The Marshall Project

Entry type: Portfolio

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: The Marshall Project, but with many partners on the various projects

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

We’re proud to submit a selection of the work created by data journalists at The Marshall Project: Weihua Li, Andrew Rodriguez Calderón, Ilica Mahajan, Anna Flagg, Anastasia Valeeva, Susie Cagle, Liset Cruz, and Cid Standifer.

We have a few rules on the data team that help guide our work, and you’ll see that spirit in the projects submitted for your consideration.

* Most stories should not have solo bylines. We work as a team.

* Robustly defensible findings are generally preferable to fragile superlatives (e.g. “the worst in the country”), even if they aren’t as splashy.

* We work in public and show the full context. In a world of misinformation, this is part of how we build the audience’s trust. And most of the data that we work to liberate belonged to the public in the first place.

A great example of our team’s approach can be found in the story “Paroled People Can Vote in Colorado. Why Did Forms Say They Couldn’t?” and its comic-style followup, “Out on Parole in Colorado? You Can Vote.”

The project builds on Sigma-winning work produced by The Marshall Project in 2021 looking at registration rates for formerly incarcerated people in several key states. Working off a tip sparked by that earlier reporting, we learned that Colorado was distributing outdated forms with incorrect information about the voting rights of people on parole. We wrote a story about a man who was affected by the problem along with his crusading mother then we remixed the content into an informative comic.

The initial story had impact before it was even published when the state finally corrected the forms and informed us a few days before publication, a simple but meaningful change that affects thousands of people.

It was highly collaborative. There’s four bylines on the story and six bylines on the comic, reflecting a broad mix of data and visual reporting skills. The piece was co-edited by our partner, digital news startup The Colorado Sun. The Sun’s Sandra Fish also made data contributions.

We weren’t particularly worried about how Colorado ranks. Compared to the few other states we have looked at, Colorado’s registration rate was relatively high. But what does “high” mean when over 70% of the eligible population hasn’t registered to vote?

The project also took full advantage of the reporting material to create compelling visuals. The incorrect information was stored in world-accessible PDFs on public websites. So we just screenshotted the incorrect information and included it as visual evidence in the stories.

After the story was published the state has contacted us to discuss using the comic as part of their efforts to educate people when they are freed from incarceration. And reporters Alex Arriaga and Andrew Rodriguez Calderón were interviewed by incarcerated radio hosts in the country’s only statewide prison radio program to discuss their voting rights if they are paroled. “This is what makes The Marshall Project so impactful, because it’s for people on parole in Colorado,” said one of the hosts.

Every project in our portfolio has a story like this: A notebook where we shared data and methods or a clever visual remix, or some way of finding impact and engagement beyond the article.

Description of portfolio:

It’s a bit reductive to break this down by each person since many of these projects involve overlapping collaborators, but it also reveals our team’s unique skills and approach.

Weihua Li brought attention to a developing crisis in national crime data by writing a national story and partnering with Axios Local to investigate the data locally months before the issue came to a head when the FBI published national crime stats. She has written national stories, built look-up tools that automatically surface local conditions for the visitor, and driven dozens of local stories around the country based on her savvy data work.

Andrew Rodriguez Calderón dealt with a mind-bending reporting challenge in Texas by analyzing how data used to justify Operation Lone Star changed between requests as well as the challenge of managing data and graphics for a three-newsroom partnership. Later, his code and analysis powered a major on-going project about books banned in prisons that launched in December.

Ilica Mahajan built a strong portfolio of traditional investigative storytelling with Wesley Lowery, Rachel Dissell, and others by looking at the repeat defendants who make up the bulk of people in Cleveland’s felony courts along with a spatial analysis of who is voting for judges. She also conceived and built a data-powered engagement product that answers the community’s questions about the courts and a special graphic explainer of the demographics of repeat defendants.

Anna Flagg doggedly fought for years to acquire data on child immigrant detentions for her story with Julia Preston about the border detention crisis. Once she obtained it, she found that detention records contradicted public statements about the treatment of children. Then she created compelling maps and charts using the data. Finally, she illustrated the story herself, painting watercolors to represent situations that could not be photographed.

Anastasia Valeeva, an international fellow in the Alfred Friendly Press Partners program who spent her year unpacking American Rescue Plan Act funding spent on criminal justice (also localized by Axios), as well as developing an analysis that shows that mass shootings are increasing in the US. In the latter half of 2022, her work had some of the greatest reach of any Marshall Project reporter.

Susie Cagle, an illustrator, reporter, and editor who joined us on contract, worked closely with Valeeva to unpack and explain ARPA, and continues to investigate the program. Her work exemplifies how data and visuals can intersect in interesting ways. In addition to conceiving and editing several ARPA pieces, she illustrated points taken from different databases we obtained in reporting on the subject.

Cid Standifer, a reporter with a background in data with The Marshall Project’s expansion in Cleveland, OH, contributed crucial analysis and open methodology to an investigation of racially biased traffic stops in a wealthy Cleveland suburb. Her meticulous handling of incredibly dodgy data gave the piece the strong evidentiary spine it needed.

Liset Cruz was our Dow Jones News Fellow; she continues to contribute research and reporting to the data team as a freelancer.

Project links: