From the editor: In pandemic, we must report who is dying and why

Gary Miles
The Detroit News

As I turned into my driveway late Friday evening, what I thought was a deer flashed through my headlights. I veered toward it, turned on my brights, and saw my neighbor lurch sharply away with his dog.

I rolled down my window to apologize.

In the next few moments, he revealed that he was just starting to venture outside again after 40 days quarantined at home. His was among Wayne County’s earliest diagnoses of COVID-19, and it hit him incredibly hard.

He, of course, was lucky — and I, surprised.

For all that we cover the coronavirus pandemic, it’s still possible to think of it as a distant threat.

That is a luxury, however, that many do not have.

As The News first reported, the African American population in Michigan has been extraordinarily hard hit by the coronavirus. Presently, 33% of those who have contracted the virus and 40% of those who have died in Michigan are black, a race that accounts for just 14% of the state’s population.

For pointing this out, some have accused The News of race-baiting, of assigning racist attributes to a lifeless virus and promoting a liberal left-wing agenda of racial politics.

Although that cacophony is easily set aside, it’s not so wise to dismiss.

The front page of the Detroit News on Friday, April 3, 2020

"It is critically important that these issues be front and center," said Jon Zelner, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan. "If we don't draw attention to them, there is little chance they will be addressed in both the short- and long-term." 

It has long been the mission of journalists to sound alarms. The leaders of our predecessor, The Detroit Tribune, played key roles in bringing together anti-slavery factions in 1854 (the Tribune was absorbed into The News in 1915), in what became the Republican party. 

The News takes its role as a “troubler of the public conscience” seriously. Those words remain inscribed atop our former building in downtown Detroit. Bringing attention to society’s problems is a vital role that helps to get them discussed, studied, understood — and, just maybe, fixed.

Some fixes are not necessarily clear. Or easy. 

In Michigan, for example, it’s easy to believe that our level of racial segregation is normal. It is, in fact, extreme.

In a 2002 series called “The Cost of Segregation,” The News reported that the racial separation in Metro Detroit was the nation’s most severe and potentially consequential. The series outlined the health and wealth disparities between the white and black populations of our region — disparities that persist and have costs for everyone. 

In 2018, we used data from the National Center for Health Statistics, collected by our partners at the Associated Press, to examine the strikingly different life expectancies in Michigan neighborhoods. Of the 10 neighborhoods with the lowest life expectancy in Michigan, six are in Detroit, where a child can expect to live only to age 62 — 16 years less than the state average.

Detroit remains, by far, the blackest big city in the nation and it has the highest percentage of its population below the poverty line. And that comes with inherent health disadvantages, some as a result of personal choices and some not. 

As the coronavirus descended, we pointed out that Detroit had a particular vulnerability to the most severe cases of disease, because of high percentages of poverty and related health complications.

Then the stats started coming in. Michigan was among the first to provide racial breakdowns and they were startling. And not just in Detroit. In predominantly white Oakland County, 43% of known cases are in African Americans (racial breakdown in almost half of cases remains unreported). In overwhelmingly white Washtenaw County, nearly half of the reported COVID-19 hospitalizations are blacks, although that population represents just 1 in 10 residents. 

"There is essentially no doubt that African Americans are the hardest-hit population in Michigan right now," Zelner said. "We will better understand the magnitude and consequences of this disparity in the coming months and years, but I think that the argument that we cannot assert this as a fact at this point is really just a way of saying that we don't want it to be true or don't want to deal with it. The evidence is overwhelming."

It is clear elsewhere, too. In Louisiana, 59% of COVID-19 deaths are African Americans. In Illinois, 45%.

If a neighbor having the disease was a surprise to me, imagine the distress of those who have multiple family members, friends and acquaintances who have died.

Journalists have a responsibility to report these facts and to prod the search for understanding, even if answers remain in short supply.

To many, the initial suggestion that blacks face a disproportionate impact because of the density of urban living is an overly simplistic explanation.

Other questions also come to mind, including questions on cultural habits, mistrust of government, the racial breakdown of workers in different parts of the workforce, including those considered critical. Anyone inclined to think that African Americans disproportionately violate social distancing orders need only look to Wednesday's protest at the state Capitol to be disavowed of that notion.

These questions may just be a start.

"Shining more of a light on how segregation, mass incarceration, the shredding of the social safety net, and other forms of overt and covert racism led to this tragic outcome is important," said Zelner, who suspects that the relationship between Michigan's biggest city and its wealthier suburbs also may play a contributing role. "These things are not independent, and have deep roots in both social norms and federal, state and local policies."

Truly understanding the disproportionate impact will mean sorting through these and undoubtedly countless other questions.

Although it’s hard to see through the election-year haze, we can hope that the pandemic will allow us to set aside the petty partisan mindset of the moment and focus on the more substantial issues that trouble our nation.

Or at least this one: Who is dying and why?

Gary Miles is the editor and publisher of The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 222-2594 or