Class and COVID-19
It is imperative for news organizations to dive into city, county and state statistics to report candidly on the impact of COVID-19 across the Fault Line of Class.
By Felecia D. Henderson
Detroit is making headlines again, and not in the way the city nor the state of Michigan wants.
After all, the city was on the upswing after the 2009 federal bailout of General Motors Corp. and FCA; buildings burning on what used to be called Devil’s Night became a distant memory; and the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy was resolved in one year’s time at the end of 2014.
Since then, downtown went from barren to bustling with new restaurants, national shops, hotels, and condominiums. Neighborhood groups were seeing the demolition of long-abandoned homes, and small businesses began sprouting up across the 139-square-mile city, providing much-needed service-industry jobs for unemployed and underemployed residents.
Four years ago, Detroit was hailed by the national media as the comeback kid.
Today, the headlines tell a different story.
“Coronavirus Sweeps Through Detroit, a City That Has Seen Crisis Before” — The New York Times
“Detroit: America’s next COVID-19 hotspot battles to prepare for coming surge” — The Guardian
“Detroit especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to poverty, health” — Aljazeera News
These headlines intersect directly with the Fault Line of Class and reveal how communities that have suffered disparities are in greater peril when health and economic crises converge.
An old adage comes to mind when thinking of Detroit during this pandemic. “When America gets a cold, Detroit gets the flu.”
Sadly, the city and southeast Michigan are experiencing the worst flu in modern history, with more than 840 dead and more than 18,900 cases in Michigan as of Tuesday afternoon.
Amidst the ballyhoo of Detroit’s comeback was the fact the city has an array of socio-economic issues that no new restaurant or hotel can resolve. Issues of Class present in the neighborhoods — income and educational inequality, health disparities — continue to widen despite perceived prosperity downtown.
Data USA, a collaborative effort between Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Labs and the consulting firm Deloitte, found that nearly 38 percent of Detroit’s more than 672,000 residents live in poverty. The city has a median household income of $31,283 and the median property value is $51,600.
Compare that with neighboring Wayne County enclave Grosse Pointe Farms, which boasts a median household income of more than $132,000 and a median property value of $298,400. Of the more than 9,200 residents, only 1.6 percent live in poverty.
Initially, coronavirus was an equalizer. Regardless of race or socio-economic status, people were infected and dying in Michigan. But as death tallies and unemployment claims began to rise, issues of class began to emerge, not only in Detroit but other U.S. cities as well.
Institute founder Robert Maynard was inspired to create the Fault Lines framework following the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area. The framework reveals that societal Fault Lines of Race, Class, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Geography and Generation crisscross the United States much like geological fault lines.
For this examination of coverage of coronavirus and class, I focused on Detroit because The Big Motor (as Hall of Fame radio jock Tom Joyner calls it) has become my second home. I’ve worked as a journalist in the city longer than I lived in my hometown of Louisville, KY. And as journalists in this market have come to know, there is always a Detroit peg in just about every national news story. When U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams declared the city a national “hot spot” for the virus, it unfortunately allowed us to put a check by “Detroit angle” in the news story of the century.
While the rate of black Detroiters dying of coronavirus is startling (40 percent of cases vs. 14 percent of Michigan’s population), a similar scenario is developing in other states. In Louisiana, the New Yorker reports, African Americans are 32 percent of the population, but they account for 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
The unemployment numbers in Michigan are just as staggering as they are nationally. On Monday, ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV reported 311,000 claims for benefits were filed between March 22–28, breaking the weekly record of 77,000 set in January 2009.
A few media outlets began reporting on the Fault Line of Class as COVID-19 began to move eastward from Washington State in early March.
New York magazine’s March 10 article “The Coronavirus Puts the Class War Into Stark Relief,” reporter Sarah Jones looked at the difference in decisions to close schools made by private and public educational institutions. In Missouri, an all-girls Catholic school was prompted to close after a man violated quarantine orders and took his daughter to a school gala, possibly exposing others to COVID-19. Jones pointed out that some schools can make the decision to close school easier than others. Families with means can handle a closure, while it puts a strain on working-class and middle-class families.
She also detailed issues low-wage workers face, such as the inability to find and pay for child care when school is abruptly closed, as well as the lack of meals for children and lack of pay for parents if they have to miss work shifts because they do not receive paid sick leave.
These workers, Jones reported, tend to rely on public transportation, which means social distancing is difficult because people are in close contact with one another.
Which leads to the issue faced by the Detroit Department of Transportation bus driver who likely contracted COVID-19 after a passenger openly coughed while he was on duty. Angry and frustrated, Jason Hargrove posted a Facebook Live video about the March 21 incident. He died from complications of the virus less than two weeks later. His death made national news.
