2021 Knight Award for Public Service winner

Missing Them, a COVID-19 Memorial and Accountability Journalism Project

Judges comments

This project really put a spotlight on the people of all the boroughs of New York and elevated stories we haven’t heard about over the last year.

About the Project

As COVID-19 deaths increased in New York City last spring, we started looking for data. We knew what we could see: obituaries in local papers. So we began tracking them — collecting names and stories from and unions mourning members who died. We also found some limited data from the city’s medical examiner and health department.

Our early analysis showed that the public obituaries skewed white, male and came from the wealthier enclaves of the city. Yet, the coronavirus was killing Black and Latino New Yorkers at twice the rate of white residents. People of color, including immigrants living in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, were rarely reflected in the obituary pages.

Last May, we launched MISSING THEM, a project to track down every New Yorker who died due to COVID-19 and write a story about them. The project is a partnership between the nonprofit newsroom THE CITY and Columbia Journalism School and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. So far, our living memorial has more than 2,300 publicly-identified deaths — all vetted with public records, searchable, filterable and grouped by occupation — and nearly 400 obituaries.

Through our tips, we’ve published more than 20 local accountability stories with partners such as Type Investigations, NPR and Vox.

Those stories include:

  • Students from Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism found that 1 in 10 New Yorkers who died of COVID-19 were buried on Hart Island. The coronavirus ravaged New York’s poorest neighborhoods and struck the sick and elderly in communities of color hardest. This report widely picked up by outlets including NBC and The New York Times.
  • Another Stabile project on the true toll of COVID-19 in city jails prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for an investigation.
  • A Columbia postgraduate fellow reported on how a veteran’s nursing home in Queens administered hydroxychloroquine as part of an unproven drug combination to at least 62 residents without notifying families of both the use and its dangers. This story began after we heard from a grieving daughter who told us: “I’m not happy with how they treated my dad”.
  • A story by a CITY reporter on clusters of coronavirus deaths near the Cross Bronx Expressway — and the omnipresence of air pollution and underlying asthma and lung issues of nearby residents — turned into a podcast for the NPR-affiliated Living Downstream series.