2022 Shortlist

Weihua Li

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Marshall Project

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

To the Judges: 

This part of your application must explain why you think you should be considered for this award. Tell us about your career path, number of years in the field, inspiration, ideas and mentors. If you are submitting the portfolio of an organization, tell us the same information about the organization. 

Weihua Li’s data reporting investigates the criminal justice system, challenges mainstream myths about crime and punishment, and empowers community members to use data to hold the powerful accountable.

Li’s journalism journey started when her college professor sent their class to cover the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. For someone born and raised in China, the idea that she could just set foot in a federal courtroom and report on one of the most high profile cases was unimaginable – and addictive.

Li graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science. She joined the inaugural data journalism program at Columbia Journalism School, where she studied under respected journalists like Giannina Segnini and Mark Hansen.  Her masters’ thesis focused on the school-to-prison pipeline in the New York public school system, where her analysis and reporting on the school disciplinary data showed children with disabilities — especially those who came from poor families — are far more likely to be disciplined because the school staff cannot accommodate their emotional needs.

Since joining The Marshall Project three years ago, she has used data to help our readers to make sense of the criminal justice system. The work has always been meaningful, but the combination of the unfolding crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and the surging homicide rate have made her criminal data analysis more important than ever.

Over the past year Li analyzed how the surge in homicide disproportionately affects communities of color, debunked the myth about police officers leaving the profession in droves, led a deep dive into the striking disparities in how many Black girls are hurt by the police, and built an interactive database that shows where people are incarcerated across the country, which empowered many local reporters to investigate their own communities. In myriad ways, Li’s data storytelling has deepened our understanding of criminal justice trends. 

For providing nuanced data-storytelling that is accessible to communities grappling with questions around what safety means to them, and for helping individuals who have experienced injustice place their experiences within broader contexts, I am proud to nominate Weihua Li for the Sigma Portfolio Award. 

David Eads
Senior Data Editor

Description of portfolio:

Weihua Li’s 2021 portfolio—in some cases as lead data reporter in larger projects, in others creating her own stories—shows a rare level of breadth and creativity. Her personal projects were impactful and forward-thinking: Her investigation with Ilica Mahajan comparing a common law enforcement narrative to what labor statistics show about police employment was one of the most well-read pieces on The Marshall Project website with more than 100,000 unique visitors. The story, co-published by Time Magazine, led to coverage by NPR, NBC, and more, and was widely cited and debated. It was also our best-performing stor on social media in 2021. Her fresh take on evidence of an uptick in anti-Asian harassment was translated into Chinese in local New York City publications and elicited a statement from Andrew Yang, then a candidate for mayor. Even a straightforward story about decennial census incarceration was accompanied by a data release that has led to at least three more local stories in other outlets. Li also acted as lead data reporter on several of The Marshall Project’s signature investigations in 2021. Her work was a foundational element of these stories. She brought sophisticated geographic analysis to show the scale of shootings by police in rural communities. As a complement to a larger project, she developed an original data product and data release to show whether your state takes federal benefits intended for foster children. Both the story and data are driving reform. Michigan banned the state from pocketing federal benefits owed kids in foster care, while lawmakers in Nebraska, Montana, and Texas are taking a critical look at the practice in their jurisdictions. Our data also is being used by reporters to examine what is going on in their states. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, used findings from our investigation to examine their city’s record—and found that Philadelphia had pocketed $5 million meant for local kids in foster care. Li requested, scraped, and joined data from several states that served as the spine of a series of stories about life without parole. For example, the data showed that nearly a quarter of people serving life without parole in the United States are imprisoned in Florida—13,600 people. One reason is a two-strikes law which requires maximum punishment for people who commit a felony within three years of leaving prison, even for burglary or other nonviolent crimes. Finally, she cleaned, normalized, and analyzed data from five police departments to investigate the use of force on children. One of the big challenges with this data were many issues with quality that created serious limitations. She not only had to wrangle and report the data, but manage expectations and find creative editorial approaches to the many things the data did not show. As her editor, I also want to point out that she accomplished all this as a new mother during a pandemic. These are challenging times, and she met those challenges with great skill and good cheer. More than anything, Li’s work asks deep and critical questions: What is justice and how do we measure it? What are the harms caused by the system? Are the stories we hear about crime and criminal justice true? How can we deepen a polarized and politicized discourse with evidence? The great 19th century physician Rudolf Virchow once wrote, “medical statistics will be our standard of measurement: we will weigh life for life and see where the dead lie thicker, among the workers or among the privileged.” Every day, Weihua applies that philosophy to the U.S. criminal justice system and her work in 2021 shows how skillfully she is able

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