Do Texas’ rising numbers of coronavirus cases spell trouble ahead, or does our declining percentage of positive tests give reason for hope?
Are we testing enough for comfort, or do we not have enough workers to track down people who’ve been in contact with those who fall ill with the virus?
Are Houston’s intensive care wards half empty, or are they half full?
Journalism professors used to warn me against using questions in the lead paragraphs of a story, and I just posed three at the top of this column. Those questions, though, are indicative of the swirl of information available during these confusing days, data that can be used to argue just about any case that our leaders want to make.
At the Houston Chronicle, we’re working hard to make sense of all those numbers and to present them in a way that can help you, our readers, with what once were pretty simple decisions: Go to the office, or stay home? Go out to dinner, or make do with what we have at home? Get a haircut, or stay shaggy?
For those who have lost a job, we work hard to provide useful information about where to get help, how to apply for benefits, how to navigate through a suddenly harsh environment.
Our data efforts are led by a three-person team, a dedicated group of journalists working crazy hours to gather information daily from local, regional and state officials. They work with a graphic artist and designer to assemble a series of charts and maps that can be seen online at any time at HoustonChronicle.com, our subscriber site, and each day in print in our coronavirus section.
We’ve updated those charts this week with information that better captures the current state of things, including seven-day rolling averages of new cases in the state and region. We’ll also soon add a special weekly version that includes economic data.
The work of the data team, though, extends far beyond charts and dashboards. This group, led by Data Editor Matt Dempsey, has contributed to a series of exclusive stories that have helped explain the reach and impact of the pandemic in Houston, and in Texas.
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One story revealed how poorly the state ranks in per-capita testing, a key measure for knowing what we know — and what we don’t. Another showed that in Harris County, the virus was attacking most fiercely in poor neighborhoods. And this week, as Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans to further reopen Texas businesses, we reported that the state was still far from achieving some of the key benchmarks for reopening set by one of his advisers.
Dempsey is one of the country’s leading data journalists and a member of the board of Investigative Reporters & Editors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting. (I’m a longtime member.)
Dempsey says the data team works to make the numbers understandable.
“There’s so many different statistics and numbers out there about the pandemic,” he says. “I see a lot of confusion about what it all means…
“There’s no agenda in our reporting. If a metric looks good for Texas or the Houston area, we want people to know about it. If we’re falling behind in an area, we want people to know that, too.”
The team’s stories, and those from other reporters, have at times drawn questions from readers who are eager for Texas to get back to work. They can become flashpoints for anger at a time when nearly any piece of data, any story about pandemic policy, can divide readers who are already on edge — including those who view such issues through a partisan lens.
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We understand the urge to get things back to normal. Yet we know that many of you — many of us — remain ambivalent about what to do next. Tuesday online and Wednesday in print, we reported that Houston hospital leaders support the governor’s push to reopen, while local leaders still have their worries. One respected health economist called some of the reopenings “a disaster in the making.”
Our newsroom and our company have been cautious; nearly all of our employees have been working remotely since mid-March. And you can count the Chronicle among the businesses that have been hurt by the shutdown. But, as always, we do our best to keep our personal feelings away from our journalism.
We do have one agenda, though: We strive, every day, to give our readers the best, most up-to-date information to help them make their own decisions. Thank you for subscribing, and for reading.