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2021 Data Fellowship

Date and Time: 
Monday, October 25, 2021 - 8:00am to Friday, October 29, 2021 - 3:00pm
Program Description: 

The 2021 Center for Health Journalism Data Fellowship was designed for skilled journalists who wanted to learn to mine data sources to reveal key insights essential to high-impact journalism. 

The program offered professional reporters an opportunity to learn to acquire, analyze and produce visualizations of data that can help their audiences understand key health and child welfare developments.  Fellows could be  beat reporters focused on health, education or children's issues or general assignment reporters with a demonstrated interest in reporting on these themes. 

Data Fellows received five days of intensive training on data acquisition, cleaning, analysis and visualization, as well as an introduction to important data sets that can serve as the basis for groundbreaking journalism.  They heard from leading data journalism experts about how to make successful Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and gained insights on how to pair original data analysis with compelling narratives.

Each Fellow was required to propose an ambitious investigative or explanatory reporting project to undertake in the five months following the training. After the training, Fellows received grants of $2,000 to support reporting and data acquisition costs.   For five months, Fellows received guidance from our expert data journalism mentors as they complete ambitious explanatory or investigative Fellowship projects built around data – reporting that is likely to impact policy and spur new community discussions. Click here for a list of 2021 Data Fellows and links to their profiles and projects. Because of the continuing pandemic,  the 2021 Data Fellowship was held on the Zoom platform.  

Senior Fellows and Topic Leaders for the 2021 Data Fellowship

Several of the nation's most skilled data journalists served as Senior Fellows (mentors) during the training and for five months afterwards. They were:

Elizabeth Lucas, who teaches data journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and works as a freelance data reporter. Previously she was the data editor at Kaiser Health News and the Data Library director at Investigative Reporters and Editors. She has a master's in journalism from MU. 

Christian McDonald, an assistant professor of practice at the University of Texas at Austin. He began teaching fulltime in 2018 after 28 years working as a journalist at four newspapers and five years teaching data journalism-related courses as an adjunct. His most recent work as a juournalist was as data and online projects editor at the Austin American-Statesman, where he worked with reporters and editors  to bring data to life through stories, interactives and news applications. He also helped conceive and build the Statesman's Longhorn Sports vertical He led many technical digital projects, from the birth of to running the software development group for the business side. He was part of many award-winning projects, including the Headliners Charles E. Green Star Investigative Report of the Year, the Online News Association University of Florida Award in Investigative Data Journalism and numerous Texas APME Star Investigative and Package of the Year awards. In the late ‘90s, he helped lead the digital publishing transition at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the largest newspaper in the Southeast. He served on the Cox Olympics team during the 1996 Olympic Games and helped reporters and editors through training on innovative newsroom tools and products. He also worked as an assistant news editor at the East Valley publications in suburban Phoenix and as a copy editor and page designer at the Longview (TX) News Journal. He earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a long-time volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America, helping train youth and adults in leadership skills. 

Eric Sagara, a data journalist with Big Local News. Before coming to Big Local News, Sagara was on the data team at Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting. He has also held a news applications fellowship at ProPublica, where he worked on projects about pharmaceutical payments to doctors, deadly force in police agencies and the trail of guns in the United States. Prior to that, he was a reporter on The Newark Star-Ledger's data team. Sagara is originally from Arizona, where he reported on business, education, crime, wildfires and government.

Andrew Ba Tran, an investigative data reporter for the Washington Post. He shared in winning the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2018 for the coverage of candidate Roy Moore's alleged past sexual harassment of teenage girls and subsequent efforts to undermine the Post's journalism that exposed it. Andrew previously was a data editor at The Connecticut Mirror's, Prior to that, he was a data producer at The Boston Globe, where he contributed to the newsroom's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and aftermath. He's also worked in newsrooms at The Virginian-Pilot and the Sun-Sentinel. He was a Metpro Fellow and a Chips Quinn Scholar and is a graduate of the University of Texas. He's taught data journalism as a Koeppel Fellow at Wesleyan University and as an adjunct professor at American University and is an advocate for open data and reproducible research. 

