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Jim McDermottMarch 27, 2023
a hand holds a smartphone displaying a new york times article about covid-19Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

For the first 15 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, I lived with 30 other Jesuits in an abandoned and padlocked college campus on a bluff above the western part of Los Angeles. It was a strange and in some ways frightening existence.

And yet I find it somehow even stranger now to consider. Did I really spend over a year by myself, communicating almost entirely by way of something called “Zoom” and watching musical theater and British detective shows to keep me distracted? Like most people I speak to, that period seems almost totally unreal now, fantastical in the way of some darkly pitched interpretation of a Shakespeare play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” helmed by Jordan Peele. And as much as I told myself that I would likely miss some of the space and quiet those months afforded me, in truth I don’t even think about those months now, almost certainly intentionally so.

[Related: What I learned from saying Mass on Facebook Live for a year (from a La-Z-Boy chair)]

But then last week a small news item drew me back to that time in an unexpectedly grateful way. The New York Times reported that after more than three years of offering its own daily reporting on Covid cases in every city and county in the United States, it was mostly shuttering its operation in favor of the data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the pandemic I was extremely careful about what media I consumed; it was hard enough dissipating the daily build-up of anxiety without adding to it by way of news reports or social media updates that were themselves so often interwoven with hysteria. I even stopped listening to all the pop culture podcasts that I had previously fed on, after one unexpectedly offered its own frightening predictions about the pandemic.

In the midst of my general media blackout, The New York Times Covid map was my solitary beacon of light.

But in the midst of my general media blackout, The New York Times Covid map was my solitary beacon of light. It was the one place I knew I could go where I could get the information that I needed—what were the Covid numbers in my neighborhood? And in Los Angeles more generally?—without the threat of encountering any spin or reporting that would only make my life seem that much more fraught.

Its greatest strength was the depth of its reporting; over 160 Times staffers, freelancers and college students contributed to the work, which involved 350 data scrapers designed for the project scouring information from public data sources throughout the country and world. But for me, its genius lay in its simplicity. Just a glance at the Covid map gave me an immediate understanding of the current situation in the United States and abroad, as well as a clear way of finding out more.

It was also somehow the easiest information to find. I know other online news outlets were producing their own versions of the Times’ work, but on many sites trying to find that information was like wandering through a hedge maze in the dark. Meanwhile The New York Times had a tiny version of the map on its homepage. It made its data readily available.

The Times’ Covid map became a way for me to monitor the situation in Los Angeles, where Covid numbers were so bad we couldn’t go back to school or church for a year and a half. But it also enabled me to keep up with the towns where my parents live, my siblings, my relatives. At a time when my pals in Pasadena, Santa Monica or Encino seemed just as far away as my goddaughter in Philadelphia or my friends in Australia, checking The Times’ Covid stats became a way of staying connected to them, of considering how they were doing and what they were contending with. I’m sure my parents rolled their eyes sometimes when I’d call to make sure they were being careful about going to the grocery store after seeing from The Times map that Covid numbers were spiking in their area.

In a time when we felt isolated, afraid and increasingly divided, the Times gave us a means to better understand what was happening and to stay connected with one another.

I’d like to say there is a happy reason for the Times ending its daily reporting, that we’re at a point where that kind of work is no longer necessary. It certainly feels that way. But in fact the Times article on the change to its reporting noted that thousands of Americans are still dying of Covid every week. But states and local sources are no longer reliable sources of information. “The comprehensive real-time reporting that The Times has prioritized is no longer possible,” Lisa Waananen Jones and Wilson Andrews write.

As a writer for a magazine that is both a part of and interested in the Catholic Church, I like to look at how different secular organizations do their jobs, to see what their successes and failures might have to teach the church, or what the church might have to offer to it. And in the church we talk about public service as a way of life. Indeed, it is the means by which we continue to build the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ imagined. It is central to our vocations as Christians.

A newspaper is a very different venture than a religious organization. Still, I wonder what we might learn from the pandemic work of the Times. Perhaps the value of keeping our communication simple and accessible, how that alone can enable people to feel better connected, empowered and safe.

The Times’ work also offers a criterion by which to judge where we put our energies. The Times looked at the situation in the country in March 2020 and saw a pressing public need. As institutions of the church consider new programs, as our leaders prepare new statements, might we similarly ask ourselves: Who are the people that this is serving? What is the public need?

In a time when we felt isolated, afraid and increasingly divided, the Times gave us a means to better understand what was happening and to stay connected with one another. Its reporting of the pandemic showed tremendous depth, creativity, generosity and grit. We are in its debt.

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