In a time of disappearing government data and a rapidly changing workplace, journalists and academics are finding new ways to collaborate and leverage the power of their original research and their reach.
That was the theme underlying the “Mind to Mind Symposium,” sponsored by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting with a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The event held held Friday on the Stanford campus, with Stanford’s Journalism Program as co-sponsor, focused on issues facing America’s workforce.
Panel discussions included the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley – and academia – as well as the plight of immigrant laborers, the human fallout of the gig economy and the role of technology in hiring discrimination.
James T. Hamilton, director of Stanford’s journalism program, said the partnership between Stanford University and Reveal just “makes sense.”
“We’re both trying to say, ‘How do institutions operate, how can we hold them accountable, and how can we use data to tell that story?’ ” Hamilton said.
Sinduja Rangarajan, a data reporter for Reveal, stepped into the role of organizing Mind to Mind after she and her colleagues realized the mostly untapped potential of collaborating with academics. She said she wanted to explore how journalists could partner in new ways with academics and “fill the gap or to look at under-researched areas.”
Reveal’s editor-in-chief, Amy Pyle, opened the day’s discussions by noting that the purpose of the event was to find common ground between academics and journalists, who often work in parallel universes on research focused on similar issues. One advantage both groups have in this effort, she said, is they speak a common language: data.
Sam Roe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune, was among journalists who spoke about their work. Roe worked with scientists at Columbia University to identify drug combinations that can potentially lead to fatal heart conditions.
“It took over a year,” Roe said. “We were able to take data mining predictions and run them against real patients. … Lo and behold, a lot of our predictions were coming true. We narrowed down our findings to a handful of drug combinations that were causing heart conditions.”
The Chicago Tribune published the story on the same day that the scientists published their findings in an academic paper.
“It’s the next great step in investigative reporting – journalists and scientists asking questions to hold people accountable, affect change in public service,” Roe said. “These collaborations are doable, exciting, challenging, and they work. They get results.”
Panelist Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said academics and scientists frequently have access to information and data that journalists cannot access.
“Yes,” Tomaskovic-Devey added. “Academics do sign confidentiality agreements.”
Last year, Tomaskovic-Devey and his university colleagues established the Center for Employment Equity, a web portal for workplace-related databases that can be opened to the public. He said he hopes journalists and other researchers can use the data to expose discrimination and inequality in the workplace.
A recent investigation by Reveal found that many tech companies keep their employment data secret even though they’re required to report it to the federal government. Out of more than 200 of Silicon Valley’s largest tech firms, Reveal found that just 23 make their data on diversity public.
The Silicon Valley research is part of a larger collaboration between Reveal and Tomaskovic-Devey. (Here’s a link to a list of companies surveyed by Reveal showing which companies either declined to provide their data or did not respond to requests.)
Another symposium panel focused on cooperation between journalists and engineers at Stanford to uncover bias in policing.
Sharad Goel, an assistant professor of engineering, is part of the Stanford Open Policing Project, which analyzes racial patterns among millions of police interactions across the country. The project, Goel said during his panel, would not be possible without the “gargantuan task” undertaken by Cheryl Phillips, a journalism professor, and the students in her class.
“The fact that Phillips and her students were able to doggedly get information. … It was clearly something we could not have easily done on the engineering side,” Goel said.
Reveal, in partnership with The Marshall Project, used Stanford’s data to review stop and searches conducted by Washington and Colorado state patrols before and after marijuana became legal in both states in late 2012.
The analysis found that legalization of marijuana in both states had at least one unanticipated effect on the streets: a sharp decline in the number of traffic stops resulting in searches by state police. The drop meant fewer interactions between police and drivers, potentially limiting dangerous clashes, but black and Hispanic drivers were still searched at higher rates than white motorists, according to the analysis.
While engineers and other scientists can bring academic rigor to journalists’ projects, creating a pipeline to enable students from all backgrounds to enter these fields has been an ongoing challenge for academics.
Stereotypes about which students can be successful in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have an influence starting in grade school, said Alexis Martin, a panelist and director of research at the Kapor Center for Social Impact based in Oakland. She described a “leaky tech pipeline” in education and business which discourages students from disadvantaged backgrounds from going into STEM careers.