The Detroit News’ Oralandar Brand-Williams was one of the first reporters to break the story April 2.
“Here was a frontline worker speaking passionately from one of the epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak in America,” Brand-Williams said. “There also was an opportunity to tell the story of working-class and people of color who also are on the front lines providing essential services as this potentially-fatal virus swirls around them every day as they go to work.”
Bridge Magazine, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization based in Michigan, began reporting class disparities on March 26, focusing on the per capita infection rate, which is among the country’s highest. Residents have higher rates of underlying health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, that increase the severity of coronavirus.
Outlier Media, a Detroit nonprofit service-oriented news organization, was founded by journalist Sarah Alvarez in 2016 with the goal of providing information, resources and news to citizens via text message.
After COVID-19 hit the city in such a ferocious manner, editors partnered with Bridge Detroit, another free nonprofit news service, to launch an information needs survey about 10 days ago to find out what the greatest needs are in the community. From that survey, Outlier staff learned Detroiters need the most assistance with food, health, safety, childcare, housing, domestic and child abuse. People can ask questions, and a reporter or partner organization will respond with information up to 48 hours later.
“We sent out 4,000 outbound messages to let customers know about the service,” said Candice Fortman, Outlier/MuckRock’s chief of innovation. “We are absolutely seeing an increase in the number of inbound text messages. About 46 percent (of messages) are around food insecurity.”
The news organization also is focusing on the long-term economic impact for Detroiters, Fortman said.
“We’re working now to ensure that we are building an editorial strategy that will center the information needs of our audience both now and in an uncertain financial future.”
This approach speaks to a level of organizational intentionality that journalists don’t often display.
Meanwhile, there’s another view of the Class Fault Line that is equally as startling.
In Los Angeles County, some of the highest per capita rates of confirmed cases have been found among white and wealthy residents who live in tony communities such as Bel-Air, Brentwood and Hancock Park. Los Angeles Times reporters analyzed county data and found the higher rates of infection were greater than working class or people of color who live in poorer neighborhoods such as Bell Gardens, Watts and El Monte.
Public health experts told The Times the numbers are most likely skewed because of uneven access to testing and wealthy residents who traveled internationally were among some of the earliest confirmed cases.
On Tuesday evening, the county released the first statistical racial breakdown on COVID-19 deaths. And as is the trend in cities with sizeable African-American populations, black people comprised 17 percent of the 93 deaths with racial information in Los Angeles County, while black people only make up 9 percent of the population.
Across the country, across the Class Fault Line, local and state officials are finding it difficult to have citizens take Shelter-in-Place mandates seriously. From a neighborhood gathering in small town Illinois, gawkers watching the arrival of the U.S. Navy hospital ship in New York City, to shoppers patronizing the Brentwood Farmers Market in Orange County, CA, the impact of the deadly virus has not sunken in yet. Experts told The Los Angeles Times the lack of testing will give residents the false and “potentially deadly impression” that they have little to fear.
It will be imperative in the coming months for news organizations to take a deep dive into city, county and state statistics and report on who is actually impacted at a greater and lesser rate by COVID-19 and explain the reasons why.
Back in the Motor City, Nicole Avery Nichols, a senior content editor who is leading COVID-19 coverage at the Detroit Free Press, is concerned about the long-term effects of coronavirus on the poor and people of color.
“When you look at the full picture — which takes into account poverty, pre-existing health conditions, barriers to healthcare, employment fragility, unstable housing, water shutoffs, etc. — the pandemic has threatened communities of color and underprivileged communities in a very insidious way,” she said.
The Atlantic’s Sarah Jones made this prediction:
“The story COVID-19 tells about America is an ugly one. There is a class war, and the rich are winning.”
MAYNARD INSTITUTE FAULT LINES COVID-19 COVERAGE EXERCISE:
Now that you have been exposed to this Fault Line, how would you approach the coverage of COVID-19 that reaches across the social Fault Line of Class?
Tips and things to consider:
- Call a staff meeting to brainstorm ideas. Listen to everyone, particularly those who have different life experiences than newsroom editors.
- If possible, designate one reporter to stay on top of the incoming data. Who is being impacted and at what rate?
- Diversify reporting teams. Know your community and depending on the city, send people of color to white communities and white reporters to communities of color. Don’t exempt white reporters from covering issues of Class and Race.
- Do you have relationships with members of the impacted community(s)?
- Are you trusted by racially diverse members of your community? If not, how will you gain trust?
- Does your engagement strategy reach across the Fault Line of Class?
- Are there collaboration strategies that can help you report this story? Are there other news outlets or neighborhood organizations connected to or working to support communities you’re not? How might you work with them?
Felecia D. Henderson is the Table Stakes Coordinator at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. For more information about remote Fault Lines training please email Martin Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.