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2020 Feature, Large Newsroom finalist

Cruise ship kept sailing

Exposing thousands

About the Project

Weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, when it was clear that many cruise ships around the world were plagued by coronavirus outbreaks, a team of Washington Post journalists set out to assess the fallout of the decision by cruise lines to keep sailing — as well as the initial reluctance of government officials to prevent them from going to sea. Their deep reporting resulted in a captivating and authoritative package that mapped the consequences of the industry’s push to keep sailing, even after it was clear their vessels were susceptible to the virus.

Reporters Rosalind S. Helderman, Hannah Sampson, Dalton Bennett and Andrew Ba Tran painstakingly tallied the number of ships with outbreaks and the resulting death toll and laid out in rich detail conditions aboard that passengers said they believe allowed the disease to spread. Using shipping tracking data, they mapped the travels of five ships that sailed through the Caribbean while carrying someone who later tested positive for the virus, and revealed new details about behind-the-scenes efforts by anxious public officials to keep ships from coming to port. And they documented the repeated failure of cruise officials to recognize flu-like outbreaks as possible signs of coronavirus or move quickly to address possible outbreaks.

An accompanying short documentary by Sarah Cahlan, Joyce Lee, Atthar Mirza and Elyse Samuels told the story of one ship, the Costa Luminosa, as it carried passengers through the Caribbean who later tested positive, then made its way across the Atlantic before disembarking dozens of ill travelers. Drawing on passenger video and interviews with people who encountered the ship, the piece took viewers inside one ill-fated journey and its fallout.

A compelling design wove together animated graphics and photos from around the world, pulling readers through the narrative. The final package delivered a powerful, definitive portrait of how one industry was tested by pandemic, and how its missteps contributed to the spread of the virus around the globe.