By Alex Calderwood
Brown Institute fellow Derek Kravitz and New York Times correspondent Richard Fausset published a story yesterday that detailed why New Orleans officials went ahead with Mardi Gras, despite the growing worries at the time regarding COVID-19. The story, published in The Times as “Why New Orleans Pushed Ahead With Mardi Gras, Even as It Planned for Coronavirus”, was based on 2,200 pages of emails obtained by Kravitz and his team. It shows how the flow of information from the federal government influenced how local authorities began crafting their response to the virus in mid-January, roughly a month before Mardi Gras began.
Kravitz and his team were in the process of automating public records requests for the Trump Town project (partially funded with a 2019-20 Magic Grant) in late March when they decided to pivot their efforts to the coronavirus. “We wanted to look at federal coordination dealing with COVID. So we filed more than 100 records requests for states, state health departments, officials, and governors, but also counties and cities in nearly every state related to Coronavirus response,” says Kravitz. The idea was to take a hard look at the local level, where public health responses are actually constructed, and focus on obtaining records in regions like New Orleans that were hit early and hard by the virus.
New Orleans was interesting to the reporters because there was evidence that officials were concerned about Mardi Gras well in advance of their ultimate decision for it to proceed. “We thought that the emails were important because they showed a city that was, in fact, taking the Coronavirus threat seriously. But it appeared to be operating without any strong guidance from the federal government in regard to the possibility of community spread,” says Fausset.
Officials didn’t have the information they needed to make decisions that would have done the most to reduce the virus’ reach. For instance, the federal government sent instructions to look out for individuals traveling from Wuhan, but did not indicate that they should have paid attention to those traveling from Europe, where we now know the virus had already achieved community spread. The emails also indicated a misunderstanding of asymptomatic individuals spreading the disease.
“That lack of knowledge is pretty apparent in the emails, but it’s just useful for us to be able to see almost from a historical lens–look at all that in narrative or chronological form,” says Kravitz. Fausset agrees. “In some ways the most clarifying aspects of the piece,” he speculates, “are just helping people understand these complex timelines–unraveling them to show that it was nearly impossible for officials in the New Orleans health department to think about the possibility of canceling Mardi Gras.”
The story was the result of a few quick moves by the journalists. “In this case, Derek very wisely got ahead of the curve and made a really smart public records request, and he really took great pains to understand them in context,” says Fausset.
This analysis comes at a time when public records offices, especially at the federal level, have been deprioritized, according to Kravitz. Practically, journalists working with data acquired through state and federal information requests have to factor responsiveness into the equation for deciding which records to target. So the reporters had to ask not just which officials were likely to be coordinating the government response and fielding requests for information, but who was likely to answer them.
A further goal of the reporters is to find a way to make the documents they’ve already collected publically accessible or available to other journalists for their own analysis. Additionally, Kravitz’ team, which includes students from Columbia’s Data Science Institute, Kanak Mahip Singh, Qiaoge Zhu, Arusha Kelkar, and Ivan Ugalde, continues to work on automating as much of this process as they can to reduce the burden on journalists for making future requests for public records.
Since sharing the emails with a variety of news publications, the emails have appeared in numerous investigations. Read more about them in our follow up post.
Credit Dan Anderson/EPA, via NYT / Shutterstock.