by Matt Park
In early 2020, Reveal launched Seeing 2020, a national collaborative reporting initiative to help newsrooms around the country find ways to improve their coverage of the 2020 Census. The team at Reveal collected stories from census workers and shed light on the logistical challenges workers were faced with during the counting process. In a collaborative effort between reporters, experts,and census workers, Reveal’s reporting team shared their findings with newsrooms around the country for tips on how to improve census reporting in a series of various webinars and discussions.
David Rodriguez, Reveal’s community engagement producer says the primary intention of the project was to “empower local and ethnic media outlets to report on the 2020 Census.” This was done by outlining three main project goals:
- Understand what local communities want to know about the census
- Help reporters inform their audiences about the census
- Track and explain how the census’ potential implementation flaws might lead to disempowerment and disenfranchisement down the road; primarily in the form of money and representation for communities.
Tools and Technology: Reveal primarily relied on Screendoor to produce a survey form for Census bureau employees to fill out. The platform also allowed Reveal reporters to message Census workers directly to follow up on their experiences.
Impact: Through their reporting, Seeing 2020 was able to discover issues that census workers are commonly faced with while out in the field. Some themes included in their reporting included inadequate training and issues with government-issued technology causing workers to show up to the homes of already counted citizens. After reporting on these issues, the team at Reveal received a strong response to their Screendoor surveys with over 150 submissions from census workers to date. The submissions are being shared to participating newsrooms around the country to help journalists understand some of the main issues going on with the census on the ground.
Organization Background: Reveal serves as the digital content platform for The Center of Investigative Reporting (CIR), a non-profit news organization centered on investigative reporting. The CIR has been around since 1977 and is one of the oldest non-profit outlets in the country for investigative reporting. Seeing 2020 was a collaborative effort produced by 3 different reporters and producers from Reveal.
Project Resources: The primary resource in this study was in-house human resources consisting of staff to search through responses and directly reach out to census workers who shared their experiences. Additionally, the team collaborated with various Census experts around the country to help answer questions and offer insights. Rodriguez noted a strong response from both print and radio news outlets.
Here’s How it Happened
Reveal assembled their team of reporters and producers in late 2019, and began reaching out to various media outlets around the country to determine the best course of action for collaboration on census reporting. The project was officially launched in February of 2020 when Reveal sent out surveys to reporters and experts who responded to their initial survey. The team was able to host one webinar before the start of the pandemic in March, which forced an adjustment in production. After the start of the pandemic, the team noticed priorities from media outlets had shifted from the upcoming census to pandemic coverage. Community groups who were doing work on the ground and census experts became an important factor in identifying many of the issues with the 2020 Census count.
Here’s What Worked
1. Including a survey within the story seeking more workers’ experiences.
In the publication of Reveal’s first story on censu bureau employee’s problems, the team included a link to the survey within the piece. As the story gained traction, feedback to the survey simultaneously saw an uptick in response numbers. Reveal producers reported reaching over 150 responses by November, a number that far exceeded their target of 80-100 responses.
2. Connecting with census outreach organizations
To understand the impact of the pandemic on the census Rodriguez reached out to AustinTalks, a community organization that was doing census outreach work in Chicago. Connecting with this organization allowed Rodriguez and the Reveal team to learn about issues with counting residents of long-term care facilities and other citizens who fall under the umbrella of group living.
3. Sharing Findings with Workers
After months of speaking with census workers, the Reveal team would share their findings directly with workers who previously reached out via survey. In addition, Reveal reporters held an AMA session on the r/Census subreddit where they answered additional questions to both census workers and members of the public. The count for the 2020 Census was the first to be conducted with workers equipped with smart phone technology, and the new technology proved to be one of the many problems for workers on the ground. The Reveal team found that census workers were forced to rush their count in order to hit deadlines, which resulted in a less than thorough count for communities such as the homeless or those in group living situations to be more prone to an undercount.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Focusing on a handful of states
Rodriguez feels that the project could have benefitted from focusing their reporting on several states rather than casting a wide net around the country. He says it would have been beneficial to focus on states that have shown a low response percentage on the bureau’s official map. “I think it would have been really good to focus on the areas that were really struggling to count people early on,” said Rodriguez. “Because that would have been a really good indicator as to why certain places were lagging.
2. Reaching out to workers earlier
Although Reveal was aware that census worker training was underway during the summer and despite the pandemic, the inadequacy of the training process was severely underestimated by the reporting team. In hindsight, Rodriguez feels that reaching out to census workers earlier and catching them during this summer training period would have immensely helped their work. Rodriguez feels that getting a firsthand look at the lacking training process as it was happening would have improved the story that would ultimately become their starting point on this project.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- Having a strong digital presence: Strong community engagement skills is one of the main reasons why this project became so successful. The Reveal engagement producers exceeded their goal primarily by including links to their census worker survey as the story was being published and gaining steam.
- Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic: As the project was being developed in late 2019, the producers had originally planned a series of pop-up events at public spaces to help educate people on the Census. These events were eventually scrapped after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and in hindsight the producers felt that having this resource could have added an additional layer of community engagement to their final project.
To learn more about this project, send David Rodriguez a DM on Twitter (@DaveeJonesLock).