The Wall Street Journal–Four investigations

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Wall Street Journal

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

To the Judges:

The Wall Street Journal exposed how federal judges broke the law, how elite universities prey upon poor and middle class borrowers, how hospitals have inequitable disparities in their  procedure prices and how TikTok, the world’s fastest growing social network, sends young users deep into rabbit holes of content that feature sex, extreme dieting and drugs. 

Together these projects demonstrate an impressive breadth of data-driven reporting in 2021 that held accountable powerful companies, non-profits and public officials.

Among our findings:

–TikTok served minors thousands of videos pushing paid pornography, glorifying extreme weight loss, promoting sales of drug paraphernalia, and highlighting depression and self-harm. The app takes note of subtle cues to zero in on what users want to watch. We showed how over time, the videos become less mainstream, less vetted by moderators and more disturbing. Even though some TikTok creators labeled videos as for adults only, the app served them to kids anyway. 

–The federal government’s Grad Plus and Parent Plus, the fastest growing sector of U.S. student loans, has created a money machine that allows families to meet otherwise unaffordable costs at elite universities. Our investigation drew on new data released by the Education Department that for the first time exposed how much graduate students and parents of students from individual programs borrowed and whether they paid it back. We showed how both the federal government and wealthy schools put financial benefit and political expediency ahead of poor and middle-class students.  

–Not only are there wide disparities among what people pay for hospital procedures, but hospitals often charge the uninsured–who may be the least able to afford care–the highest prices. Moreover, our investigation found that hundreds of hospitals hid their data, defying a new law that required greater pricing transparency. They hid this information so well that only a sophisticated data analysis by the Journal’s reporters uncovered the fact that many had embedded special coding on their sites that masked the data from web searches. 

–More than 130 federal judges broke U.S. law by hearing more than 950 cases in which they held a financial interest in one of the litigants, according to our analysis of stockholdings of roughly 700 federal judges. Two-thirds of the rulings by judges who owned stock in a litigant came down in favor of their or their family’s financial interest when motions were contested.

These projects had immediate and powerful impact:

–Either Tiktok or the creators removed more than 1,700 videos from the app after the Journal first flagged them to the company. In December, TikTok said it would retool its recommendation algorithm to stop showing users too much of the same content. The company said that it was testing ways to avoid pushing too many videos from a certain topic, such as extreme dieting, to individual users to protect their mental well-being.

–One elite school that we profiled, the University of Southern California, said it would try to unwind its contract with a for-profit company that was leaving its master’s degree students with high debt loads and low salary options. 

–More than 100 hospitals swiftly rectified their websites and made the pricing data findable after being called out by our reporting.

–Citing the Journal’s coverage, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts pledged to improve the federal judiciary’s ethics training and compliance. So far, 777 cases have been upended by notices telling parties they could seek to have them reheard by a new judge.  The reporting also led directly to bipartisan federal legislation to curb judicial abuses.

The Journal is proud to nominate this portfolio for a Sigma Award.

Description of portfolio:

Some background on the Journal’s projects:

On Tiktok: The technology that powers social media is secret, valuable and powerful. To pierce that shield, the Journal created dozens of automated accounts, or bots, to understand how the app works. The result was the most detailed view ever into the way that TikTok draws in users and keeps them scrolling. The Journal’s Rob Barry and John West created the bots using dozens of cloud-based devices and eight minicomputers. The bots, which made decisions based on machine-learning techniques, watched hundreds of thousands of videos on TikTok over months. Reporters also created an internal tool for searching and tagging those collected videos. Throughout, TikTok regularly removed the Journal’s bots from the platform, challenging reporters to find creative ways to get them back online: changing the bots’ IP addresses, phone numbers and email accounts, among other things to avoid detection. 

On Judges: The Journal used never-before compiled data provided by the Free Law Project, a nonpartisan legal-research nonprofit, which requested financial-disclosure forms for all federal judges from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The Free Law Project also gathered disclosures from additional sources to create a searchable database, believed to be the most complete archive of judicial stockholdings. The reporters then scrutinized tens of thousands of civil cases overseen by those judges to find financial conflicts. To do this, the Journal’s Coulter Jones merged financial disclosure data with court docket data from the Free Law Project for district judges and from legal-research firm Westlaw for appellate judges.

On Elite Colleges: Reporter Andrea Fuller sought the release of data on Parent Plus repayment rates for individual colleges a decade ago. The Education Department denied her request for the information because it didn’t bother to calculate the figures, effectively keeping the public in the dark. Therefore, federal officials didn’t have a handle on many details regarding the $1.6 trillion student loan portfolio. That began to change in late 2019, when the Education Department first published some salary data for the graduates of individual programs. It released the largest trove yet in January 2021, including data on what graduate degree recipients earned two years out of school, what their early-career loan repayment rates looked like, and how good of a job parents of students at different colleges did at paying back their debts. Armed, finally, with this complex data set with thousands of columns, Andrea’s analysis revealed with undeniable specificity which programs left graduates with debt loads far beyond what they could pay back.

On Hospital Prices: What people are charged at hospitals has been a closely guarded secret, the product of proprietary negotiations between hospitals and payers. Hospitals were required to make their prices public this year under new federal rules meant to encourage competition that could lower costs. The Journal’s Tom McGinty reviewed hospital pricing disclosures collected by Turquoise Health Co., a startup that has been gathering the data from hospital websites since the regulations went into effect. To analyze how cash prices compared with the rates that hospitals charged to commercial insurers and Medicare Advantage plans, the Journal calculated the percentile of where each negotiated rate or cash price fell within the range of prices for each service at each hospital, using the ecdf function in the statistical program R. But comparing the prices was no simple shopping trip. Hospitals published prices that were incomplete, calculated inconsistently, or filed in arcane formats. Many hospitals didn’t bother to comply at all. Nonetheless, the Journal’s analysis included 15,581 examples of the rates hospitals charged for the services, pulling back the veil of secrecy. 

Project links: