Key quotes: How to deal with COVID-19 and data

Apr 23, 2020 em COVID-19 Reporting

In partnership with our parent organization, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), IJNet is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of the ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum.

This article is part of our online coverage of reporting on COVID-19. To see more resources, click here

When reporting on the global pandemic, where can reporters find the exact figures for the number of people who are infected with COVID-19?

We can't. Exact figures on those infected don't exist, and during this rapidly unfolding crisis, even solid estimates are tough to come by, said visual journalist Davide Mancino during a webinar Wednesday with Stella Roque, ICFJ’s Director of Community Engagement, as part of ICFJ’s Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum.

Still, even when data are uneven and incomplete, there are ways to report on what scientists do know, and to use data visualizations to convey this information clearly and accurately to the public. "We can say how many people have tested positive for COVID-19," he said, as long as we report the context around those numbers. 

Here are key quotes from the conversation:

On the context for COVID-19 data as the pandemic unfolds

  • “Six months ago this virus did not exist on the planet.”
  • “In an ideal world we would test anybody to see who is infected, but we can't do that because there is no infrastructure in place anywhere in the world. Even if we could, one-time tests would not be enough. People can always be infected later. They would need to get tested several times over until a vaccine or a cure is found. Tests are never 100% accurate.”
  • “Data we have is being gathered in an emergency situation, with no planning and different methodologies all around the world. We still have little idea if the information we've got is representative of the epidemic as a whole, and probably it is not,” 
  • “Healthcare systems in some countries have been overrun by the outbreak, and could not keep track of everybody even if they wanted to.” 

[Read more: Using data journalism to cover the pandemic in Latin America]

On what data reporters can report on and visualize right now

  • "The number of deaths is probably the most stable indicator to determine whether the outbreak is growing and at what pace….Reporting deaths is probably the most accurate thing we can do, but they are not always up to date. Often, they are one to three weeks old…This is another reason why reporting hospitalization is important.” 
  • The Financial Times has visualized “a number of hypothetical scenarios, to see under which condition the healthcare system could no longer keep up with the growing number of cases. Soon that's what happened in Lombardy (Italy), and this might be one of the reasons why about 18% of confirmed cases in the region ended up dying.”  

On comparing data from different countries

  • “It’s not comparing cases. It’s comparing the number of confirmed cases.” 
  • “You have to check how many tests [they are] are doing in each country….It can look like the situation is worse in countries where there is a lot of testing. It’s possible there is a huge number but nobody knows about it.

On where to obtain reliable data

  • Our World in Data, a collaboration between researchers at the University of Oxford and the nonprofit organization Global Change Data Lab, uses interactive data visualizations to summarize scientific literature on a broad range of topics, including the spread of COVID-19. 

  • The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the European Union agency aimed at fighting infectious diseases, is publishing extensive data about the pandemic on its site.

[Read more: Mental and physical health of reporters during COVID-19]

On data visualization tools 

  • "Not one tool works for everybody....There's always a trade-off between speed and flexibility.”
  • His recommendations:
    • Excel visualizations and other spreadsheets are available on every computer with an Internet connection. Best for simple visualizations. 
    • Infogram is a simple, free tool which journalists on deadline can use to create a simple data visualization for a small data set. It doesn't work with large data sets, though, and isn't customizable.
    • Datawrapper is one of the best tools if you're new to data visualizations. It's easy to learn but can produce attractive charts. It offers a free plan, but you have to pay for more customized charts.
    • RAWGraphs quickly produces non-standard, beautiful charts, but for editorial use they must then be refined using graphic design software.
    • Tableau Public works with large amounts of data, plays well with other tools and allows the user to cross-reference among multiple data sets. With the free version, the data you upload is always made public.

The Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum from ICFJ and IJNet connects journalists covering the novel coronavirus pandemic with leading health experts, resources and each other. Learn more and join the Forum through its Facebook group. Journalists can use these insights and quotes in their stories.

Davide Mancino’s slide presentation for this webinar.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Nick Hillier.