MaryJo Websterthe data editor for the Minneapolois Star Tribune since 2015. She teams up with reporters to analyze data for stories across a wide range of topics and beats.  She started her career as a reporter at small daily papers in Minnesota and Wisconsin before attending the University of Missouri-Columbia to specialize in investigative reporting and data journalism. While earning her master's degree, she also worked for Investigative Reporters and Editors, where she polished her data skills and taught others. After graduating in 2001, she became the first data editor at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., where she oversaw an investigation of soft money flowing from state political party committees to federal committees. She spent several years as sports data editor for USA Today, then moved home to Minnesota and spent nine years as data editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, followed by a short stint as a data reporter with Digital First Media. Webster, who also has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, previously taught at the University of Minnesota, and is a regular speaker at journalism conferences. 

Among the other leading data journalists who served as trainers and topic leaders were: 

Sarah Cohen, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and editor who joined the Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism as its Knight Chair in 2018. She spent most of her career as a reporter and editor at The New York Times and The Washington Post, where her work was awarded most major investigative journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting, the Goldsmith Award, the Selden Ring Award and Investigative Reporters and Editors' Gold Medal.  Sarah specializes in the use of public records and analysis of public record databases for investigative and long-term reporting projects. She has also served as the Knight Chair in Computational Journalism at Duke University and is a past president of the 5,000-member Investigative Reporters and Editors. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Meghan Hoyer, director of The Washington Post's data reporting team. Previously, she was data editor at The Associated Press and a data journalist at USA TODAY, regularly working on healthcare stories. Before that, she worked as a data and government reporter at The Virginian-Pilot and the Louisville Courier-Journal. In an earlier lifetime, she briefly lived in California twice, as a reporting intern at the Modesto Bee and the Orange County Register. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University.

Sandhya Kambhampati, senior data reporter on the Los Angeles Times Data Desk, where she covers the demographics and diversity of California and the nation. She previously worked at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Correctiv and ProPublica Illinois. Her work on the widespread inaccuracies in Cook County’s property tax assessment system was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for local reporting in 2018. 

Paul Overberg, a data reporter at The Wall Street Journal and a member of its investigative team. He focuses on economic and demographic stories, but he works with reporters who cover everything from health care to infrastructure. He worked on USA TODAY’s news data team for many years and led its demographic coverage. He has taught at American University and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and served as a senior fellow for the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California since 2016. He speaks frequently at programs run by Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Cheryl Phillips, who has been teaching journalism at Stanford since 2014, where she is the Hearst Visiting Professional in the graduate program in journalism. She founded Big Local News. a project of the Stanford Journalism and Democracy Initiative. She also is co-founder of the Stanford Open Policing Project, a cross-departmental effort to collect police interaction data and evaluate racial disparities. And she is a founding member of the California Civic Data Coalition, an effort to make California campaign finance data accessible. Previously, Cheryl worked at The Seattle Times for 12 years in a variety of reporting and editing roles with the investigations team and across the newsroom. In 2014, she was involved in coverage of a landslide that killed 43 people, which received a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. In 2009, she was the lone editor in the newsroom when four police officers were shot at a coffee shop and was integrally involved in the subsequent coverage, which received a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. She has twice been on teams that were Pulitzer finalists. Cheryl has worked at USA Today and at newspapers in Michigan, Montana and Texas. She served for 10 years on the board of Investigative Reporters and Editors and is a former board president.


Each applicant was required to submit a proposal for a data-based reporting project. The  priority areas for projects were:

From journalists from outside California, we were especially interested in proposals that investigate and explore:

  • The racial, ethnic and geographic health disparities that are emerging each day as the pandemic continues and how they impact vulnerable children and families
  • The role of systemic racism in influencing child and family well-being
  • Unequal access to economic and social welfare and health relief and recovery opportunities for families with children
  • The performance of local, state and federal government health agencies and nonprofit organizations during the crisis on issues including child welfare, juvenile justice and child health and well-being issues
  • The impact of chronic stress, poverty and childhood trauma on child development
  • The intersection between partner violence and child abuse
  • The role of policy in improving prospects for children 
  • Child illness, injury and mortality trends 
  • The intersection of race/ethnicity and/or class in child and family outcomes 
  • Strengths-based approaches to improving outcomes for vulnerable children and families
  • Creative financing and cross-agency strategies to treat and prevent the impacts of child maltreatment on children and families 
  • Policy options to address the longstanding weaknesses in our social and health safety net that have been thrown into sharp relief by this crisis and that create uneven outcomes and opportunities for children and their families
  • Innovative solutions for any of the challenges described above 

From California applicants, we were interested in proposals for projects that would explore:

  • The influence of systemic racism on health care
  • Health-related environmental justice issues
  • Health system performance and quality of care
  • Issues around mental health and opioid use
  • Health effects of housing insecurity, evictions or homelessness; lack of transportation;  air pollution; and neighborhood violence
  • The school environment and the emotional health of children, including trauma-informed approaches and efforts to ensure paths to success for youth
  • Mental health and substance abuse
  • Health care costs and health care financing
  • The patient experience
  • The health care workforce
  • Health care coordination
  • End-of-life and palliative care
  • Telemedicine and the use of technology in health care delivery
  • Data transparency and the health care industry
  • Maternity care
  • Cancer care
  • The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on various racial or ethnic groups or types of workers
  • The health and mental health effects of unequal access to economic relief and recovery opportunities 
  • The performance of health agencies and nonprofit organizations that serve disadvantaged communities
  • Innovative policy options to address longstanding weaknesses in our safety nets
  • People experiencing homelessness
  • Frequently hospitalized patients, including those who regularly use emergency rooms as a source of care People with significant behavioral health needs, including people with serious mental illness, serious emotional disturbance, or substance use disorder 
  • People with complex physical or behavioral health needs who are transitioning from jail or prison
  • Seniors and people living with disabilities, including those at risk for institutionalization and eligible for long-term care, as well as those living in nursing facilities and wishing to transition to the community 
  • Children with complex medical conditions, such as cancer, epilepsy, or congenital heart disease 
  • Children and youth in foster care 



Here are some highlights of the 2021 Data Fellowship:  

  • Todd Wallack, deputy managing editor at WBUR, will give a keynote talk about a 2020 Boston Globe Spotlight Team data investigation on which he collaborated that explored the connection among wealth, race, and lifespan
  • Former Center for Health Journalism National Fellows Neil Bedi, reporter for ProPublica, and Kathleen McGrory,  deputy editor of investigations for the Tampa Bay Times, will discuss how to report for impact and their 2021 Pulitzer Prize winning investigation, “Targeted,” which received support from the Center for Health Journalism. Their reporting showed that a controversial "predictive policing" program was harassing both youth and adults based on an algorithm that was claimed to identify who would become a criminal. It led to public outrage and spurred a federal investigation and state legislation. Later in the week, Kathleen will provide tips about how to keep a complicated reporting project on track, drawing from her experience reporting "Targeted" as well as “Heartbroken,” – her investigation with Neil into substandard care at a pediatric heart surgery unit at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, which was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting.
  • Former New York Times Data Editor Sarah Cohen, now the Knight Professor of Data Journalism at Arizona State University, will share her secrets about how to submit a successful public records request, followed by a 45-minute interactive workshop on successful strategies for getting the data you need – with Senior Fellow Cheryl PhillipsHearst Visiting Professional at Stanford University. 

  • In a panel discussion featuring three 2020 Data Fellows, the 2021 Data Fellows will learn about how their reporting forced accountability from public officials. The panelists are Rebecca Lindstrom, an investigative reporter for 11Alive in Atlanta; Kate Martin, lead investigative reporter for North Carolina Public Press, and Lexis-Olivier Ray, a freelance reporter for L.A. Taco.
  • Two workshops will guide Fellows to important data sources. Elizabeth Lucas will lead a workshop on reporting on health disparities in communities and in health care settings during the pandemic and beyond, and Meghan Hoyer, director of The Washington Post's data reporting team, will advise Fellows on how to explore child well-being and family health conditions in their communities. 

  • The 2021 Data Fellowship will provide three training tracks tailored to the skill levels of participating journalists. Fellows will receive training in Excel or R; Census tools; CDC's Wonder database; visualizations; and such useful data tools as Datawrapper and OpenRefine.


Our California Fellowship supports reporters in the Golden State pursuing ambitious projects on overlooked health and health equity issues.


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