This column is focused on research that can help workaday journalists do the difficult job of reporting the news, and no such column could be complete without a nod to the humanitarian crisis dominating coverage in recent weeks, namely the ongoing detention of families at the border and the crisis of parents separated from children, including infants.
As the Trump administration’s abuses of immigrants at the border accelerate, journalists are scrambling to find new ways to report on areas with strictly limited press access, including new “austere” internment camps scheduled for construction on disused military bases in Alabama, Texas, and Georgia.
A few reporters have rapidly risen to the occasion, and some of them from unexpected places: Columbia University’s own Alex Gil and Manan Ahmed, a librarian and a historian, respectively, alongside a team of distinguished scholars, developed a fascinating map overlay project called Torn Apart using a wide variety of open-source data, much of it from the government itself. The map shows where all the publicly known ICE detention centers are in the US, among many other details about immigrant internment. Reporters on deadline are likely to find the project’s factoids useful; reporters on longer leashes would do well to follow the team’s citations back to the source data for further possible angles on the government’s mistreatment of immigrant families. For example, the authors point to a data release by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of a huge tranche of data about their own detention centers. An excellent Wired write-up documents the way the researchers coordinated the highly technical labor of conceiving and building the website.
Journalists seeking further tools for reporting on ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CPB) can also check public solicitations for contracts at FBO.gov, public listings for jobs at USAjobs.gov, and rundowns of government spending at USAspending.gov. FBO shows what government agencies are seeking to procure; USA jobs shows listings for detention center guards, among others, and a quick search on USAspending shows every private organization that has accepted a contract with ICE in the last two months. At least one newsroom has a head start on that project: Civil’s new all-lobbying-investigations publication Sludge.
There is also the LinkedIn dump listing every ICE employee who identified themselves on the employment-centric social network. The list was taken off GitHub and Medium and the account tweeting it out, sardonically titled @iceHRgov, was suspended almost immediately. The ICE dump contained only public information, but caused considerable backlash for using data from LinkedIn—which is embroiled in ongoing litigation about third-party data use. In any case, the list of ICE employees was then picked up and hosted at WikiLeaks. The AI that collected the information was the work of another academic and fellow at the Brown Institute at Columbia Journalism School, Sam Lavigne. Lavigne’s GitHub repository is well worth looking at for a number of art projects that flirt with data journalism, among them a tool that automatically scrapes Yelp for reviews of prisons… and then faxes the reviews to the prisons themselves.
And there are new research tools that can help reporters, including those who aren’t on the ICE beat: ThreatConnect, a security firm with a reputation for tracking secret activity by governments and criminals, has a new open-source intelligence (OSINT) dashboard, likely of use to journalists. The company offers free trial accounts, though it asks for a business email, so freelancers may have more trouble getting access than staffers. A lot of the data on offer is highly technical, but it’s a good place to look for raw information that could turn into a story.
Finally, a word of warning: Gmail has been allowing third-party developers to read its users’ email, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. Gmail, which is easily the most popular email service in the world, has so far avoided the breaches and bad PR that plagued older, slower competitors like Yahoo and AOL. It’s also extremely popular among newsrooms. The Guardian uses it; so does The New York Times. The danger for journalists is that Gmail is not as secure as it purports to be. Upstart encrypted email provider ProtonMail, used by many security and tech reporters, has been taking shots at Gmail in recent days even as it advertises its own resistance to cyberattacks, one of which went on for nearly a week recently. The crypto-conscious company’s most recent flogging of Google isn’t all invective, either; there’s some good analysis of what Protonmail characterizes as Gmail’s fundamental need to invade its users’ privacy to turn a profit.
This article has been updated to better reflect the nature of the work that produced the Torn Apart project.Sam Thielman is the former Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and Variety, among others.