Journalism and COVID-19: The toll of the pandemic

This statement was originally published on and last updated on 15 December 2020.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, news publishers were deemed “essential” businesses, underlining the vital role that journalists play in our society. Indeed, journalism is perhaps never more important than at a time of intersecting challenges for the United States with the health crisis and associated economic spiral, a divisive political election and its aftermath, and a period of protest and reckoning with systemic racism. And yet, when people most need factual information to counter the deluge of mis- and disinformation, the pandemic has had a damaging impact on journalism in the United States. The pandemic has presented unique opportunities for political forces, following President Donald Trump’s lead, to inhibit and delegitimize the practices of a free press. Even as the demands for news gathering have grown, newsrooms are facing unprecedented economic challenges, forcing some to shutter and others to face cutbacks in staff and other resources. And, alongside others in their communities, journalists have succumbed to the virus.

This has led PEN America to the question: What is the toll of the coronavirus on journalism in the United States? While we will never know the full impact, this project – which examines the first 10 months of the pandemic from March to December 2020 – is a start. Our hope is that it helps us begin to understand how COVID-19 has affected one of the most important institutions making up the fabric of our democracy – and brings attention to why journalism needs to be supported now more than ever.

Are we missing anything? Let us know! Reach out to Sandy Mui, the creator of the project and PEN America’s digital communications assistant, at [email protected]. For all press inquiries, please contact Stephen Fee, senior director of communications and marketing, at [email protected].


The coronavirus has afflicted so many in the United States and led to more than 300,000 deaths. Journalists and other media professionals, like their neighbors in communities across the country, are included in that count. With their passing, they leave lasting legacies at newsrooms and memories treasured by friends, family, and colleagues. Here, we pay tribute to the media personnel whose lives were tragically cut short by the virus through remembrances and some of their most memorable work. Please note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive; a more comprehensive list of media professionals who have passed during the pandemic can be found on Poynter.

Read more about the persons highlighted in the In Memoriam section


The pandemic has devastated a news media industry already struggling with lost advertising revenue, changing business models, new information consumption patterns, and a range of other challenges. This crisis, especially affecting local news in cities, towns, and rural regions, is documented in PEN America’s report Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions. Remedies, including a call for greater federal support for local news, are a topic for important ongoing debate. In this section, we focus on five states with among the most negatively affected newsrooms – determined by furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts, reduced hours, shifts to solely online coverage, suspension of print, temporary or permanent closures, reduced print schedules, and mergers. This doesn’t take into account other things that have happened to newsrooms – shifting to fully remote operations, for instance – but focuses on the changes newsrooms made that have affected their coverage and the access to news in the communities they cover. For a more comprehensive, individual case-by-case look at cost-cutting measures that newsrooms across the U.S. have enacted, visit the resources from Poynter and Nieman Lab linked at the bottom of this page.

Please click on each link for further information on each state:







Early in the pandemic, we voiced concern about what cancellations of in-person briefings and events would mean for first-hand reporting. Since then, from state government officials to the White House, we’ve seen the implications of the pandemic on press freedom through attacks and harassment of reporters, censorship of divergent opinions, denigration of the role of the press, restrictions on information, and risks to safety. This section focuses on incidents of free press threats directly related to the coronavirus outbreak, and therefore excludes incidents that occurred during, for example, anti-racism protests.

Please click on each link for further information on each section:







This project was created by Sandy Mui, PEN America’s digital communications assistant, as her independent study project for the certificate program in interactive technology and pedagogy at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). Ximena Gallardo C. served as advisor in her role at The Graduate Center.

Special thanks to PEN America staff members: Elena Barbosa, who designed all graphics; and Nora Benavidez, Stephen Fee, Summer Lopez, Dru Menaker, Viktorya Vilk, and Katie Zanecchia, who all served as consultants.


From PEN America

External Sources

We are grateful to the many research and nonprofit organizations that collected data and information that were central to this project. These resources include:

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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