2016 C+J Symposium: Computational methods promise journalistic advances, says New York Times data editor

By Chris Estrada

In a keynote speech at the Computation + Journalism Symposium at Stanford University on Friday, Sarah Cohen of The New York Times described how data science and investigative reporting have come together to allow journalists to spread truth to the public.

Cohen is the leader of The New York Times’ data journalism team, which serves to investigate and report on stories involving topics such as campaign finance, healthcare, and immigration. Cohen described the goal of her team’s investigative reporting as to “make something public of importance that somebody or something wants to keep secret.”

Cohen described data science using computational methods expert Drew Conway’s “Data Science Venn Diagram.” The diagram shows data science to be the intersection of hacking skills, math & statistics knowledge, and substantive expertise.

Cohen noted that journalists tend to fall within what Conway calls the “Danger Zone.” Journalists have just enough knowledge about how to use data, but also just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

This is not necessarily a bad thing for journalists.

For Cohen, data journalism is the next logical step in journalism and should be treated as a part of the field, rather than its own subset.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in data journalism came with the web-scraping, Cohen said later in an interview.

With the use of web scraping, journalists are able to pull the exact information they need from websites.

Another aspect of this journalism that needs to be improved upon is visualization tools, Cohen said. In her talk she showed examples of analyzing images of famous Chinese art to look for fake art auctioned multiple times.

Journalists can use the analysis of photographs and hand-written documents for investigative reporting. With upgrades in technology to turn documents into data that can be readily searched, investigative reporting will be able to take another step forward, Cohen said.

With the advancements in technology and improvements to the field of investigative journalism, Cohen hopes that investigative reporters are able to continue doing original research and “stay true to the mission” of journalism.

Sarah Cohen leads a data journalism team at The New York Times focused on long-term investigative reporting. Stories from the team include the Pulitzer Prize finalist for 2016, “Beware the Fine Print,” on the rights removed through the proliferation of arbitration clauses for everyday transactions. She served as the Knight Professor of the Practice at Duke University until 2012. There, she founded the Reporters’ Lab, which reviewed and developed tools for investigative and public affairs reporting.

Chris Estrada is a student reporter at Stanford University.

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