By Jamar Younger
Cronkite School students dominated the national Association of Health Care Journalists Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, sweeping the top three spots in the student category.
The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, a national reporting initiative at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, won the top student award for its two-part series, “COVID’s Invisible Victims” and “Caring for COVID’s Invisible Victims,” which examined the public health impacts of the pandemic on America’s vulnerable homeless population and what local, state and federal officials were doing to help.
Cronkite News finished in second place for “COVID in Indian Country,” which examined how social inequities in tribal communities such as the Navajo Nation led to the kind of health disparities that made COVID-19 more lethal to Native Americans.
A Cronkite News special project team of student journalists finished in third place for the “Life Is…Confronting Youth Suicide in Arizona” series, which examined the factors linked to youth suicide, as well as workable solutions for the crisis.
“COVID’s Invisible Victims,” an investigation supported in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center, examined how federal and state agencies failed to track COVID cases and deaths among homeless people and were unprepared to work across departments to address housing and health issues.
Howard Center reporters also created a “vulnerability index” by analyzing data to predict which homeless populations around the country might be most at risk in a COVID-19 outbreak. The index identified 43 counties that would likely struggle in the pandemic, several of which — such as Imperial in California and Maricopa in Arizona — went on to develop some of the highest infection rates in the country.
“Caring for COVID’s Invisible Victims” tracked the $4 billion in CARES Act funding Congress earmarked to help homeless people and examined the various ways that service providers around the country did and did not use the taxpayer money to help their homeless populations.
Analyzing government data, Howard Center reporters found that fewer than half of the eligible 362 counties, states, cities and territories had accessed all of their CARES Act funding by the start of December, and 37 communities hadn’t tapped any of their homeless aid. Reporters also found that Washington had long determined aid amounts based on a funding formula that had nothing to do with homelessness, and they revealed the winners and losers in the one-time CARES Act formula change.
This was the second major award the Howard Center received within a week. The program also won the top collegiate award in investigative journalism from Investigative Reporters & Editors for its probe of federal police shootings.
The Howard Centers at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland are funded by the Scripps Howard Foundation to advance deeply researched watchdog journalism and train the next generation of investigative reporters. They were established in 2019 to honor the legacy of Roy W. Howard, the former chairman of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and a pioneering news reporter.
“Reporting under difficult conditions, Howard Center reporters filed 140 public records requests, analyzed complex government data and found ingenious ways to safely interview people experiencing homeless in a pandemic,” said Maud Beelman, the Howard Center’s director and executive editor. “They shed light on a forgotten population that was among the most-vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19.”
“COVID in Indian Country” highlighted how the coronavirus has ravaged Native American communities, and further exposed some long-standing problems in Indian Country that made this pandemic that much worse. The project also told the stories of those who served the community during the crisis.
“Even before the pandemic, the Cronkite School, working with collaborators including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, had increased its investment in health journalism and its focus on reporting on health disparities. That investment has paid off, with far more students gaining real-world experience in covering some of the most important issues of our time,” said Pauline Arrillaga, who directs the school’s Southwest Health Reporting Initiative.
“The COVID in Indian Country series is a great example of the work we want to produce: stories that don’t just spotlight problems but highlight vital on-the-ground efforts to find solutions and improve health care in underserved communities.”
For “Life Is……Confronting Youth Suicide in Arizona,” dozens of students spent a year reporting and producing digital content, as well as a documentary that was viewed statewide, on mental health, isolation and loneliness, at-risk gene variants, the LGBTQ+ community and more regarding youth suicide. The project was produced under a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation and with support of the Arizona Broadcasters Association..