Country/area: United States
Organisation: Insider Inc.
Organisation size: Big
Data journalism wasn’t a lifelong passion of mine, but rather, an interest that revealed itself as I became cognizant of the ways in which numbers and striking graphics were used in stories I enjoyed.
As a 2019 graduate of Columbia Journalism School’s Data M.S. cohort, I am early in my career as a data journalist. I have learned magnitudes in the past two years — from writing my first line of code in mid-2018 to publishing my first data-driven story in the New York Times the following year — both as a student and subsequently, as a reporter at Business Insider, and I’m eager for what the future brings.
My path to data reporting has been atypical but understandable. I studied Art History and Studio Art as an undergraduate at Northwestern University, where I blogged for Northwestern Art Review, writing stories about my experience living and working with a leftist art collective and the visual ephemera surrounding Occupy Wall Street. My undergraduate experience bolstered my interest in analyzing source material and communicating well-researched ideas in ways that lay audiences can understand.
Prior to journalism school, I worked for more than five years as a copywriter and creative at BuzzFeed, Gawker, and Gizmodo. My proximity to journalists furthered my interest in reporting and deepened my desire to contribute more meaningfully to society through my work.
I’m grateful to have attended journalism school on a full scholarship, and I hope my experience shows other aspiring reporters that entering this industry is possible without a linear background, and potentially without taking on too large of a financial burden.
I owe great credit to my graduate school professors, who supported and entertained even my most frivolous ideas, from analyzing seawater sample data to determine which popular New York City beaches were host to the most fecal bacteria, to using public data to test the theory of whether Hurricane Sandy led to stronger and better-adapted rats living along the Eastern seaboard. (It didn’t, although rat populations have experienced logistic growth.)
My editors at Insider have also served as my mentors, guiding each of my projects and helping me widen my reporting range. In my year on the Investigations team, I have expanded my skill set by virtue of working on a wide variety of projects — writing more efficient code and thinking more resourcefully about how to use publicly available data — all with an ethos of solving mysteries and furthering novel reporting techniques.
I hope my candidacy for the Sigma Award shows what work is possible for a budding data reporter working on a lean and new team, as well as the breadth of data skills that reporters can pick up in a relatively short amount of time.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Description of portfolio:
My portfolio reflects the work I have produced as an early-career investigative data journalist at Insider. Being the lone data reporter on my team requires a nimble mindset, helping other reporters with data relevant to their stories, as well as executing my own projects without the support of an established data desk. My portfolio demonstrates this make-do spirit, incorporating a wide range of tools, from scraping to flight mapping. It also illustrates the collaborative nature of data journalism, as each piece is the result of a group effort between myself and my colleagues to tell data-driven stories with an impact.
The databases for Jeffrey Epstein’s address book and flight logs, both of which were difficult or impossible to search within, provided an unprecedented insight into the people and places in Epstein’s orbit, and laid a solid groundwork for future investigations. For example, Reuters, Politifact, and The Daily Beast have all relied upon these databases to fact-check and expand their own reporting.
The QAnon investigation supplied entirely novel evidence for the real identity of “Q,” the conspiracy theory’s anonymous figurehead. This investigation inspired a Swiss research firm, previously known for identifying the pseudonymous writer Elena Ferrante, to conduct their own analysis of Q’s writing. Their results found further evidence that Q’s messages were likely written by more than one person.
The greatest challenge behind my work is operating alone as a budding data journalist. It means I’m frequently teaching myself new skills and referring to the work of other data journalists for inspiration and ideas to build upon. I check every step of my work and rely strongly on my editors for their feedback on my methodologies. While this can be a difficult environment to operate in, it helps me articulate my processes and present my data more clearly.
Equally challenging are the projects that require elbow grease and manual labor, as well as dispelling the magical thinking that technology can solve any problem quickly. This was especially pertinent to the Jeffrey Epstein databases, which were largely compiled from scanned records that no OCR methods could parse well. Epstein’s flights database was predicated on handwritten flight manifests kept by Epstein’s pilot, made public via court records, as well as incomplete ADS-B signals associated with his private jets. For these databases, I relied primarily on manual transcription and analysis (determining incomplete flight paths by altitude and timestamp, guided by QGIS). Ultimately, human judgment is necessary to make sense of data.
My hope is that other journalists will feel more confident in using data to strengthen and expand their reporting, even without a technical background. Any journalist can compile databases from information they obtain in the course of reporting, including publicly available records. My portfolio has sparked an interest in database reporting within our newsroom, and I hope our work extends this interest to other reporters.
My portfolio also shows how much information can be gleaned from publicly available data sources, from social media posting times to aviation signals. These sources of data don’t require a technical background to review at a basic level, but paired with basic programming skills, they can reveal a lot about an entity’s behavior over time. I hope that this inspires other journalists to explore these methods.