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Inside Criminal Justice

Special report

The Rise of the Crime Beat ‘News Nerds’

February 8, 2016 08:05:01 am

Data reporting has transformed criminal justice journalism. It’s also contributed to the emergence of an information-sharing ethos on a beat usually seen as hyper-competitive.

Photo by Medialab Katowice via Flickr

Criminal justice journalism is suddenly awash in data reporting. The crime beat—sometimes accused of being hidebound—is beginning to catch up with a profound quantitative turn in the news business.

Police, court and prison reporters are increasingly heeding the journalism-school trope to “follow the numbers.” Examples are abundant, from legacy newspapers to niche digital outlets to advocacy-minded hybrids.

The trend may not make visits to crime scenes and courtrooms obsolete, but data has become a foundational component of many of the most important stories coming off a beat where quotes and anecdotes have ruled for generations.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who built a career on his aptitude with numbers, suggests that a shift toward broad use of data in justice coverage may be related to the growing information wall between the media and police agencies. Journalists are being shut out as police craft their own “news” by going directly to the public on social media.

“Most reporters don’t have much contact with cops anymore,” Johnston told me. “They don’t know them by name. We don’t even go to police stations, and that means you don’t have the detectives or the patrol guys telling you stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise hear about.”

Some of the data investigations play off breaking news stories, such as the military surplus equipment buildup by police that became apparent during rioting in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Others are deep digs into evergreen crime subjects, such as race and policing.

Still others take a retrospective look at a crime issue, such as the Equal Justice Initiative’s exhaustive enumeration of lynching in America. And in a break from convention, many of the projects link to raw material under the open-source ethos of data journalism.

One recent example was the Buzzfeed analysis of the demographics of traffic stops in Port Arthur, Texas, including raw data shared via GitHub.com. Others include the Citizens Police Data Project, a database of allegations of misconduct against Chicago police; the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s OpenDataPolicingNC.com, a searchable database of North Carolina traffic stops; Texas Tribune data reporter Ryan Murphy’s ongoing Texas prison database project; The Marshall Project’sThe Next to Die,” an interactive schedule of executions, and the VERA Institute of Justice’s detailed look at local jail trends.

Getting Comfortable with Computer Science

Reporters and editors appear eager to learn the skill sets needed for such projects. Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) says it is seeing unprecedented demand for data training, including at its computer-assisted reporting conference in Denver in March. 

The trend is being driven by cheaper, more accessible data-sorting software and a growing cohort of journalists comfortable with computer science (and vice versa), as well as persistent frustration by reporters over immutable data-release paradigms in the justice world.

Many “official” crime-related statistics are parsed out at a glacial pace that can make them seem irrelevant even as they are released—“new” federal heroin-use statistics based on surveys three years ago, for example, or a January 2016 federal report on sexual victimization in juvenile correctional facilities from 2007 to 2012.

“The data situation in criminal justice is just terrible,” says Joe Germuska, director of Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, an incubator for journalism and computer science. “It also helps explain why we don’t understand the national picture of crime.”

“Without having good timely data, we are governing in the dark,” adds Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.

The shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson cop in August 2014 seems to have been a tipping point. Journalists unfamiliar with an anomalous hole in vital criminal justice data imagined it would be simple to quantify trends in police-involved shootings.

They were wrong.

As a Washington Post headline put it, “How Many Police Shootings a Year? No One Knows.”

That is because the federal government has pointedly failed to count the number of people killed and wounded by law enforcement personnel in the United States, even as it has carefully tabulated each and every officer shot.

For generations, police agencies have used statistics to spot deleterious trends and inform strategies to address them.

In 1971, New York City police officers shot and killed 93 people—one every four days—and wounded another 221. The next year, Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy drew attention to those statistics and ordered restraint in the use of deadly force. By 1974, New York police shootings had plummeted to 41 killed and 80 wounded.

That turnaround seemed to recommend a national imperative to quantify and analyze police-involved shootings. But it never happened—a result of unseen political wire-pulling by police unions, many suspect.

“How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn't being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public?” writes D. Brian Burghart, a Nevada journalist who created his own police-shooting database, “Fatal Encounters,” using a simple Google Alert.

“How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn't have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police?”

Police-involved shootings may now be the most closely observed statistic in criminal justice. In addition to Burghart, The Guardian US, Washington Post and others have initiated their own tallies. The FBI says it will begin its own count by 2017, with Director James Comey calling the missing data “embarrassing and ridiculous.”

Editor’s Note: The Guardian US story, ‘The Counted,’ was a runner-up in this year’s John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Prize for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting in the series category; and is a finalist, along with The Washington Post, for the 2016 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.

 Journalist Johnston scoffs at the time lapse in the FBI’s plan.

“If they wanted to do it, they could do it in a week,” he told me.

‘The FiveThirtyEight Effect’

Attention fell on the police-shooting information gap as an evolving news industry was moving toward more quantitative journalism, nudged along by what University of Minnesota media scholar Seth Lewis calls “the FiveThirtyEight effect.”

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com, founded in 2007 as a polling aggregation website, now features deep data digs in politics, economics, science and health, sports, and culture. The website sometimes delves into criminal justice, including a recent look at “conflicting, confusing and misleading crime statistics.”

But the subject gets more regular attention from news outlets like The Marshall Project, ProPublica and Reveal.

Gun and violence data is being tracked on an ongoing basis by a number of sources, including the Gun Violence Archive, journalist Thomas Hargrove’s Murder Accountability Project and an interactive map of gun violence by The Trace.

And policy-oriented advocacy groups such as Vera, the Prison Policy Initiative, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Sentencing Project are increasingly focused on original reports that include analysis of justice data—in part because staff members there, like journalists, are becoming more adept at computer science.

“Actually, it's less of a strategic shift for us than just a question of now having more resources for staff who have the skills to take on such projects,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.

By proactively tapping Big Data and local, state and federal sources, advocates and news organizations are taking a DIY tack that was not possible just 10 years ago.

Steve Weinberg, a longtime investigative journalist and former executive director of IRE, calls the accessibility of data “transformational” for the news business.

Until recently, Weinberg says, “Obtaining and sorting huge datasets couldn't have been completed in one lifetime.”

Many of the data-based news projects employ a suite of applications available through Amazon’s cloud computing platform, Amazon Web Services—applications with shorthand names like EC2, S3, RDS and Route 53 for such tasks as web hosting, storage, database setup and sophisticated graphic “visualizations.”

The software is new. But journalism’s elders have been organizing and analyzing data using green ledgers and tabular spreadsheets for decades. Weinberg cites the financial investigations of Donald Barlett, James Steele and Philip Meyer with Knight-Ridder, as well as the work of Elliott Jaspin, a Cox Newspapers investigative reporter.

David Cay Johnston credits the forerunning work of two former New York Times writers: data pioneer David Burnham, who founded the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, and the late David C. Anderson, who wielded statistics and a social science sensibility to write with nuance and common sense about guns, crime and imprisonment during the 1990s, when those traits were rare.

‘News Nerds’ and the Sharing Ethos

Knight Lab’s Germuska says data reporting attracts a particular type of journalist.

“There’s a certain kind of person interested in both human and technical issues,” he says, “and when they find a place that they can address both of those, it’s really exciting for them.”

Many come with an ethos far removed from the often hyper-competitive atmosphere of “Front Page”-style scoops.

“In the news nerd community, as we sometimes call ourselves, people are just thrilled to help someone else because they’ve got that help themselves,” Germuska says. “People say, ‘Journalists sharing and cooperating? That’s not how it works.’ But the journalism technology community is amazing.”

“The ethos is one of more openness,” adds Lewis. “Investigative journalists of yore analyzed their data and then wrote stories based on that, but they didn’t exactly put that data online—perhaps because it wasn’t available in a way that they could put it online.”

I asked Ben Poston, a mid-career journalist who often works with crime numbers as assistant data editor at the Los Angeles Times, to contrast the prevailing attitudes today with those of early in his professional life:

I remember working in the suburbs of Cincinnati as a cub reporter trying to compete with reporters from the Cincinnati Enquirer. They were tough. We would cover township trustee meetings and one reporter was so competitive she would take notes under the table or cover her notebook with her arm so I couldn't see what she was writing--even when we were covering the same public meetings.

I can also remember a few paranoid newspaper colleagues who would conduct phone interviews in hushed tones for fear that another reporter would pilfer their story idea…Not just the ‘news nerd community’ but the entire IRE/NICAR community very much embodies a pay-it-forward mentality.

…Over the years I've been able to call data journalists across the country who are much smarter than me and ask how they cracked a story or to explain their methodologies. They always take the call and are happy to help. I've tried to do the same.

According to the University of Minnesota’s Lewis, the spirit of cooperation has grown as news organizations have hired “technologically specific talent that brings not only a skill set but a different value set, as well”—including comfort and familiarity with the idea of open source.

“The opportunities are manifold,” Lewis says, “and I think it’s a process of helping students come to recognize the opportunities that exist at the interplay of journalism and computer and data science.”

David Cay Johnston says those who want to work in data journalism ought to first become familiar with old-fashioned news story-telling skills—including the quotes and anecdotes that have always been integral to the crime and court beats.

“A whole lot of folks have gotten religion about this,” Johnston says. ”I think that’s very good. But I read a fair number of these data stories that rely much too heavily on numbers. They don’t recognize the reality that most Americans, including college graduates, are innumerate, or minimally numerate.”

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek), a contributing editor for The Crime Report, writes frequently about crime and justice for Alternet, the New York Daily News, Salon and other places.

This story is an abridged version of a forthcoming case study to be presented at the February 25-26 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. The Crime Report gratefully acknowledges the support of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

 

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