I believe in looking back where we’ve been because it brings clearer vision going forward. That’s why, as much as we all want to forget 2020 as fast as we can, I’ve been reflecting on it.
There wasn’t much time for that through 2020, and even into the new year. The relentless pace of news, for months on end, kept us jumping from story to story, from one horror, heartbreak and outrage to the next. From one compelling call to dig deep as journalists, to another to dig even deeper.
In a special section publishing today, one year after the state began shutting down schools, restaurants and public gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus, our staff looks back on A Year of Pandemic and its toll on the Puget Sound region — the human cost and the emotional burden we’ve all carried.
As I’ve reflected along with them, what has struck me has been the way our journalism served not just to record the arc of history but to affect it. By informing, enlightening and protecting people, we helped Washingtonians cope with the pandemic and everything else 2020 wrought. Some have told us we quite literally helped them survive.
Here are a few examples of how our work in 2020 has made a difference:
● Our watchdog series on the coronavirus crisis in nursing homes led the state to alter how it publicly shared data on deaths due to COVID-19, helping family members desperate for information about what was going on inside the locked-down facilities. The coverage also renewed discussions about whether Washington sets a high enough minimum standard for staffing in nursing homes.
● We exposed flaws in PPE procurement and distribution that had resulted in a stockpile of 30 million N95 masks — a supply that sat untouched while hospitals were forced to reuse theirs. Within weeks, the state reversed course and began shipping millions of masks to front-line workers.
● Early on, we published fact sheets, graphics and illustrated guides that helped people learn the basics of the virus and how to protect against it — things like hand-washing protocols, proper use of masks and explanations of the science behind social distancing. Many readers told us this helped them stay safe and healthy.
● Soon after COVID-19 vaccines became available, we revealed that three medical systems in the region had given special vaccine access to major donors or foundation board members, raising concerns about whether the state could equitably administer doses. Within days, the state Department of Health banned the practice.
● Our coverage of the pandemic’s affect on schoolchildren helped match those in need with people eager to help. Results included laptops for kids who needed them and a space heater for a teacher working from her garage.
While the pandemic raged on, we responded to another call: the need to push for accountability in the wake of police brutality against Black and brown people.
We closely examined Washington’s weak oversight of police officers with records of misconduct, including the fact that no officer in the past two decades had lost a badge due to excessive use of force. The Legislature now appears likely to pass legislation addressing some of those flaws.
And we published an investigative series on the death of Manuel Ellis while he was in Tacoma police custody. We wrote about how a new police accountability law — requiring independent and transparent investigations into police use of force — was not being followed in the case. Two days later, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced a statewide probe of similar use-of-force investigations, and ultimately found it was not being followed in more than a dozen other cases. Our series also traced Ellis’ life through Tacoma’s troubled mental health system. Late last year, the Pierce County Council imposed a new tax to boost behavioral health care, after declining for years to use that taxing authority.
Much of the work we produced in 2020 was made possible by generous contributions from people who supported our Investigative Journalism Fund. The fund, which has raised nearly $1.4 million, supported our hiring of four investigative journalists a little over a year ago — just before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Of the stories I’ve named here, many were collaborations involving our investigative team and journalists throughout the rest of the newsroom.
One of the lessons we learned in 2020 is that there’s strong support for accountability reporting in our community, from small grassroots donors who give $5 to individuals who contribute $50,000. More than 800 donors have given to the fund, and we continue raising money to assure this important work carries on. You can learn more or make a donation here.
We also were reminded that our highest calling is helping you live your lives every day — whether you’re trying to survive a pandemic or facing more ordinary challenges. The best journalism has real impact, and we’ll strive to remember that in all we do.
Michele Matassa Flores
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.