Vox fails on journo arrests, the LAT does a great investigation of police misreporting, and The Verge illuminates net neutrality commenters

The best and the worst of recent works of data journalism

It’s a little ridiculous to classify as data journalism a classic investigation like The Los Angeles Times’ piece from last week reporting that the Los Angeles Police Department misclassified 1,200 violent crimes over the course of a year. Data has long been used in good watchdog work like this, in which reporters Ben Poston and Joel Rubin obtained a year worth of crime data — officers’ reports for more than 94,000 crimes — and went through a three-step process: weeding out questionable cases through computer searches, consulting outside experts on those cases, and then asking the LAPD to audit a handful of the cases themselves. The story also goes over how the statistics were initially compiled. But with so many sites increasing focus on “data journalism,” the Times story is a prime reminder of how such analyses can play a key role in helping journalists play watchdog. By exposing flaws and showing skepticism in the police statistics, the story may cause police reforms, like making the data collection process less prone to mistakes. Poston and Rubin definitely get a LAUREL for this one.

Shortly after The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly were arrested Wednesday night while covering protests in Ferguson, MO, Vox posted a piece that claimed to explain the significance of what happened using data:

Over the past few months, Washington Post reporters, hundreds of whom work across the globe, have been arrested in exactly two cities: Tehran, Iran, and Ferguson, Missouri, United States of America. That should tell you something about the ongoing crisis in Ferguson.

Actually, it doesn’t say anything significant other than that police did these things to Post journalists in these two cities. The Vox author seems to be banking on the reader having preconceived notions of life in Tehran rather than explaining what qualities it shares with the St. Louis suburb. (Is he comparing the government type, police force size, ethnic makeup, or something else? That’s never made clear.) Both locations have had severe press freedom issues, for sure, but the reporting and evidence is sorely lacking in the Vox piece to tie the cities with this piece of data. If journalists want to compare cities where reporters — not just those from the Post — are arrested around the world, simply adding up where these events occurred isn’t enough. They need to be set in a relevant context for the number-based approach to matter. (We’ll see this in our next example.) Other than clickbait, we don’t see any reason for the Vox story to exist. Vox gets a DART.

A better data-based take on the events in Ferguson was an interactive feature posted by The Washington Post comparing the racial breakdowns of 755 cities with that of its police forces. The discrepancy was considered a factor in the protests that took place after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. It’s hard to draw conclusions from this graphic, but it does help magnify the issue of police diversity beyond Ferguson. For that, it deserves a LAUREL, though we wish there was a way to search the feature by city.

Another data set that got the mapping treatment from various news outlets were the 1.1 million comments about net neutrality submitted to the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering giving internet service providers control over how it transmits varying content. The most impressive of these data viz efforts comes from The Verge, which created a population-adjusted heatmap across all American ZIP codes. The map is also accompanied by a breakdown of the 10 cities with the most comments per resident. Though the piece could have explained why these ZIP codes are different from one another, it offers a compelling opportunity to see how big of a priority this particular topic is across the whole country. The Verge gets a LAUREL.

The Upshot at The New York Times explained that car theft has plummeted in the United States because new anti-theft technology acts as a deterrent, while old cars aren’t worth the effort. The story is accompanied by graphs and data proving these points both at the national level and in New York City. The story gets a LAUREL for comprehensively and clearly explaining why and how things changed. It also leaves us wanting a good data-based analysis about theft of another piece of technology: the smartphone.

The Guardian UK and The Washington Post were among the outlets to explore data surrounding mental health since the suicide of comedian Robin Williams earlier this week. (The Post explored the challenges of getting help for mental health, while the Guardian explored the mental health of those in England and Wales.) We admire news outlets taking a look at this issue, but the data approach here seems superficial. We won’t assign any darts or laurels to news organizations for trying explain the topic through numbers so shortly after a major news event. But we hope that mental health will remain a compelling news topic long after Williams’ death and continue to be explored through data and other means.

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Tanveer Ali is a Chicago-based journalist who is DNAinfo.com Chicago's data reporter and social media producer. He has reported for the Chicago News Cooperative, WBEZ, and GOOD Magazine, among others. A former staff writer at the Detroit News, he received a master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism.