Building a better data report

Mark Trahant

Letter from the editor: The case for collaboration

There is a geometric formula that can be used to explain journalism: Truth + X = News. Truth is the goal, storytelling that reflects people, events or trends. It’s the basic information that’s required by self-governing communities.

Reporters and editors spend a lot of time thinking and working on digging up that truth. Sometimes it’s one more interview. Other days it’s a search through records looking for the essence of a story. That’s where “X” comes into play. “X” is the unknown. The piece of the story that we may never learn. Or that we may get wrong for a variety of reasons ranging from a phone call that was not returned to a source that tells us more than what’s known.

The challenge of reporting has never been greater than this moment. Every reader, every global citizen, is sharing this global pandemic. It’s a story that requires us to rethink what we do as we throw every resource we have into its telling. The reporters, editors and producers at Indian Country Today have done just that in so many ways, ranging from creating a new television program to writing feature stories that now reach a global audience via The Associated Press.

Now, we’re expanding those resources, but I’ll come back to that.

(Related story: Indian Country Today’s daily newscast will air on Arizona PBS World)

One part of our report that’s become essential: The data reporting that is part of Indian Country’s COVID-19 Syllabus. Washington editor Jourdan Bennett-Begaye started a spreadsheet in early March when she started reading infection reports from tribes. (We are so lucky here. Jourdan was interested in public health in college before choosing journalism as a career.)

The syllabus is a daily tracker of what we know. How many people are infected by the virus? And, sadly, how many people in Indian Country have died?

On Wednesday, the United States passed a grim marker: 100,000 people have died during this pandemic. Our current tally of deaths in Indian Country stands at 229.

This is where the “X” factor is clearly present. If American Indians and Alaska Natives are dying at the same rates as the general U.S. population the number of deaths should be a couple of thousand. One explanation: We know we are underreporting deaths. Too many Native people die in urban areas and are never identified by their tribal citizenship. We have tried to improve our process by adding a Google form so that people can pass along the information to us directly.

This is where it becomes a journalistic enterprise: All of that information must be verified. So we take the form, reach out to the tribal health authority, or other public agency, and verify the information. We do this because we want the reporting to be accurate (and we are concerned about double counting because one person might be counted by a tribe as well as a state or county public health agency.) We have to be sure. Sometimes this means our tally is slower than other information sources, but verification is the essential part of our journalistic mission.

A few things we have learned:

 We wanted and have developed a tribal-specific view of the pandemic. We know (as does everybody) that the Navajo Nation has the largest number of cases. But we also know that other tribes have higher infection rates, San Felipe and Zia pueblo. We have also been watching the number of tribes that have zero cases, such as the Makah Tribe in Washington state.

One number that would be extremely important  if we can accurately capture it  would be the number of people showing COVID-19 antibodies. Most scientists say that when 60 to 80 percent of the population shows such antibodies that could reflect a  “herd immunity" that would limit the impact of the disease. In the United States the overall number is below 10 percent and New York City is about twice that.

 We are careful with superlatives, turning back to the data for clues about the bigger picture. One huge “X” factor is testing. Many tribes have higher testing rates than other communities, so the infection rate should be higher. This is remarkable and good news. But it also means we have to be careful about any story that compares one entity to another where the testing rate might be significantly lower.

 We are committed to transparency. We “show our work,” putting all of our collected information into a spreadsheet, including sources. This allows tribes and researches to look at the data for other purposes. It allows a compare and contrast. (And it helps us identify what we do not know.)

 We know this is a long-term process. It’s important for us to build a structure that will last for years, not months.

To that end (and I am burying the lede) we will soon partner with the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins University to improve the way we collect and share this information. The center is going to help us improve how we collect and vet the information.

We think this is the perfect project for collaboration. Our work has been used by other Indigenous researchers from UCLA and the University of Arizona, and we think there is more we can tell the world about ourselves with data.

Jessica Atwell, Jerreed D. Ivanich, and Anna Sundbo from Johns Hopkins have made suggestions that we wish we had thought of when we started (such as more data about ages, gender.) One piece of data that would be especially useful is the number of asymptomatic cases.

"Currently, publicly-available data about COVID-19 cases and deaths occurring on tribal land are limited, making it difficult to visualize the extent of the impact COVID-19 is having in Native communities or inform response efforts," said Atwell. "Improving the completeness and accuracy of the COVID-19 epidemiological data being reported and shared is critically important to pandemic response and urgently needed to inform public health decision-making, prioritization of resources, and advocacy."

A few weeks ago, a Johns Hopkins alum and postdoctoral fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Talia Quandelacy, asked what we thought about her mapping with our data. We quickly said yes. Her work is brilliant. 

Students from the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication will also be helping in the data collection.

We are grateful for the help from the Center for American Indian Health and Gaylord College, and we will potentially work with other universities and tribal colleges as this pandemic continues. Our goal is service. We want our readers, that is Indian Country, to be as informed as possible. We want all the information to be non-proprietary and transparent. We know the work we do must last beyond this story. It really is the first draft of history.

We are working hard to reduce the “X” in our equation and get closer to the truth.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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