Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Philadelphia Can Be a Model for Crisis-Response Journalism

A major grant from the Independence Public Media Foundation aims to harness the power of our newsrooms to deliver life-saving, household-sustaining news to all of the region's communities.

Howard Roberts / EyeEm/ Getty Images

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, significant public health consequences have resulted from a trust gap between our neighbors and news and government institutions. Whether it’s public health messaging around hand hygiene or unpacking “social distancing” for folks whose first language isn’t English, accurate, accessible, and regularly updated information is essential to our collective survival. 

Large-scale investments in news and information access and delivery are rarely at the forefront of a crisis response strategy. We trust that journalists will report critical information as quickly and as often as possible, and hope this is enough. As Philadelphia braces for its COVID-19 peak and the long-term economic and social impact that is already affecting many, our city’s newsrooms —  from Philly Mag to WURD to Al Dia — have risen to the occasion. Hundreds of locally produced articles and broadcasts each day provide our region with fast and frequent critical information. Reporters put their lives on the lines to get the stories that must be told.

There is so much excellence in how journalism and media-makers are responding to the pandemic. But tension between media organizations and mis/under/unrepresented communities exacerbated by resource limitations within news outlets mean that many people aren’t accessing critical news and information, don’t trust it, or aren’t receiving it through channels that allow them to understand it and act upon it. During a crisis, this gap between media and communities is life-threatening. This is especially the case in Philly where these communities are often the ones most vulnerable to the immediate danger of COVID-19. Accurate and culturally competent news and information give people the power to make well-informed decisions — especially in the face of COVID-19. Understanding the full extent of social distancing or how to file for unemployment while working as a small business owner can be a matters of survival.

What’s more, our  communities and neighbors must have the mechanisms and means to communicate with reporters and newsrooms, sharing their questions, uncertainties, ideas, and input. Information that seems straightforward to some, may not be so to others. Take the 6-foot social distancing guideline as an example. Immigrant households that use the metric system need reporting on this in such a way that enables them to better understand and act on that information, and they need to be able to let journalists know this.

In the midst of a crisis, there’s an opportunity to engage differently and to work collaboratively to deliver useful reporting and critical information to our neighbors in a time of great need. 

Resolve Philly has just been awarded a grant of  $1 million from the Independence Public Media Foundation (IPMF). The funding is part of the $2.5 million Philadelphia COVID-19 Community Information Fund, announced jointly by IPMF and the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a joint venture of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Knight Foundation. Resolve’s award will enable us to create a crisis response plan that centers on journalism and information delivery, prioritizing the information needs of our communities most at risk of this pandemic’s consequences. This response rests on the theory that at a time of collective crisis, the news media must play a key role — and collaboration is essential. At its core, this plan will include a constantly updated embeddable FAQ powered by the exemplary reporting happening across the city by our 24 partner newsrooms, as well as vetted information from other trusted sources; public health messaging created by local artists to circulate citywide; new creative content creation and dissemination strategies; increased community-responsive reporting and COVID-19 solutions journalism; translation of high quality news coverage into Spanish and other languages, as well as non-English original reporting serving immigrant communities in Philadelphia.

Our collective success will depend on a remarkable level of cross-sector collaboration with a host of organizations, individuals, and institutions that will ensure that all of our neighbors can access critical, life-saving, household-sustaining information. We look forward to working with the following partners, with many more to come: Broke in Philly newsroom partners, Distributed Media Lab, The Village of Arts and Humanities, People’s Paper Co-op, New Voices, Fill the Walls with Hope, Community Legal Services, Liberty Resources Inc, Klein College of Media and Communications – Temple University, Annenberg School of Communications – University of Pennsylvania, and the offices of Councilmembers Helen Gym, Jaime Gauthier, Derek Green, Kendra Brooks, Mark Squilla, Kenyatta Johnson and Katherine Gilmore Richardson.

There is room for many more. If you are working with particularly vulnerable communities around COVID response, let us know. If you’re an artist or member of the clergy or health organization or community leader and you see a place for yourself in the plans mentioned above please reach out.

If you have questions that local newsrooms can answer about living and working in this city during the COVID-19 pandemic, please tell us here, or text COVID19phl to 73224. Your queries will be shared with our newsroom partners to ensure COVID reporting is as community-responsive as possible. 

Cassie Haynes and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky are co-Executive Directors of Resolve Philly.