First Data: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sarah Cohen talks data journalism

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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sarah Cohen gave a seminar on data journalism on Feb. 19 at the Rafik B. Hariri Institute.

Cohen joined the staff of The New York Times in 2012 after teaching at Duke University. Prior to her tenure at Duke, she spent a decade writing for The Washington Post, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for disclosing the failures of the District of Columbia’s child protective systems. Cohen gave a seminar on data mining and computer-assisted techniques of investigative journalism. The event was part of the Hariri Institute’s “Wednesdays @Hariri” guest speaker series.

Cohen’s talk focused on the use of statistics and data in journalism throughout its history. She also talked about the differences between fact-based stories and opinion and analysis pieces. One main difference Cohen noted is that traditional reporters look for tips and examples to solidify their pieces and provide ample analysis, but overlook hard facts. She also notes the disparities in tone and focus for different types of articles.

“[In data journalism], analysis is not mission-critical,” Cohen said.

Cohen also discussed how the advent of technology contributed to the field’s evolution. Inventions like the Xerox machine, for example, made primary documents much more accessible and thus reporters were able to take advantage of a wider range of information.

“Reporters no longer had to steal documents to get information,” Cohen said. “[Investigative reporting] became more of a profession and less of a trade.”

Cohen gave several notable examples of data journalism, including a story that utilized satellite photos of Japan before and after the 2011 earthquake. Another example she gave was a story that used statistical techniques to find trends in viral infections in hospitals. She used these examples to illustrate how data journalism has affected news culture as a whole.

“10 years ago, the idea of news organizations working together was unheard of,” Cohen said. “Now, the idea of total competition is fading.”

Cohen says she got involved with data journalism out of necessity in order to get the material she needed for a story. She feels that this gave her an advantage and encourages aspiring journalists to pursue knowledge in the field in order to bolster their career prospects.

“Ultimately it leads to more job offers if you have a data coding or mining background,” Cohen said. “Those skills make journalists more marketable.”

For more information on Cohen, check out her work in The New York Times and follow her on Twitter, @sarahcnyt. 

Jonah Eatman

Jonah Eatman

Jonah Eatman is a freshman in CGS. He enjoys long walks on the beach, sweater weather and séances. He is excited to be writing for The Quad and hopes to excite others with his wit and suave charm.

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