With a population of more than 8 million residents, it did not take long for New York City to become the U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. But at a time where people are unable to grieve together due to social distancing, the nonprofit newsroom THE CITY, with the Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center, Columbia Journalism Investigations and The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, have produced “MISSING THEM,” a project memorializing New Yorkers lost to the pandemic.
The project, which launched in June, includes a database which shares names, short bios and images of loved ones. The stories are collected by scouring publicly identified deaths such as paid obituaries from other media organizations and Legacy.com. They also reach out to organizations that maintain a public page of victims of COVID-19 and utilize social media. In addition, the project solicits readers to submit their own stories through a website form. People can also call a hotline, text or email their stories (both the form and the text bot are available in English, Spanish and Chinese). Terry Parris Jr., engagement editor for THE CITY, shared that 500 stories have been submitted so far through those platforms.
The coalition also put out a call for volunteers to help write these stories of New Yorkers. At press time, Parris said almost 100 people have reached out wanting to help.
The database can be searched by last name, age, borough and date of death. If an obituary is available, the database will link to it. Currently, it has 1,360 names (only about 4.5 percent of the total number of New York City residents lost to COVID-19, according to the MISSING THEM website). Parris explained that everything that ends up in the database goes through several layers of verification. For example, the coalition utilizes voting records, last known address or speaks directly with next of kin.
Looking ahead, the database will continue to be updated, and the coalition is currently expanding the languages on the submission form and text bot to include French Creole, Hindi and Urdu. Additionally, a newsletter is in the works, highlighting the stories that have come out of the project and the latest updates to the database. It will also serve as a place to provide useful information and tips about the pandemic.
Parris said people are spending on average about 30 seconds or more on the database than they are on many standalone stories, and many responses are coming in from readers who are thankful for an avenue to talk about their loved one.
Consequently, even in a crisis like this, class and race divides are prominent and making it difficult to remember loved ones. According to Parris, at the start of the pandemic in the U.S., less than 5 percent of the deaths had any sort of public remembrance, and of those, they skewed white, male and wealthier. With this memorialization project, Parris hopes this is a way for the media to remember their loved ones for a long time.