By: Lindsey Clinkingbeard
“What is data journalism?”
This was the first question which Sarah Cohen asked the audience during her lecture at the Walter Cronkite School for the curated “Must See Monday” event on October 23, 2017. The event, moderated by News21 Executive Director Jacquee Petchel, focused on explaining the depths of data journalism and how it plays a crucial role in the work that journalists do every day.
Cohen opened with the fact that one third of the immigrants who were deported were not held under criminal charges here in the states. Exploring these data elements lead Cohen to learn more about the data of immigration and how that played a crucial role when reporting on the topic.
Cohen describes the hardships in dealing with public officials or other high-ranking sources that you need to work with in the data journalism world.
“The refusal of public officials who don’t want to work with us is increasing,” Cohen said.
These officials are no longer cooperating with journalists. Instead, Cohen describes how you need to dig and go out on our own reporting. Search for data, find stories. There are so many factors to what you are researching that exploring the data within various angles could lead you to a story.
“I still have a request out, from over a year and a half ago, where a Governor just decided he didn’t want to work with us,” Cohen said.
Describing her determination, Cohen said [her and her colleagues] would camp out for days on end going through official documents.
“We went to the courthouse, brought cookies, and told them we would take as long as it takes to get what we needed,” Cohen said.
This kind of self-reporting, as Cohen references, is where the journalism kicks in. Is the data useful? Can you use it? Or is it not worth it? Sometimes it’s not. Cohen says these are questions each journalist should be asking themselves when diving into this project.
“You can get certain info from the government, but you still have to report what you’re finding,” Petchel says.
“I think the lesson is that… everything always has to be checked. That’s the role of journalism,” Petchel said.
When describing situations where her team would win lawsuits, Cohen says that “sometimes we would win the records, and we still wouldn’t get them.”
Cohen said she was an economist for the federal government for 10 years before she got into journalism. She describes how she was working in a statistical program with companies, where she would try to determine if these companies were lying with their information.
It got more computer and data-driven. She found that data journalism was close to what she was looking for in her life.
“I got lucky that I found editors in my school who were interested in the knowledgeable content rather than the fact that I don’t necessarily have a background in journalism,” Cohen said.
Cohen describes that accepting a project doesn’t pan out is something that journalists will face at some point.
“Usually, if you plan to get one document, have a few backups. Sometimes the records don’t pan out, or the source fails. And in that case, you have to call it… even after a year or so of investment,” Cohen said.
Cohen also warned about authenticity when exploring your research.
“It’s a lot easier to fabricate a document than it is to fabricate data,” Cohen says.