Saturday, October 1, 2022

Ole Miss Alum Tackles COVID-19 Coverage in Texas

By Carson Priest, UM Student

During the past year,  COVID-19 has killed more than 2 million people worldwide, cost the economy trillions and shut down many countries. 

Nations such as Austria, Netherlands and Hungary have lost thousands of lives because of the virus. Yet the state of Texas – with 5 million fewer residents than the population of these three countries combined – has experienced 4,000 more COVID deaths.  

Ole Miss Journalism graduate Steve Riley stays on top of information like this and has used his to influence as Executive Editor of the Houston Chronicle to focus his paper’s COVID coverage in Texas.

“Steve is a really good editor because he is a really good reporter,” said Ron Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and another Ole Miss alum. “He’s tenacious. He doesn’t accept answers that don’t make sense.” 

The intense reporting by the Houston Chronicle during the pandemic has led to “The Outbreak in Texas,” daily coverage of all COVID-19 related statistics in the state. The pandemic has “overwhelmed else else” that the publication has been working on this past year, Riley says.   

Riley’s leadership in coverage of the pandemic is just one of the many projects he has led, and which has seen his newspaper being named a Pulitzer Prize semi-finalists multiple times. 

“Prognosis: Profits” and “Abuse of Faith” are two of the more prominent series. The latter uncovered more than one hundred pedophiles within the Southern Baptist Church through investigations in 254 counties, hundreds of churches, and many pastors and volunteers within the organization. 

Riley originally wanted the series to be entitled “Men of Conviction” because all the sexual predators found guilty during the investigation were men. 

A more positive project is “Dexter the Dog,” an in-depth look at the use of therapy dogs in hospitals to help patients emotionally recover. 

Riley’s excitement for journalism started when he was in high school in Mississippi. 

“I thought about Steve and his obsession with Watergate when he was in the ninth or tenth grade,” said Mike Tapscott who attended high school with Riley in the town of Nettleton and is now an attorney in Tupelo.  “I should have known he would become an investigative reporter.” 

When Watergate broke in 1972 it reiterated the power of the pen to seek truth and justice. The reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein nearly 50 years ago inspired Riley to become a journalist and led him to enroll at the University of Mississippi.  He was a sportswriter for The Daily Mississippian, typing stories on an IBM typewriter.

The technology has changed, but the passion to do good reporting has not.  

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