Fatal courts

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Deseret News

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 17/09/2019

Credit: Gilllian Friedman, Saul Marquez

Project description:

The four-month investigation into how family courts put children at risk by Gillian Friedman, with further data analysis by Saul Marquez, exploring how family courts fail to protect children, leading to abuse and even homicide. The Center for Judicial Excellence shared data files with the Deseret News — helpful, but since the data came from an advocacy group, it had to be vetted for accuracy and to assess for bias. In-house data team member Saul and reporter Gillian carefully  fact checked each data point. The data was also verified using other references, including death records, obituaries and news stories. 


Impact reached:

It’s really too soon to say how much impact the project will have as state legislatures are just beginning to do their work and that informs policy. But we heard from dozens of people who read the story and then shared their own experiences with famiy court, some good and some bad. It’s clear the story raised some awareness of a very serious issue. The story was also widely shared on social media. The Deseret News also received hundreds of messages from parents around the world that said the article was the first time tehy ever saw a news story that reflected their experience with family court.

Techniques/technologies used:

The data was provided to us in an Excel spreadsheet that was incomplete, sometimes inaccurage and contained a lot of misspelled names, which made it hard to verify the deaths, though we eventually did — and corrected errors. It took two weeks to do that, using news stories and court documents. To populate the map, we integrated in a program called Datawrapper. We also had to manually stack the data on the map to avoid too uch overlap that could make it unreadable.


What was the hardest part of this project?

The amount of time spent going through each name, looking for news sources to back them up and then placing each child individually on the map was very tedious, which made it difficult. But the hardest thing was probably the emotional toll of reading the stories of all those children. Said said he googled just about every name and found news stories about nearly every death and reading the details hundreds and hundreds of times was a sad experience. “I’m grateful to have done it, though. I feel more aware and I’ve thought about those children a lot since,” he said.

What can others learn from this project?

Not all data-driven projects are going to be high tech and use super computer power. Some, like this one, are going to rely on shoe leather and a degree of tedious old school tracking along with the ability to use some helpful tech programs. But the stories are important to tell and challenging, which is great.


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