Telling stories with data: Police chases and drug smugglers on the Texas-Mexico border
After the Express-News and the Texas Tribune collaborated last month on a story about concealed handgun permits, Brandi, Matt and I were jazzed about the results and started talking about what to work on next. Here’s what we came up with: An analysis of nearly 5,000 vehicle-pursuit reports kept by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Until recently, I had no idea this DPS database existed. But I stumbled across it a few months earlier when I was working on this article about pursuits in San Antonio. SAPD keeps a database packed with details about each chase — the weather and road conditions, the pursuit speeds and durations, the injuries and fatalities. Since SAPD had this data, I figured other law enforcement agencies in Texas probably kept similar records. I asked around and sure enough, DPS was one of the agencies that collects details about pursuits.
Why is that a big deal? Well, when you find a previously unknown database with information about an important public safety issue and analyze those digital records, you’ll probably discover fresh, interesting information for your readers. Public databases empower journalists to do their own research and find surprising answers.
Brandi asked for a copy of the data and we received it from DPS with little trouble. It was a big spreadsheet documenting nearly 5,000 pursuits from 2005 to July 2010.
One detail jumped out at us: Hidalgo County, by far, had the most pursuits over the past five years — 656. Several other border counties also ranked high, suggesting smugglers were often fleeing DPS troopers. The database told us all kinds of things about these pursuits — how often people were injured, how often motorists escaped, and how they got away.
When reporters dive into data-heavy topics, it’s important to find the real people behind the numbers. We asked DPS early in the reporting process to go on a ride-along with a trooper in Hidalgo County. Brandi and photographer Callie Richmond visited McAllen and went on a ride along with DPS Trooper Johnny Hernandez. Their experience became the lede of our story. Brandi had some great interviews with Hernandez and other troopers in Hidalgo County, who openly talked about their continual struggles to catch smugglers from Mexico. The visit provided rich material for photos and an awesome online video that Callie produced.
Brandi wrote a big chunk of the article on the drive back from McAllen. We finished writing and editing the story in a Google Document, which really beats sending e-mails back and forth and losing track of differing versions of the story. Google Docs lets you see what each collaborator is adding to the document as they write. It’s like the Big Brother version of Microsoft Word, but less evil. It’s a useful tool for collaborating with people, especially if they work in a different organization in a different city. Plus, Google gives you a chat window in the document, which is nice if you want to mock the typing skills of your colleagues.
Why bother teaming with the Tribune? I blogged earlier about how I’m warming up to the touchy feely trend of collaboration in journalism — how it helps overworked reporters tackle stories, and broadens their reach with a wider audience when the final product is published. When our story ran Sunday, it was published in the Express-News, the Texas Tribune, the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times.
The collaboration also helped us post online goodies for readers hungry for more information. Matt Stiles made an interactive county map of Texas. I used DocumentCloud to post this annotated copy of a pursuit report that offered context from the pursuit data. Callie’s YouTube video was a very cool mini-documentary that explained the issue. We also posted the data online, allowing readers to learn about pursuits in their own counties.
There were some interesting reactions to the story. Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast was surprised so many suspects got away: “I would not have guessed that the number of chases ending with the suspect successfully eluding troopers on foot would have been so high, nor that the proportion who stop and surrender would be so low.”
KXXV TV localized the story by looking at the high number of pursuits in McLennan County.
That’s the great thing about news stories based on public data — people can take the information you found, talk about it, and look at the data themselves.