior projects: searching foreign government websites, translating, comparing against Johns Hopkins reported Covid-19 case and death numbers, etc.

From there on, the challenge was how to represent the data accurately despite nuances and lack of context in foreign responses. This was the first story of its kind by a student paper who knew its value. Bigger newsrooms weren’t as focused on university shutdowns across the globe and contextualizing early/late responses and preparedness. Student journalists telling this story—despite the challenge of retaining accuracy and delivering truth—is remarkable and groundbreaking. This is a story that our Graphics team is truly proud of to this day.

What can others learn from this project?

When this story was published, the Spectator Graphics team was a ten-person team within a 250+ person organization. Our team wanted to do reporting that we owned, instead of supplementing other news desks, and this was our first project doing that. We are students inspired by real-world newsrooms, but trying to challenge conventional student journalism and the traditional role of graphics reporters. Student journalists should know that they can tell far-reaching, impactful stories too—and while they might not see full or deserved recognition—they are telling stories valuable to their communities. Professional journalists, specifically data and/or graphics reporters who work for larger newsrooms, can see that their roles are not solely confined to web scraping, querying within databases, or doing just front-end web development and data visualization. They can also work along the spectrum to do qualitative reporting and sourcing in order to conduct in-depth investigations and contextualize their data. Practicing these skills allows you to feel connected to your story and its impact. It makes the data real, and it allows greater nuance in the narratives we present. Finally, journalists can also look toward projects like ours—student journalism—to build the foundation for larger stories, since student journalists are usually focused on hyperlocal reporting. Local coverage and community issues are generally indicative of larger underlying city, state, national, or even globally spread systemic issues that should be told. These are the stories that drive public discourse and reveal truth.

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