Y-vonne Hutchinson, founder of diversity-solutions startup Ready Set, discussed pay disparities that hit women of color the hardest.
“We’re comfortable seeing that in tech a white woman makes … 90 cents for every dollar a white man makes. But actually, the distance is much larger when you take into account African American and Latino women,” Hutchinson said.
Panelist Marisa Kendall, a technology reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, spoke about numerous incidents involving women in tech that grabbed headlines in recent years. Kendall covered a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit by Ellen Pao against her former employers at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
Kendall said while Pao lost her lawsuit, the case “ignited a global explosion of conversation about sexism in the workplace.”
“These actions are starting to have consequences,” Kendall said.
Pao, the former interim CEO for reddit, is now the chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Kapor Center and one of the co-founders of Project Include, an Oakland nonprofit that advises tech startups.
Members of another panel discussed the future of contract work, the inequalities it might perpetuate, and the difficulties of tracking discrimination data in contracted employer-employee relationships.
The increases in contract work demonstrate how the level of stability is changing in today’s workplace, said Chris Benner, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the Everett Program for Technology and Social Change.
“We forget that there is a tremendous churn in the labor market,” Benner said. “A third of the labor force out there is in a different job at the end of the year, than they were at the beginning of the year.”
The gig economy has another negative side effect: Hiring contract workers can circumvent regulations, the panelists said.
However, recent reports have shown that the gig economy and independent contracting might perpetuate racial and socioeconomic inequalities, rather than resolve them.
“One in three (contract workers for Silicon valley companies) fall below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level,” according to Benner’s report conducted at UC Berkeley.
On top of this, systematic discrimination in temp hiring can be hard to prevent, said Will Evans, a reporter with Reveal who investigated temp firms’ systemic discrimination against minorities in 2016.
Evans found some temp firms so aware the practice was illegal that they used terms such as “country boys” for white people, “heavies” for men, “small hands” for women, “Code 2” for black workers, and “feos” for Latinos.
“It created a system where it makes discrimination easy and systematic,” Evans said.
One member of the audience pointed out that much of this research and many of these stories will be harder to complete if the Trump administration succeeds in slashing funding for the Census Bureau.
Aside from disappearing data, journalists and academics must contend with people who are increasingly reluctant to trust them in the current political climate. Here, again, unbiased academic research and data play a crucial role.
Jessica Garrison, an investigative editor with BuzzFeed News, spoke about a woman who is suing Trump for groping her. The woman subpoenaed Trump and Garrison has seen the subpoena in the court file.
Yet “the president was asked about it and his response was, ‘That’s fake. That’s fake news,’” Garrison said. “Anything (people) don’t like, they’re just like, ‘That’s fake news’”
Michael Grabell, a journalist with ProPublica, asked: “How do we convince readers in the era of fake news? In an era where everything that we do, especially when it uses unnamed sources, gets called fake news?”
“I’ve heard these crazy cases of, really, indentured servitude, of horrible things happening to children,” Grabell said of immigrant labor conditions. Yet he is unable to report about these cases because workers won’t go on the record with their names, making vetting their stories impossible.
One challenge discussed during the Mind to Mind Symposium involved differences in how journalists and academics handle identities of the people they interview.
Sarah Horton, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, has been studying immigrant laborers’ health in California since 2005. That year, four worker deaths were attributed to heatstroke and one worker was run over by a field harvesting machine while seeking shade. As a result, the state mandated that employers provide access to shade, water and rest breaks.
Horton differed with journalists on the panel about the need to use names or other identifying information when telling immigrants’ stories. She said she takes numerous steps to avoid identifying people in her research so they won’t be at risk of deportation.
Grabell noted that in some cases, immigrants are willing to be identified because they already have an immigration claim pending or they are simply willing to take the risk to get the story out.
The panel’s moderator, Reveal’s Bernice Yeung, ended with the thought that journalists and academics have different fidelities. Journalists are loyal to the story. Academics more often focus on the systematic issues at the heart of the issue.
The panel, like others during the symposium, was a step toward meeting in the middle, Yeung said.