Geography and COVID-19

During a pandemic, where we live affects our access to healthcare, but also the quality of our internet connections and access to outdoor exercise and leisure activities.

By Jean Marie Brown

The Fault Line of geography runs throughout the coverage of COVID-19. On the surface, it’s the answer to “where” and “proximity” as the locations of cases and hotspots dominate newscasts and headlines.

It’s incumbent upon journalists to understand that societal Fault Lines — race, gender, generation, class, sexual orientation and geography — run deep below the surface, just as geological faults do. In recognizing geography as a Fault Line, Robert C. Maynard called on journalists to consider geography not only in terms of where an event takes place, but also how place can change the impact of events and issues.

As journalists dig deep in the coming weeks and examine the myriad of changes brought about by COVID-19 they should consider the geographical Fault Lines within their communities. Considering the Fault Lines of a story can bring nuance and context to topics.

For example, in reporting about school closures it’s easy to suggest web-based help for families. But this coverage isn’t one-size fits all. The internet isn’t considered a utility and it isn’t a given that everyone has equal access.

COVID-19 closures are likely exacerbating education gaps and magnifying societal disparities. Using information from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Brookings Institute estimates that at least 14 percent of school children lack home internet. Because internet access is tied to income and areas, students in low-income neighborhoods and those in rural areas are likely to be most affected.

In fact, access to the internet is often tied to the Fault Line of geography as reported by Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, Washington.

Despites strides in lessening the digital divide, researchers have found that where people live can still be the determining factor in their access to broadband or high speed internet. The Pew Research Center has been tracking internet accessibility for years. Its most recent look at rural v. nonrural access in May 2019, found that 63 percent of rural Americans have a broadband connection at home. This compares to 79 percent of people living in the suburbs and 75 percent of those in urban areas.

But there are also disparities in those suburban and urban numbers, particularly when class and race are taken into account. While 82 percent of whites own a desktop or laptop computer, and 79 percent have home broadband, Pew reports that 58 percent of blacks and 57 percent of Hispanics have a desktop or laptop; 66 percent of blacks and 61percent percent of Hispanics have home broadband.

According to Pew the likelihood of having broadband increases with affluence — 92 percent of homes with incomes of $75,000 or more reported having home broadband in last year, this compares with 87 percent for those making between $50,000 — $74,999; 72 percent of those making $30,000 — $49,999; and 56 percent percent for those making less than $30,000.

Now’s also a good time to explore the stop gap measures that many communities have put in place to give people more access to the internet. Libraries in many cities have public access computers. But with most shuttered in response to stay-at-home orders, those who came to rely on them have to seek alternatives.

Leisure time activities can also be viewed through a geographic Fault Line. Basketball nets and backboards have been stripped from parks in some communities to encourage social distancing and limit interaction. Such a move is rational, but it ignores the fact that in some communities these courts are the dominant public recreational facility.

In many communities golf courses and tennis courts remain open. Newsrooms should examine how recreational opportunities are distributed throughout their communities. Who has the opportunity to do what, and at what price?

MAYNARD INSTITUTE GEOGRAPHIC FAULT LINE EXERCISE:

Now that you have been introduced to this framework, how should your news organization rethink the coverage of COVID-19 that reaches across the Geographic Fault Line?

THINGS TO CONSIDER AS YOU REFLECT:

  • How are the effects of COVID-19 impacting your city (including neighborhoods) or regions in different ways?
  • What are the points of entry to the internet in low-income and rural communities that are part of your coverage area?
  • Has the broadband infrastructure in your community been upgraded in all areas, or just some? If some, why and which ones?
  • School districts are offering families hotspots or turning buses into hotspots and placing them in communities to offer internet access, but is this really conducive to learning?
  • The lack of laptops and desktops in some homes could signal that the adults in the household are computer literate. How will this impact children who need help with computer setup or accessing software?
  • Have you been out into communities talking with parents and students to get an understanding of the limitations some families face.

Jean Marie Brown is an Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Texas Christian University and a core Maynard Institute Fault Lines Trainer. For more information about remote Fault Lines training please email Martin Reynolds at mreynolds@mije.org.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

Fighting for newsrooms that represent America since 1977.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

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The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society. mije.org & bit.ly/39iiNOA

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

The nation’s oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately, fairly & credibly portray all segments of society.