Short Takes: How data uncovered great stories

Joe Ward and Maura Healy

Short Takes is an occasional series that captures interesting work by Missouri School of Journalism students.

Who said there would be math? In a field that can attract mathematically challenged individuals, data has become an essential tool for journalists. During the 2019 spring semester, student producers behind Gray Television’s OTT show “Post” showcased 20 pieces of journalism, most of which would not be possible without data. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at two:

Episode 8: Investigative Documentaries

To capture the rising popularity of documentaries, episode 8 focused in part on the second season of a documentary podcast titled “In the Dark”from APM Reports. The episode received an honorable mention in the 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Philip Meyer Award for using data analysis to answer a question of racial disparity.

The season focuses on the case of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the death of four people by gun inside a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi. The data analysis answered the question, “Are African Americans struck from juries more often than whites?” For the show, the podcast’s data reporter, Will Craft, spoke live on Skype about his process. Craft described the relevance of the question asked, his method, struggles and what he found. The interview gave great insight on how to tackle large quantities of data effectively.

Craft first got the idea to look at this data after learning that one of Curtis Flowers’ cases was thrown out due to racial bias in jury selection. “As a data reporter, I immediately want to know, where else is that happening? How often is that happening?” Craft said. To find out more information on the prosecutor’s racial bias, he went through 26 years of jury selection data. This took the team months to receive all records needed. “We had to go courthouse to courthouse through these large, handwritten docket books.” Craft said. Although, the data collected had some answers, they still had to go a step further to prove their point.

Craft said his initial analysis found evidence prosecutor Doug Evans was striking African Americans from juries “at four and a half times the rate he struck white jurors.” Although it was compelling evidence, he knew there would be more to it because removing black jurors is only unconstitutional if the reason was race. Craft tested this by quantifying the potential jurors’ responses to Evans’ questions. Thus, Craft proved Evans would select a white juror more often than a black juror.

Episode 11: Immigration

The articles included for the immigration show, which is scheduled for release Thursday, June 27, were as diverse as the populations they covered. Without data, most of these stories would have had a harder time being found, reported and published.

The first article, Buzzfeed’s “The New American Slavery,” focuses on foreign workers who come to America to take jobs that employers have trouble filling. Reporters Jessica Garrison, Ken Bensinger and Jeremy Singer-Vine used data published by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. They also submitted several data requests from the Department of Labor to learn about how the agency monitors the system. This gave them a breakdown of the numbers of H-2B visa holders per state and overall. From there, they traveled around the country and could focus their efforts on finding sources who were willing to and could legally talk to them.

NBC Bay Area’s article, “Immigration: Crisis in the Courts,” used Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC Immigration data compiled by Syracuse University, which helped reporter Stephen Stock become “very aware of the large impact of these backlogs.” NBC Bay Area has used TRAC data for several successful immigration stories. Stock argued that the tools we use for good journalism are there; you must have the tenacity and patience to find it.

CNN’s John Sutter used data to tell him where to go to report for his article “One suspected driver of the migrant ‘caravan’: climate change.” Sutter regularly uses maps that track problems like drought throughout the world. He also analyzed data that was shared with him by a University of Texas professor who had stumbled upon border patrol data that recorded information about “families apprehended at the US-Mexico border.”

Lastly, Anna Flagg’s article “The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant” published by The Marshall Project relies the heaviest on data. She looked at research that compared immigration populations to crime rates in 200 metropolitan areas across the U.S. led by State University of New York at Buffalo sociologist Robert Adelman. When asked what she thought of as data’s scariest traits, Flagg said, “I think that people have the idea that data is somehow more objective… that’s a pretty dangerous misconception because you can really cherry-pick what data you want to refer to or how you want to measure it.” Like the other reporters we talked to, Flagg noted that the best approach to data is your own unadulterated look at data as a whole without the opinions and claims made by politicians, officials or your Aunt Sally after a couple glasses of wine.

Data should be approached as any source would be: with an open mind. Instead of looking for your own hypothesis to be verified, it’s best that you let the data inform your hypothesis and follow up with human sources who can give you a boots-on-the-ground take on your findings.

Ward is a convergence journalism student with an emphasis in television
producing and a minor in business management. He attended the study
abroad program in Florence, Italy.

Maura Healy is a convergence journalism student with an emphasis in multimedia producing. They took classes from sociology to theater to political science, taught English to Thai grade school students and traveled through Asia. Follow them on Instagram @averageamericanasian.

Ward and Healy worked with classmates Antoinette Miller and Jake Cookson to produce these and other episodes of Post on InvestigateTV.

If your news organization could benefit from having a group of talented students work on a new product, service or other innovation, contact RJI Associate Director Mike McKean to explore the options.

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