Pulitzer Center Update

Reporting on COVID-19 in the Mission District Through Art and Activism

By July 2020, Latinos made up 50 percent of San Francisco’s reported COVID-19 cases despite representing 15 percent of the city’s population. Over the summer, hyperlocal news outlet Mission Local embarked on a Pulitzer Center-supported project to document the pandemic in the Mission District, home to a large Latinx and undocumented community. To have a meaningful impact in the neighborhood, grantee and Mission Local founder Lydia Chávez knew the project had to go beyond traditional journalistic mediums. 

On November 19, 2020, Chávez joined fellow Pulitzer Center grantee Molly Oleson and filmmaker and artist Ram Devineni to discuss how community members, artists, and data scientists can team up to report stories through creative methods, like those employed in Chávez and Oleson’s Mission Local project. The Pulitzer Center, Mission Local, and nonprofits Gray Area and ZERO1 collaborated to host the webinar, entitled “Drawing Outside the Lines: Art, Activism & Journalism.”

Throughout the conversation, speakers reflected on how COVID-19 fundamentally changed the ways their reporting was both conducted within and disseminated to local communities. 

“From day one, being out talking to parents or being at stores that were still open because people didn’t realize that you had to close up, we could see that we had to do something different to reach [these] readers,” Chávez noted. For Mission Local’s project, that meant translating COVID-19 coverage into Spanish, distributing fliers, and starting a texting service for Mission District residents, all in addition to the team’s typical reporting work. 

“[That reporting] in this pandemic made us see immediately that the people we were going to be reporting on, the people who were going to be most impacted by this pandemic, were the undocumented, the monolingual Spanish speakers,” Chávez said. “We really had to [tell] ourselves, ‘We can’t just cover them; we have to give them information.’”

In addition to this community outreach, the series heavily utilized illustrations and graphics to tell Mission District residents’ stories in new and accessible ways. Oleson walked the audience through the creative process behind her Mission Local illustrations, which depicted subjects ranging from the neighborhood’s Latino Task Force to a resident afflicted by both COVID-19 and appendicitis. 

“A lot of the elements of both [art and journalism] are the same,” Oleson said. “They both involve curiosity, observation, research, learning, documenting, and translating to the page.” 

Her illustrations—mostly black and white and hand-painted on paper—were able to draw readers into the lives of Mission residents in ways a camera or text couldn’t. Oleson explained how two questions typically guided her artistic process: “How can I best represent this story with an illustration?” and “Will the work be ‘visually striking and emotionally moving?’” 

Unlike panelist Devineni’s fictional comics, which feature India’s first female superhero, Oleson had to ensure her work was grounded in details pulled directly from Mission Local reporting. 

“The only thing I’m really making up, in some cases, is the person’s face to protect the identity,” Oleson said during the webinar’s Q&A. “Everything else is factual, and I am very serious about accuracy. Sometimes you see an illustration and it maybe reminds you of a children’s book or something like that that’s fiction. But in this case, we’re using illustrations for journalism. First, we have to abide by the standards of journalism, and then comes the art process.” 

To view the full webinar, click here or watch the above embed.