Beyond Spotlight: 6 more data journalism projects that influenced policy

spotlight data journalism

Brian d’Arcy James plays data journalist Matt Carroll in the movie Spotlight

Spotlight won an Oscar for its portrayal of the Boston Globe’s investigation into institutional silence over child abuse, including some old school data journalism by Matt Carroll. But it’s far from the only example of data journalism shaping policy: Anna Noble asked members of the NICAR-L computer assisted reporting forum for five of their own examples (first published here).

Data journalism has been affecting policy for at least 27 years

Steve Doig, professor of journalism at Arizona State University, notes that data journalism and computer assisted reporting have always affected policy:

“There’s a long tradition of data journalism making an impact on policy, going back at least as far as 1989’s “Color of Money” on mortgage red-lining in Atlanta by the AJC.”

You can read the full collection of articles that uncovered the racial discrimination in who banks decided to give loans to here.

Much like the Spotlight investigation into the Catholic clergy it was an investigation that started local but snowballed into a much bigger story, with a big impact on banking reforms across the US.

Another one Doig mentions is the “What went wrong” investigation he worked on in 1992 at the Miami Herald. The study showed how poor construction practices contributed to the large amounts of damage caused when Hurricane Andrew hit.

Methadone and the Politics of Pain

Cheryl Phillips shared the Seattle Times investigation into prescription methadone: Methadone and the Politics of Pain by Mike Berens and Ken Armstrong.

The investigation prompted changes to state policy the day after the project ran and the investigation into court secrecy caused the courts to begin following state law in sealing documents.

The opening lines are a reminder of just how easy it is for journalists now to make interactive graphics with tools like CartoDB. I wouldn’t even think to explain the data process in this way, in an article.

“Assign a dot to each person who has died in Washington by accidentally overdosing on methadone, a commonly prescribed drug used to treat chronic pain. Since 2003, there are 2,173 of these dots. That alone is striking, a graphic illustration of an ongoing epidemic.

“But it’s the clusters that pop out — the concentration of dots in places with lower incomes.”

State Integrity

Maggie Mulvihill highlighted the State Integrity Project, which has been running for the past 4 years and has improved the state records kept in a number of states.

Screenshot from State Integrity project

On Expenses: a very British journalism movie

In 2009 the Telegraph newspaper dominated the news agenda for six weeks as it drip-fed revelations from a leaked memory stick of MPs’ expenses claims.

The story of the FOI battle that helped get those claims into the public domain was made into a TV movie by BBC 4.

If Spotlight is how the US tells the story of its journalism heroes, On Expenses probably says something about how the British tell stories very differently.

As well as the conviction and imprisonment of some politicians for fraud, and the resignation of others, it also led to the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority as part of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. The body now sets and pays MPs’ wages, and publishes data on expense claims.

Oregon: the minimum wage and methadone

Hack Oregon screenshots

I wrote about Hack Oregon’s data project Raise Effect last month:

“Using maps, interactive scroll bars, charts and tables, the Hack Oregon team presents data on how giving minimum wage workers a raise would affect low income households.

Oregon Legislature passed a law introducing a 3 tier rise in the minimum wage on February 18th.

But Hilary Burrod, a reporter working in Oregon, raises questions about the journalistic nature of the Hack Oregon Raise Effect project.

“The person listed as their “content advisor” also happens to be executive director of a foundation that was advocating for a minimum wage hike during this legislative session.”

As more non-media organisations begin to produce data journalism projects, it raises interesting questions about how we define and distinguish data journalism and campaigning journalism.

Burrod also suggested checking out The Oregonian’s 2004 series on the interplay between government policies and methamphetamine use (a warning here: 2004 was the era of shovelware and you may find the cut-and-paste-from-print formatting enough to put you off reading the full piece).

And that Boston data journalism…

The Spotlight movie has brought the Boston Globe’s data journalism to a global audience. But just how did it change policy? Adrian Walker from the Boston Globe lists just some of the ways:

“The Legislature quickly passed a long-pending law to make church officials mandatory reporters of sexual abuse. The church sold property to pay victims compensation for the abuse they had suffered…

“The archdiocese adopted a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward abuse and trained church officials to recognize, and report, abuse.”

It’s a humbling list to read – but also, hopefully, an inspiring one…

If you have other examples of inspiring data journalism, please add them in the comments or send them on Twitter @ajmnoble


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