Q&A with Sarah Cohen
A noted journalist left Duke this summer to return to her trade. Sarah Cohen, former Knight professor of the practice of journalism and public policy, moved to the computer-assisted reporting team at the New York Times in July. She won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a series on deaths in Washington, D.C.’s child welfare system. The Chronicle’s Julian Spector spoke with Cohen in June about her approach to investigative reporting, the prospects for newspapers and advice for aspiring journalists.
The Chronicle: You specialize in computer-assisted data analysis for investigative journalism. What does that involve?
Sarah Cohen: A lot of work I’ve done is figuring out how to measure the unmeasurable. For instance, if we want to figure out how much money is going to drought payments where there is no drought, a lot of it is working with very large public records databases to tease out the information by overlaying the data on maps. Since no one had done it before, there was no roadmap.
It’s based more on counting up public records than sampling techniques or [other statistical techniques]. Most every story I’ve done involved figuring out how to count something. We were working with administrative records that encompassed everything.
The work I do in news is finding instances of when systems have gone wrong using electronic records but not statistic analysis. They both rely on pressing buttons on the computer, but that’s the only thing they have in common. Several newspapers have used regression analysis to find cases where improvements in school test scores were so much better than predicted. When they look at outliers, they often find cheating on tests. Sometimes they use statistical methods to tease that stuff out. Other people do that better than I do—I’m not that good at it.
TC: How did you get started on your Pulitzer-winning story?
SC: That story came out of a beat reporter’s work on one horrific case—Briana Blackmund, who had been killed by a caretaker. At one point her sources started asking her a chilling question. “What about all the others?”
That was a process of triangulating heavily censored records across different systems and trying to account for every child that died that had been reported to the Child Fatality Committee. We got heavily censored, redacted records from the Child Fatality Committee. It took a year to put it all together, reading and coding these forms for 300 to 400 kids.
TC: Why did it take a year?
SC: A lot of it was negotiating for the records. It wasn’t the only thing I did for the year. We were fighting for the records in any form and figuring out the identities of the kids. Once we thought we knew a kid’s identity, then we could find the relatives, but each one took a lot of time to go out and verify.
The government officials weren’t so happy. Sometimes the relatives were grateful someone was paying attention. Sometimes they may have been at fault. We never named a parent if they had not been charged with a crime. We were not in a position to say what they did was wrong. That was an editorial decision.
It was a four day series that started Sept. 9, 2001. One of the best things about the Pulitzer [awarded in 2002] is it gave the story a second life. Changes started happening and people paid attention again.
TC: When you get documents from government officials, are they digitized?
SC: You would think, but not so much. In fact I’m doing some work for various new organizations this summer and I’ve spent the last few days trying to extract data from these 500 PDF reports because the agency refuses to give us the underlying data. When they want to be transparent, it makes it much easier.
TC: Are you optimistic about the fate of newspaper journalism?
SC: Apparently one of the editors of the New York Times said they’ve started to see some revenue form the paywall, that it’s starting to work for them. But it wouldn’t work for very many people. At the Washington Post, they’ve lost 600 journalists in the last five years or so—a third to half of the newsroom is gone. It’s a much smaller animal than it used to be. On the other hand, some of the people they’ve been hiring over the last year are some of the best in the business. High profile people.
What jobs do we need, what don’t we need? It may be that the mix is off. You need fewer layout if you’re not putting out as many print editions. You may not need the same mix of beat reporters and feature writers.
TC: What did you learn while teaching here at Duke?
SC: The teaching part is really fun. I’m not that worried about the students picking up specific skills or even very specific knowledge—it’s more helping people think about how to attack problems and think through something that’s unstructured. When people think about critical thinking, I guess that’s what they’re talking about. A lot of my teaching at Duke was project based, picking a problem and going at it. It was really hard for people, but in a newsroom that’s what you’re doing every day.
TC: What advice do you have for someone contemplating a career in journalism?
SC: At the entry level it’s fine and at the top level it’s fine. It’s that vast middle level where the problem lies. I worry for people coming in entry level—how are they going to get to the high level if the middle is gone. By the middle, I mean long-term feature or beat reporters at mid-sized newspapers, like the Tampa Bay Tribune or the St. Petersburg Times. They were never as overstaffed as the big places so their cutbacks hurt a lot more.
The one thing that is very clear is it is extremely difficult to get an entry level job. It’s totally skills-based. If you don’t have multimedia skills, it’s very hard to get an entry level job. Interactive graphics. Audio visual. The first thing they ask about is multimedia skills. By narrowly putting yourself in print or broadcast, you’ll have fewer options. Get those skills at least at a level that you’re comfortable carrying a camera around or recorder. People are looking for good reporters, less so for feature writers than hard news at least in the circles I travel in. The easiest place to get a job is business news. And they have a lot of money. If it helps people in their jobs, they’ll pay a lot of money for it, for good, accurate and fast business news.