(New York, NY) — A new PEN America project published today shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on journalism, forcing local newsrooms in particular to cut staff, reduce operations, or shutter altogether—and reporters and newsroom employees have also fallen to the virus, further damaging an already-struggling industry.

Journalism and COVID-19: The Toll of a Pandemic, while not a comprehensive view of the pandemic’s impacts, focuses on three key areas that have been most damaging to local press: stories of journalists and media professionals who have passed away due to COVID-19, spotlights on five U.S. states with among the most negatively affected newsrooms, and incidents of threats to press freedom directly related to the coronavirus outbreak.

“The goal of the project was to humanize the pandemic’s toll on journalism,” said Sandy Mui, PEN America’s digital communications assistant and the creator of the project. “We’ve seen in 2020 that journalists have never been more important—as essential workers risking their lives and safety to bring us the news. But they’ve also faced an unprecedented level of threats. Some have lost their lives due to the virus. Others have felt the brunt of newsroom cutbacks including layoffs and furloughs. And the difficulty of doing their jobs increased even more as they faced challenges like harassment, censorship, and new restrictions on information.”

The project follows the 2019 publication of Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions, PEN America’s seminal report showing the decline of local accountability journalism and its impact on free expression and democracy. The project launched today shows how an already flailing industry has been battered by the pandemic, outlining the ways the direct health and indirect economic impact have forced a consolidation of the industry, particularly in local markets.

“This project is a vitally important reminder that behind the reporting we all rely on to keep us informed in these tumultuous times are human beings who have been on the front lines of this pandemic from day one,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America. “At a moment when local journalism is already under threat, it has also been hit hard by this crisis. We hope this project shines a light on the essential role that journalists—especially local journalists—play in our communities and our society, and reminds us all why we must fight for the survival of local journalism, now more than ever.”

As part of the project, PEN America paid tribute to several journalists and media professionals. Those profiles include:

  • Anthony Causi, photographer at the New York Post
  • Ginny Frizzi, former media relations professional and reporter who also served as president of The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists
  • Theodore Gaffney, former freelance photographer most well-known for documenting the Freedom Riders’ journey for Jet magazine

Listen to Mui discuss more about the background of the project on today’s episode of The PEN Pod.