Meet the ICFJ COVID-19 English-language Reporting Contest winners

by Kiratiana Freelon
Mar 22, 2021 in COVID-19 Reporting
Covid around the world

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique challenge to reporters across the world. How do journalists cover the biggest story of their lives when they often cannot report on the ground?

Fortunately, the journalists in ICFJ's COVID-19 Reporting Contest met the challenge. ICFJ received 672 submissions in five languages; three per language took home first-place prizes. 

In an early March webinar, ICFJ community engagement director Stella Roque led a discussion with the three English-language winners, in the categories of: 1) Science and health; 2) Transparency, crime and corruption; and 3) Inequality, business and economics.



Here's a look at the winners and their reporting projects.

(1) Science and health

Winner: Priscila Pacheco and Alexandre de Maio, along with a cross-border team based in Brazil, Poland and Spain 

The article: Favelas vs. COVID-19, published in Outriders

Journalism background

For the first 10 years of his career, Alexandre de Maio focused on editing and writing for urban, hip hop magazines in São Paulo. He then helped to launch Catraca Livre, a popular events and culture website in Brazil. Now he focuses on creating comic strips for various news outlets in Brazil as a freelancer. 

After graduating from college in 2014, Priscila Pacheco started her journalism career at Mural, a favela news agency. Now she works at Aos Fatos, a fact-checking outlet in Brazil. 

On the story

Brazilian journalists Alexandre de Maio and Priscila Pacheco showed how favela and periphery communities managed the COVID-19 pandemic in the absence of assistance from Brazil's government. The pair produced a digital comic book that highlighted three different initiatives. They completed the project for the Polish website Outriders, which has a tradition of producing multilingual multimedia stories and innovative projects. 

On the type of journalism

“This was essentially a solutions journalism piece,” said Pacheco. “What solutions did residents arrive at in the absence of government assistance during the pandemic? In the government’s absence, what did the people in these neighborhoods do to manage their health, help people understand the use of masks, and explain the importance of social distancing? How can these solutions be applied to other areas, and what can the government learn from these initiatives?”

[Read more: How an investigation exposed inflated prices for face shields in El Salvador]

On the reporting team

Pacheco added: “Everything was well-organized. When we work with a multimedia team with people from different countries and different abilities it's very important for everything to be very organized. The biggest challenge for me was managing the meetings in different accents of English.”

On the reporting medium

“We wanted to complete the project in comic-strip journalism style, and then we wanted to enrich the material with photos and audio,” said de Maio. “Our objective was to tell the story entirely through comic-book style, so it would be an easy read. To do this we had to collect a lot of archive material. Of course, this was difficult to do during a pandemic.”

On lessons learned

“The greatest lesson that I learned is that, at least in Brazil, we could report on the ground if we took safety precautions,” said de Maio. “Even though there were new ways to do journalism, reporting on the ground was very important because we were able to show what was happening. We were able to meet that person who didn’t have food in their house, but was still helping other people.”  

(2) Transparency, crime and corruption 

Who: Clair MacDougall (Burkina Faso)

The article: In Mali, the First Death of a UN Peacekeeper from COVID-19 Keeps His Family Guessing, published in PassBlue

Journalism background

Clair MacDougall has reported internationally for 10 years. Inspired by a journalism professor who started his career in West Africa, she decided to move to the region. She has since lived in Ghana, reported from Liberia on the Ebola crisis, and now she is based in Burkina Faso. 

On the story

MacDougall investigated how the U.N. handled the death in Mali of an El Salvadorean who was the first U.N. peacekeeper to die of COVID-19. When the peacekeeper's family alerted her to the lack of transparency around the death, MacDougall started digging. What was initially supposed to be a short story became a much bigger piece. 

[Read more: Behind the scenes: Reporters who exposed Europe's COVID-19 spending]

On reporting from a distance

"For me, [reporting from distance] was a real challenge — doing an investigation entirely from home. I like to get on the ground, like to meet people face-to-face, but with the circumstances and the fact that the peacekeeping mission is in Mali, and the issues with COVID, it was difficult," said MacDougall.

On investigative reporting

"I started making records requests with the Department of Peace Operations in New York about the number of deaths, the number of infections and so on. Frustratingly, that information isn't actually public. You have to continually ask for it,” said MacDougall. “I started getting in contact with [the U.N. Peacekeeper] Carlos' family members and friends through Facebook. There was an entire network of former pilots who had served on U.N. peacekeeping missions, so I started contacting them."

On the pandemic

"The pandemic is obviously still with us, and it's going to go on for some time. I think it's just very important to check in with people and to really listen to them and their struggles that they're facing in the face of this," said MacDougall.

(3) Inequality, business and economics

Who: Amir Khafagy (U.S.)

The article: Black Lives Matter on the Picket Line, published in Discourse Blog 

Journalism background

Journalism always intrigued Amir Khafagy, but he felt the profession was economically out of his reach. He spent 10 years working in labor unions and nonprofits. When he pursued a master's in urban studies, he successfully transformed several of his term papers on labor into articles published in the likes of Jacobin and In These Times. This gave him the courage to fully pursue journalism. Today, he covers social justice and labor movements. 

On the story

Garbage collection is a dangerous job, but it’s often well paid across cities in the U.S, allowing workers to retire comfortably. This isn't the case in New Orleans, where garbage collection has been privatized. Garbage collectors there barely make minimum wage, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they found themselves in an even more precarious situation, without even proper protective equipment. This pushed them to strike and form a labor union amid the Black Lives Matter protests. During the strike, one company actually resorted to using prison labor. 

On reporting from a distance

"I like to see [and] breathe the air that the people I'm covering are breathing. I like to be there and see what they're seeing, and be on the ground and feel that energy. And I couldn't do that,” said Khafagy.

He added: “This was a story that I felt was so important. I did everything I could to try to bring myself there, even though I couldn't be there. I did an immense amount of research, I did some phone calls with a lot of the workers, and I studied the history of New Orleans very intricately."

On the biggest challenge

"I like to have the people that I'm working with on the story actually come and participate in the story with me. It was hard to do that when you're in New York City, and this is happening in oil. I thankfully built that very nice long-distance relationship with the workers," said MacDougall. "We were doing some calls and we were on the phone a few times a week, and we were discussing what was happening. They were giving me on-the-ground reports as if they were doing the reporting on the ground for me. I was able to formulate that into this piece."

Kiratiana Freelon is a Youtuber, multimedia journalist, author and entrepreneur based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Martin Sanchez.