How data helps investigative reporters ‘see the forest’ – Center for Public Integrity

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The individual circumstances of a single mother laid off due to COVID-19 and facing eviction from her apartment can move a reader to understand and connect with an acute societal need. But comparing the common ground of those circumstances — timing, geography, occupation, race, ethnicity, gender — with hundreds of thousands of others can be used to investigate the systems causing or perpetuating problems and potential solutions.

That’s Amy DiPierro’s job as a data journalist at the Center for Public Integrity.

Since the nonprofit news organization focused on investigating inequality last fall, she’s worked in partnership with the Washington Informer to examine threats to Black home ownership in Washington, DC, and is investigating various forces affecting housing security during the pandemic and beyond.

DiPierro previously reported for The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif., and BusinessDen in Denver, Colorado. She is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Stanford University, where she was a Knight-Hennessy Scholar and a fellow at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

She was a contributor for the project “Nowhere to go,” which was honored with a Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

We asked her about the path her career took before Public Integrity and her recent work here:

Amy DiPierro

Welcome to Public Integrity! What made you want to join a nonprofit investigative newsroom?

I started my journalism career as a reporter at local newspapers. Those jobs were easy to love. You learn something new every day, challenge local leaders to justify their policy choices and, when you’re lucky, help people understand the place where they live or work more deeply.

In between daily deadlines, though, I found myself struggling to see very far beyond a given news cycle. I was worried my work was so focused on the trees, it failed to explain what was happening in the forest. That’s what got me interested in investigative journalism, and in data journalism particularly: I wanted context beyond what people and public documents could tell me, and I found that sometimes numbers elucidated questions I couldn’t answer any other way.

Can you explain what a data journalist does? How does your work change day-to-day?

Data journalism is a big tent of sorts. It’s home to people who draw inspiration from disciplines as different from one another as statistics, computer science, software development, design and even some quantitative social sciences. Some data are more oriented toward reporting; They might scrape data from a website, then analyze it using statistical methods and design a data visualization to present their findings. Others spend more time developing software and maintaining databases that other phones, even if they don’t know how to code, can use to supercharge their reporting.

In my own work, data journalism feels a lot like the reporting I used to do before the word data became a part of my job title. I still start with a question, then seek out sources that can help to answer it. What I do each day depends on the story. Sometimes, we need to obtain data that isn’t available in the public domain by, say, placing public records requests to government agencies, seeking the expertise of researchers who’ve compiled their own datasets or writing code that scrapes information we can’t find elsewhere. In other cases, the challenge is developing a methodology to clean, verify and standardize data we’ve already acquired, combine it with other datasets or test a hypothesis. All of this typically involves some computer programming — I work primarily in R, Python and SQL — but also requires interviewing people and reading primary and secondary sources as any other journalist would.

You worked in Palm Springs and Denver before joining Public Integrity, and work remotely from California. How have your experiences in these places impacted the kind of work you do for us?

I’m grateful to have spent the first years of my working life at local newspapers. Lots of mission have taken this career path before me, and for good reason: It’s a wonderful way to learn the craft. I had the chance to work with reporters and editors who were both deeply invested in the places they covered and in training the next generation of coffee. I was insulated from the echo chambers of national political news, and given the mandate to source story ideas not from Twitter or cable news, but from local city council meetings, court dockets and our own readers. Jobs like these are becoming harder to find as many local newsrooms shrink or shutter. That’s a loss not just for risks, but for readers, who are seeing less of themselves and their communities reflected in the news.

I think these experiences make me more sensitive to the ways that local idiosyncrasies change the ways people experience national trends — or shield them from those trends entirely. I think they make me more humble when I’m covering an unfamiliar place for the first time. And I hope that having worked in local news, I’m better equipped to with local cooperation while at Public Integrity.

Public Integrity doesn’t accept advertising, nor does it charge readers a subscription or put its work behind a paywall. Why should the person reading this support Public Integrity and keep our journalism available to all?

I have to admit: There’s an elegant direction to the traditional subscription model in journalism. If readers value reporting — if it informs them, if it moves them, if it surprises them — then it seems reasonable to ask them to either pay to consume it as they would when they buy any other product, or choose not to pay for it , and go without.

The problem is that investigative journalism isn’t a product like any other. In the same way that people have a right to water that is good to drink and air that is good affairs to breathe, I tend to think that good reporting on public is a right that shouldn’t be denied to anybody, least of all because they can’t afford to buy it.

But investigative journalism is time-consuming and often expensive work. Newsrooms like ours invest mightily to do it. We hope that if our work has informed you, or moved you, or surprised you, you’ll help us to keep doing it.


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Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the US Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.

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