Agnel Philip

Entry type: Portfolio

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: ProPublica, NBC News, Outlier Media

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

Last year was my third as a data reporter at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news outlet in the U.S. In my time here, I’ve contributed to our organization’s rapid expansion into local journalism. I’ve assisted partnerships with news organizations throughout the country through our Local Reporting and worked on stories with our relatively new local offices in the Southwest, Midwest and South regions of the country. Prior to this role, I was a data reporter on the investigative team at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Arizona for a year and a half. I’m proud of our organization’s mission to improve the quality of local investigative reporting, which has been decimated in recent decades as newspapers have declined.

I view data reporting as an integral part of authoritative journalism, and at its core, it isn’t that different from traditional reporting. Many stories start with questions that are inherently quantitative. My job, and the job of all data specialists, is to determine whether the data exists to answer that question and how to get as close to the truth as possible. To do this, I interview data, scrutinizing it for what it shows and identifying its weaknesses and contradictions.

In my career, I have strived to become equally proficient in data analysis and traditional reporting. Last year, for example, my analysis of child welfare data led me to West Virginia, where termination of parental rights happens more often and more quickly than anywhere else. I then reported in the field, interviewing characters that were used in the stories.

Data journalism is also inherently collaborative, and I enjoy working with others to make projects better. I help host periodic data “office hours” to provide assistance to other reporters on staff. I have taught data journalism classes at conferences and in workshops with journalism organizations.

I’ve only worked as a professional journalist for five years, but I have gained a lot of experience in that time. I’m grateful for my colleagues at ProPublica who provide a constant source of inspiration and encouragement for the work I do. In particular, my editors Hannah Fresques and Ryann Grochowski Jones have been incredibly supportive of my desire to branch out of the traditional data reporter role.

Description of portfolio:

In many ways, my portfolio for 2022 represents a culmination of the five years I’ve worked as a data journalist professionally. It showcases a wide array of skills in nearly every aspect of data journalism, from analysis to visualization to on-the-ground reporting. My work last year uncovered troubling disparities in the child welfare system and predatory behavior by an energy utility in Michigan. And the work had measurable impact, leading to changes in leadership at child welfare agencies and investigations by legislators.

I’m most proud of the work I did on ProPublica and NBC News’s child welfare series, which covered the ineffectiveness of mandatory reporting laws, the pervasiveness of child welfare investigations in Black communities and the speed at which parents lose the right to parent their children. I led data analysis efforts for this investigation, which went beyond the prevailing narratives about state agencies either doing too much or too little to keep children safe. Instead, we revealed a system that deprives people of their rights in ways that neither protect children nor their families.

Our analysis relied on data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect for their National Child Abuse Data System (NCANDS) and Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). The NCANDS data required a research proposal documenting how we would keep the information secure and approval from an institutional review board. The databases are both incredibly large (millions of entries per year) and messy, so over the course of a year, we developed a careful methodology for analyzing them, requiring multiple large queries — written and executed in R — to pull relevant information from different parts of each database to create as accurate a list of children and cases as possible. We also shared our methodology and analysis results with multiple experts familiar with both sets of data as well as the data archive itself who confirmed the validity of our methods.

I was the lead reporter for our story on termination of parental rights, finding that parents in West Virginia often lost their rights in a matter of months. As part of this, I found the people affected by this practice and interviewed them, and I was the lead writer on the story.

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