A National Journalism Network to Cover the 2020 Census

Mark Hansen | Professor & Director, Brown Institute for Media Innovation
Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University | [email protected]

Mike Ananny | Associate Professor, Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism
University of Southern California | [email protected]

We urgently need a robust national conversation about the serious and imminent challenges facing the 2020 Census, underscoring the important role it plays in the political, economic and civic life of the nation. To avoid a failed count, we need strong, fact-based reporting to fuel this conversation, and to perhaps point to potential solutions and opportunities. But these are complicated issues, requiring knowledge from local communities as well as subject area experts. We propose a national network of journalists, news organizations, professional bodies, technology companies, schools and universities that can create a national dialog about the census, and help ensure a successful count.

On April first, in years that end in zero, this country participates in a unique national moment. We exercise our constitutional right to be counted in the Decennial Census, a count that influences the structure of our political system through apportionment and the political districting, and dictates how $600 billion in federal funds are allocated to local cities and towns. It is a high-quality, independent source of information about life in the United States, a 10-year check on our progress as a nation. From urban planning and economic development to journalism and social science research, the census is a “basemap” of public life. But in 2020, the Census is nothing short of a high wire act — our first "online" count, it is sorely underfunded, behind schedule, and dealing with late demands from the DOJ and others. All of this could warp the count, in disheartening, yet predictable ways.

A failure to count properly and comprehensively, using scientifically sound, culturally engaging, and publicly defensible methods would harm how cities govern, businesses invest, researchers learn, and communities grow. To avoid this failure and ensure that the census continues as the cornerstone of public data collection in the United States, we propose creating a national network of:

These groups will form a new kind of community: a fellowship program for journalists and census experts, placing them in local newsrooms, to develop shared projects and expertise, and a prize to acknowledge the best census reporting; a network of experts ready to act as sources and help reporters find fast, high-quality information; a toolkit of timelines and story prompts, to guide reporting before, during, and after the count; mentorship among census experts, quantitative and statistical scientists, senior reporters, and student journalists; interdisciplinary researchers studying not only technical details of the census, but also its history and cultural meaning; and an innovation fund of venture and R&D groups to continue investment in the census as a vehicle of new knowledge and civic engagement.

If you're interested in joining this effort, please complete the form below and we will follow-up as soon as the project begins.

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