united states project

J-school students build skills to cover data-driven political campaigns

New York Times' Derek Willis offers guidance to student journalists in West Virginia
November 4, 2014

As political campaigns become more and more data-driven and analytically sophisticated, driven by computing power, proprietary data, and deep pockets, there’s reason to wonder whether reporters can keep up.

That’s especially true in smaller markets around the country, where newsrooms have less money, less manpower, and in some cases, less experience with data. “A lot of local newspapers and television stations aren’t really covering the race in a very granular way,” said Alison Bass, who teaches at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media.* “So a lot of voters are getting their information essentially from propaganda—from radio ads or television spots. They’re not getting the facts.”

Bass is part of a project that has tried to change that this campaign season—and, just as importantly, to start teaching the next generation of journalists how to bring a data-driven approach to election reporting. 

The effort has brought Bass and her colleague Bob Britten together with Derek Willis, a journalist and developer who is part of The Upshot team at The New York Times. The idea is to teach students in Bass’ investigative reporting class and Britten’s data visualization class to use public data to inform coverage of the US Senate race between Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Natalie Tennant. The students have worked in teams, each focused on one of five West Virginia counties, to comb through voter registration files and campaign finance data in search of leads. 

The best pieces the students produce—like a story about how the rise of independent voters is coming at the expense of the Democrats, and another about how the majority of Capito’s campaign money has come in large donations, often from out-of-state—get published on a class blog. The work is interesting, if not revelatory about cutting-age campaign practices. And, according to Bass, the students are finding stories that aren’t being reported elsewhere. On Sunday, four of the student articles were picked up by The Journal, a paper based in Martinsburg, WV. 

Willis, who originally developed the idea for the collaboration with WVU College of Media Dean Maryanne Reed, has visited campus periodically and corresponds with students online about their work and story ideas.* “Ideally,” he says, he would have used the student’s findings to inform his own writing. But with today’s election shaping up to be a landslide for Capito, he admits that “there hasn’t been all that much to write about.”

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In closely contested campaigns, though, collaborations like this one could help to close the gap between campaigns and professional journalists, at least to some extent. Relative to the thousands of employees and volunteers who work for political campaigns, the 26 (mostly undergraduate) students in Bass and Britten’s classes are a tiny group. But compared to many local and even national news organizations, they’re a small army.

“Any news organization could get into this kind of partnership,” says Britten—though he also warns professional journalists that “some students are brand new to the subject,” and that “there will be some students who at the end are still struggling.” 

For his part, Willis considers the project a success because students have developed skills and experience with key campaign resources, like the state voter file.

“Every campaign data person I’ve talked to says that it begins and ends with the voter file,” he says. Since these are almost always publicly accessible, he sees no excuse for journalists not to inspect them and try to see the electorate from the perspective of the candidate. And since they typically cost money, having journalism schools purchase the voter file for students to explore every election cycle “would be an improvement,” he says.

It’s part of a vital, bigger project: teaching young political journalists to interpret data.

“As an industry, we have to be able to understand what campaigns are doing,” Willis says. “And I’m not sure how else we’re going to do that.”

* Corrections: This article originally misstated the name of West Virginia University. In addition, the article misspelled the name of Maryanne Reed.

Christopher Massie is a CJR contributing editor.