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How the Washington Post Is Telling the Stories of the Local Lives Behind Covid-19 Stats

"We realized we had to explain to people what the sacrifice was about," says Local editor Mike Semel

Photograph by Evy Mages
Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

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Leroy Tonic Sr., a 96-year-old Navy World War II veteran, died five days before his 64-year-old son, Leroy Tonic Jr. Both lived in area nursing homes. Alyce Gullattee was Howard University’s oldest faculty member and trained thousands of physicians before she died April 30 at the age of 91. Decades before Bishop James N. Flowers Jr. founded Shining Star Freewill Baptist Church in Seat Pleasant, he was a popular DC nightclub singer, and Glen Campbell covered one of his songs.

They’re just some of the names and stories behind the overwhelming statistics many of us have grown inured to seeing every day–people who’ve died from causes related to the coronavirus pandemic. All share their hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, with the rest of the nation and world, which, in normal times, means that locals who might not have been famous would be fortunate to end up with a short writeup in the Post obituary section’s “Of Note” section, a feature that was very important to former owner Don Graham and that the Post continues today. But during the pandemic, says Local editor Mike Semel, “We realized we had to explain to people what the sacrifice was about, and the sacrifice was about these people losing their lives.”

The resulting initiative is called “Those we have lost,” and it’s built by Post reporters who work to put names and biographies behind daily bursts of figures about people who’ve died. Maybe you heard about DC’s oldest victim being a 105-year-old woman, for instance. Her name was Edna Adams, reporter Marissa J. Lang found, and her 80-year-old nephew was trying to honor her request to be buried in the same plot as the husband she lost more than four decades earlier.

Almost everyone in the Local section is expected to pitch in on these stories, Semel says. (“Lynh [Bui] and Maria [Glod] will be reaching out to most everyone with a profile to do,” he told staffers in a memo Wednesday.) “I think people get it,” he says. Post reporters and editors “understand the whole country is making sacrifices and it’s touched them in some way.” Sometimes the pandemic has touched them personally: Bill Jackman, who died last month at 85, was the stadium voice of Navy football for decades and an avid sports fan who nonetheless insisted his family race out of sporting events early enough to beat the traffic. His son Tom Jackman, a criminal justice reporter for the Post, told reporter Paul Duggan that he now does the same thing with his kids.

And then there’s Yu Lihua, an influential and prolific Chinese American writer. She overcame long odds to carve out her notable career and later insisted her American children learn Chinese, which served her daughter, Lena H. Sun, well when she ran the Post‘s Beijing bureau. In recent months, Sun has helped to lead the Post‘s coverage of the pandemic.

Semel says the Post has striven to be as “diverse and complete as we can be” while writing the stories of these Washingtonians. (A similar and occasionally overlapping effort by the National staff casts a wider net, geographically, but appears to follow the same philosophy.) He says the Local staff is backlogged but committed to tell as many stories of local deaths as it can. “Every life matters,” Semel says. “Some are obviously more compelling, but they all matter to somebody, which is why we’re doing this. Hopefully, we’ll get to everybody.”

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.