The text “Journalism and COVID-19: The Toll of a Pandemic” and PEN America’s logo overlaid on a set of distressed newspapers
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In Memoriam | Newsrooms Affected | Free Press Threatened

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, news publishers were deemed “essential” businesses, underlining the vital role that journalists play in our society. Indeed, journalism is perhaps never more important than at a time of intersecting challenges for the United States with the health crisis and associated economic spiral, a divisive political election and its aftermath, and period of protest and reckoning with systemic racism. And yet, when people most need factual information to counter the deluge of mis- and disinformation, the pandemic has had a damaging impact on journalism in the United States. The pandemic has presented unique opportunities for political forces, following President Donald Trump’s lead, to inhibit and delegitimize the practices of a free press. Even as the demands for newsgathering have grown, newsrooms are facing unprecedented economic challenges, forcing some to shutter and others to face cutbacks in staff and other resources. And, alongside others in their communities, journalists have succumbed to the virus.

This has led PEN America to the question: What is the toll of the coronavirus on journalism in the United States? While we will never know the full impact, this project—which examines the first 10 months of the pandemic from March to December 2020—is a start. Our hope is that it helps us begin to understand how COVID-19 has affected one of the most important institutions making up the fabric of our democracy—and brings attention to why journalism needs to be supported now more than ever.

Are we missing anything? Let us know! Reach out to Sandy Mui, the creator of the project and PEN America’s digital communications assistant, at [email protected]. For all press inquiries, please contact Stephen Fee, senior director of communications and marketing, at [email protected].

Last updated: January 3, 2021

In Memoriam

The coronavirus has afflicted so many in the United States and led to more than 300,000 deaths. Journalists and other media professionals, like their neighbors in communities across the country, are included in that count. With their passing, they leave lasting legacies at newsrooms and memories treasured by friends, family, and colleagues. Here, we pay tribute to the media personnel whose lives were tragically cut short by the virus through remembrances and some of their most memorable work. Please note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive; a more comprehensive list of media professionals who have passed during the pandemic can be found on Poynter.

Brent Boynton headshot

Brent Boynton

Former communications professional and news anchor
Reno, NV

Anthony Causi headshot

Anthony Causi

Photographer, New York Post
Long Island, NY

Bette Dewing looking at the camera and holding her rollator

Bette Dewing

Columnist, Our Town
New York, NY

Mark Eckert headshot

Mark Eckert

Business Executive, Mahoning Matters
Canfield, OH

Larry Edgeworth turned, facing the camera and wearing audio equipment

Larry Edgeworth

Audio Technician, NBC News
New York, NY

Alan Finder headshot

Alan Finder

Former reporter and editor
Ridgewood, NJ

Robert Fresco headshot

Robert Fresco

Former reporter, Newsday
Huntington, NY

Ginny Frizzi headshot

Ginny Frizzi

Former media relations professional and reporter
Pittsburgh, PA

Theodore Gaffney headshot

Theodore Gaffney

Former freelance photographer
Washington, D.C.

Text on a black background that reads: “W. H., 1947–2020”

Ward Harkavy

Former editor, The Village Voice
Long Beach, NY

Ron Hutson headshot

Ron Hutson

Former reporter and editor, The Boston Globe
Taunton, MA

Anick Jesdanun smiling in front of a pier in New York City

Anick Jesdanun

Deputy Technology Editor, The Associated Press
New York, NY

Michael Konrad headshot

Michael Konrad

Former editor, Tampa Bay Times
Brooksville, FL

Text on a black background that reads: “B. K., 1955–2020”

Bertram Korn

Former journalist and activist
Elkins Park, PA

Maria Mercader headshot

Maria Mercader

Director of Talent Strategy, CBS News
New York, NY

Arthur Rotstein headshot

Arthur H. Rotstein

Former Tucson correspondent, The Associated Press
Tucson, AZ

Eleanor Schano headshot

Eleanor Schano

Former broadcast journalist
Pittsburgh, PA

Alison Schwartz photo

Alison Schwartz

Director of Digital Platforms, PEOPLE
New York, NY

Donald Shannon headshot

Donald Shannon

Former correspondent, Los Angeles Times
Charleston, SC

Newsrooms Affected

The pandemic has devastated a news media industry already struggling with lost advertising revenue, changing business models, new information consumption patterns, and a range of other challenges. This crisis, especially affecting local news in cities, towns, and rural regions, is documented in PEN America’s report Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions. Remedies, including a call for greater federal support for local news, are the topic for important ongoing debate. In this section, we focus on five states with among the most negatively affected newsrooms—determined by furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts, reduced hours, shifts to solely online coverage, suspension of print, temporary or permanent closures, reduced print schedules, and mergers. This doesn’t take into account other things that have happened to newsrooms—shifting to fully remote operations, for instance—but focuses on the changes newsrooms made that have affected their coverage and the access to news in the communities they cover. For a more comprehensive, individual case-by-case look at cost-cutting measures that newsrooms across the U.S. have enacted, visit the resources from Poynter and Nieman Lab linked at the bottom of this page.

Free Press Threatened

Early in the pandemic, we voiced concern about what cancellations of in-person briefings and events would mean for first-hand reporting. Since then, from state government officials to the White House, we’ve seen the implications of the pandemic on press freedom through attacks and harassment of reporters, censorship of divergent opinions, denigration of the role of the press, restrictions on information, and risks to safety. This section focuses on incidents of free press threats directly related to the coronavirus outbreak, and therefore excludes incidents that occurred during, for example, anti-racism protests.


Acknowledgements

This project was created by Sandy Mui, PEN America’s digital communications assistant, as her independent study project for the certificate program in interactive technology and pedagogy at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). Ximena Gallardo C. served as advisor in her role at The Graduate Center.

Special thanks to PEN America staff members: Elena Barbosa, who designed all graphics; and Nora Benavidez, Stephen Fee, Summer Lopez, Dru Menaker, Viktorya Vilk, and Katie Zanecchia, who all served as consultants.

Sources

From PEN America

External Sources

We are grateful to the many research and nonprofit organizations that collected data and information that were central to this project. These resources include: