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Data journalism ace Todd Wallack shares pro tips from ‘Spotlight’ days

Data journalism ace Todd Wallack shares pro tips from ‘Spotlight’ days

Picture of Ryan White
(Photo by Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

Death is often held up as one of the last bastions of egalitarianism in a world otherwise riven by privilege. We all die in the end, no matter our station.

But such commonplaces leave out the essential questions of when and how we die — before the pandemic, during and after. It was those fundamental questions that drove Todd Wallack and his colleagues on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team through a painstaking two-year data-driven investigation of more than 1 million Massachusetts death certificates dating back to 1999. On top of that, the team surveyed hundreds of families who lost loved ones, conducted public opinion polls, and posed as family members trying to find a nursing home for an elderly mother on Medicaid. They found brutal inequities at every stop in their reporting journey, which started before the pandemic and then pivoted to include it.

“Here, in a progressive state that boasts some of the world’s greatest hospitals, poor people live shorter lives, much shorter, than those with money,” the Globe’s Mark Arsenault wrote in the lead story. “Black and Latino patients get less hospice care, die with more pain, and suffer more early deaths than do white and Asian people. People who are Black, Latino, or poor die more often inside sterile hospitals, while the wealthier have long had better access to residential-like alternatives.”

Wallack has since left the Globe to take a job as deputy managing editor at WBUR in Boston, but he reflected back on his reporting for “Last Words” and other series in his keynote talk to fellow journalists at this week’s online 2021 Data Fellowship. Drawing on his deep reservoir of data and investigative experience, Wallack distilled key takeaways and tips that could bolster any big project:

1) Start early, since you never know how long it will take to get the data and records you need. The Globe had to sue the state of Massachusetts twice before it obtained updated data on deaths, according to Wallack. The state preferred to wait to release such data until it compiled its public report. The problem? The most recent report was four years old. Likewise, while the team obtained some of the requested emails by press time, it was still waiting on others.

2) Brainstorm ideas on records and data. Spotlight’s series on former NFL tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez was built on a massive scoop: Audio of nearly 300 calls Hernandez made from jail to family and friends, which Wallack obtained through a public records request. He hit upon the idea during an early brainstorming session with a fellow reporter: “What is every possible record we could get?”

3) Consult experts. When the Spotlight Team first analyzed data on deaths in the state, they noticed Hispanic people had a lower average age of death than whites. “After talking to experts, we realized we hadn’t adjusted for age,” Wallack said. When they adjusted for age, Hispanic people showed longer longevity.

“Experts aren’t always right, but they can raise questions and force you to re-look at the data and make sure you can answer all the questions,” Wallack said.

4) Find compelling examples. Earlier in his career, Wallack said he was prone to pepper his data journalism with stats and figures. He now believes in the power of singularity. “Focus on one or more key examples that illustrate the story, and also one of more key numbers,” he told reporters.

While at the San Francisco Chronicle, Wallack investigated late-arriving ambulances in the city. The key statistic: 331 people died waiting on an ambulance. “That number just stood out and carried so much weight,” he said, and it also led him to a grief-stricken family who brought home the human toll taken by the problem.

Data and key examples should reinforce each other, but give them more power by narrowing them down to the story’s quintessence. Let graphics and maps carry the rest.

5) Organize your data. This one is easy to grasp and exceedingly difficult to maintain. For “Last Words,” the Spotlight team relied on Google folders and subfolders to share and organize everything in one central place. But the organizational imperative goes well beyond that. After interviews, write up some key bullet points at the top before filing away in your notes. Wallack also recommends keeping a detailed data diary that records the exact steps taken in whatever program you’re using.

The aim is to avoid trusting memory alone. “On a long-term project, it’s really important you keep track of stuff, because after three or four months it becomes really easy to lose track of where stuff is,” Wallack said. “Keep notes on the key things, and you will thank yourself in the future when you’ve forgot how you did all this.”

6) Tell the story in many ways. The Spotlight team routinely produces videos to accompany their investigations, and for the Aaron Hernandez series, the Globe partnered with Wondery to produce a podcast called “Gladiator,” which has since been downloaded over 10 million times and optioned by the FX network. That’s given the story “a far wider audience than we would’ve gotten just from the Boston Globe.”

The takeaway: “Are there other ways to tell the story that will bring readers or viewers or listeners in, or are there partners you can work with to help broaden the reach of your story so it will have more impact?”

7) Leave time for fact-checking. One common mistake Wallack has noticed is for reporters and editors to fail to budget enough time at the end of a project. Giving yourself enough time to nail down all the details and run any outstanding questions by lawyers will earn you great gratitude from your future self.

“I’ve been sued three times for defamation,” Wallack said. “All three suits were thrown out immediately. I never had to go depose, because I had all the facts right. You want to make sure you have that fact-checking and don’t get in trouble just because you rushed things at the end.”

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